what’s in a name?

I have three different names, each of which forms a core part of my identity.

So says Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, rationalizing why such a thing as simple as a name should not be what defines your identity.

Juliet, of course, is referring to her surname here, as well as that of Romeo’s — Capulet versus Montague, and how unfortunate it is that such a small thing can prove to be such a barrier to a relationship between two people otherwise perfectly matched.

However, the quote resonates with me for an entirely different reason, because I have three different names, each of which forms a core part of my identity.

In West Bengal, the part of India where my family is from, it’s common practice to have a bhalo nam, or “good name”, the one on your birth certificate, and a dak nam, or a family name — essentially, an official nickname.

My bhalo nam is Priyanka. My dak nam is Piya. Both names were chosen for me when I was born.

My third name, Priya, is one I chose for myself.

In the small rural town in Central Illinois where I grew up, pronouncing Priyanka correctly was a challenge for many who had never encountered an Indian name.

Like many people with ethnic names, I too experienced the bemusement of substitute teachers who would pause at my name on attendance sheets.

Thanks to Priyanka Chopra and the popularity of Bose headphones, it’s much easier for me nowadays to explain my name to people who don’t have a South Asian background.

Still, I say “It’s like Bianca, with a Pri instead of a B,” when I introduce myself to people, to make it easier for them.

And whenever I go to Starbucks, I tell the barista that my name is Priya, not Priyanka.

It still gets misspelled 50% of the time.

Unlike most other fifteen year olds in 2005, I never had a Myspace account. I did, however, have a Xanga, where I started a group called “My Name is Priyanka!”.

There were 12 members, and I was fascinated by each one. 12 other girls somewhere in the world who shared my name? How was it possible?

Within a few years, I would learn that Priyanka is one of the most common female names in the South Asian world, akin to western millennial women named Sarah or Brittany.

A sanskrit based name, Priyanka means she who is beloved. Piya, one of its diminutive forms, means sweetheart. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think it’s a nice name, and its popularity does not surprise me.

But even my full name isn’t unique — there are at least 16 pages of women named Priyanka Bose on Facebook alone, and getting a gmail account containing my name without any numbers forced me to get creative.

When I was working on building my personal website after college, I couldn’t even get priyankabose.com. Someone else had registered it years ago, even though it was just parked and sitting there, waiting to be used.

Last I checked, there was still nothing on it, but the landing page promises that it is a “totally awesome idea still being worked on”.

Among my many name twins is the Indian actress Priyanka Bose, who played Dev Patel’s biological mother in the Academy Award nominated film Lion.

“I went to see Lion over the weekend,” one of my clients chirped over the phone, when it was in theaters. “I was so confused when I saw your name in the credits!”

That year, she was often filmed at red carpet events and tagged in Instagram — or so the photographers thought. As I had managed to sign up for Instagram early enough to actually snag my own name handle, she was relegated to priyankabose20.

I corrected anyone who mistakenly tagged me and not her and wondered what it would be like to be the one walking the red carpet and rubbing elbows with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel.

Even several years later, I still get tagged in posts meant for her at least once every few months, keeping me on top of her career — a traveling stage production, a film, even a Netflix series. Each time, I leave the same response: “Not me, @priyankabose20 :)” and wait for the apologetic reply that swiftly follows. Afterwards, I often daydream about collaborating together someday and generating a series of reaction posts that tag both of us — intentionally.

Back in the early days of early 2000s internet fandom, prior to social media, most people I knew went by pseudonyms or usernames that reflected their interests, rather than their real names.

As a young teen, I did the same, choosing a name that combined both: Rini.

Rini was the name of one of my favorite characters from Sailor Moon, a Japanese television series I adored. (I loved Rini so much that a few years later, I would chose to write about her for my college admissions essay, which prompted applicants to write about a fictional character who had a big influence on their identity).

Oddly enough, Rini is in its own way, a dak nam itself. It is an affectionate diminutive form of Serena, the English name given to her in the American dub of the show.

Her Japanese name is Chibiusa, a diminutive of Usagi, the name she shares with her mother, who is also named Serena in the dub (Chibiusa literally translates to little Usagi).

Multiple names across multiple cultures — just like me.

A few years ago, one of my cousins gave birth to a baby girl. I laughed when my father told me her dak nam:

Rini.

When I turned 18, I revealed my real name to my internet friends.

Within a few days, I decided to shorten my online moniker to Priya. It was an active decision that I made, a name I gave to myself, and one that stuck.

It felt momentous at the time in a way that I feel no longer applies in today’s era of real names and social media, like taking off a persona and revealing the real me.

Today, all my internet friends call me Priya. It’s the main differentiating factor between those relationships and the ones I have established in real life.

Being called Priya feels validating and wonderful in a way that is hard to explain. It is a name that provides me with a unique sense of agency over my identity, with the power to define myself within spaces that specifically celebrate my interests.

As someone who uses different names to navigate different social spaces, I often think about friends who do the same for different reasons.

One of my trans friends, for example, also has two names: the one they chose for themselves and the one that they were given at birth.

I address them by their chosen name when we are alone and when I introduce them to new people. However, we are old childhood friends, and in our mutual social circles, not everyone is aware that they are trans.

In front of these other people, they have asked me to address them by their birth name, even though it makes both of us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it’s the only realistic option we have at this time.

In that way, I am very lucky; the three names I have simply represent different facets of my identity — I don’t have to hide them from anyone.

If you call me Piya, it’s because we’re family, close family friends, or we belong to the same Bengali community.

Piya is a name you have to earn.

Most people understand this instinctively once I explain that it is a name reserved only for this specific group of people, but every so often, I meet someone who thinks that the rules don’t apply to them.

For example: I was talking to a guy on a dating app. Though we were both Indian, he had actually grown up in India, unlike me, born and brought up in the US.

He was from an entirely different region of India (Kerala) than where my family was from (West Bengal), and our conversation was fast paced and interesting, ranging from movies to the differences between Malayali and Bengali culture.

And then we got to the subject of names.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he typed, “All Bongs have Daak naam/pet name or home name right? You have one too?”

“Yes I do lol,” I replied. “It’s Piya. But don’t call me that.”

“Hey, Piya is so cute,” he immediately responded.

I physically recoiled as I read his reply. Piya didn’t belong to this stranger trying to flirt with me. It was a name that belonged to my parents and to family friends who knew me from childhood.

I explained why it made me uncomfortable, and when he replied that he was just testing it out for fun, I was furious.

I wanted him to take it out of his mouth and apologize for assuming that he had earned the right to be so intimate.

I ghosted him immediately afterward.

The funny thing about Piya is that it is also a name that belongs in other cultures, although it’s spelled a little differently — Pia.

The first time I met another Pia was when I was studying abroad in London. My friend Liz, who was studying abroad in Copenhagen, wanted to come visit for the weekend and asked her if she could bring along a couple of her friends.

Since I had a huge suite size room all to myself, I agreed, and when the day came, she arrived with two friends in tow, including a girl named Pia.

Although there are many Indian folks who spell Piya without the y (including an aunt who writes “Dear Pia” in my birthday card every year, despite being reminded repeatedly that my spelling includes the y), this particular Pia was a white girl from Texas, studying costume design.

Though there would never be any circumstance in which Liz would ever call me Piya, I couldn’t help but answer whenever Liz was talking to her friend, which confused and annoyed them until I explained why I kept answering to someone else’s name.

I don’t blame them; if I were to put myself in Pia’s shoes, I would probably been a little miffed too.

In retrospect, what I find most interesting about that weekend is that it was the first time in my entire life I had ever met someone with the same nickname as me, and how bizarre it felt. Was this how all the Brittanys and Ashleys I knew growing up felt all the time?

When I first read about Anne Shirley insisting that people remember her name was Anne, with an E, I related to her deeply.

No offense to any Pias out there (including Pia from college), but I have a strong loathing for that particular spelling of the name, especially when someone spells my name as Pia and excludes the y. For those who make such an unfortunate error repeatedly, I can and will hold a grudge for years.

If you call me Priyanka, it’s probably because we know each other from a professional or educational context.

As a name that belongs to the outside world, it is as out of place in my Bengali community as Piya is in the mouths of men I have just met on dating apps.

At 18, this distinction was not something I had worked out yet, so I decided my high school graduation party cake should say, “Congratulations, Priyanka!” in bright pastel frosting.

At the party, one of my Bengali friends, who is four years older than me and is more like a big sister, stared at the cake dismissively.

“Who the fuck is Priyanka?” she scolded, waving her hand. “You’re Piya.”

I nodded, sheepish. She was right. I was Piya. But until that moment, I hadn’t really considered how Piya was different from Priyanka.

Sometimes, when my friends from different circles meet, it’s like a Venn Diagram of nicknames dancing around each other. Things get extra complicated when some of the friends in question are also Bengali and have two names themselves. When this is the case, our conversations with people outside these circles become a complex exercise in code switching; referring to their bhalo nam when talking about each other in the third person and changing back to their dak nam when addressing each other directly.

I once stayed at an Airbnb in Los Angeles where my host was a 70 year old Chinese woman named Bo. She called me Paprika and I couldn’t tell if she genuinely thought that was my name or if she was doing it on purpose, but I didn’t correct her, as I actually loved the nickname.

Nicknames that aren’t one of the names I’ve chosen for myself are usually hard for me to accept.

Pri, for example, is one of them. While I will answer to Pri, I strongly dislike it, and would never introduce myself that way.

On the other hand, one of my best friends calls me Pri-bear. Like Paprika, I adore it, because it comes from a place of love and not convenience.

My mother once told me she had wanted to name me Sanjukta, after one of her beloved dance teachers. My father vetoed the choice and was actually the one who ended up choosing Priyanka.

Ever since she told me this, I’ve often wondered what my relationship with my name would be had they chosen to name me Sanjukta after all. It is not an easy name for a western tongue; would I have cringed as clumsy pronunciations butchered a name given to me with love?

What kind of nicknames would I have? What would it mean for who I am as a person?

They are all questions to which I will never have an answer.

A Bengali friend of mine legally changed her bhalo nam when she turned eighteen, with her parents’ full blessing. She had never liked the name she had been given, and even her mother admitted to having chosen it randomly after she was born, as she had been expecting a son.

Listening to her talk about the process that went into choosing her new name and seeing how happy she was after it was all done, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to feel like my name didn’t represent who I really was. In that way, I’m lucky; not only do I have one name that I feel very accurately represents me as a person, I have three.

A few years ago, I was in an Uber with a Russian driver. Upon hearing my name, he told me the first thing it reminded him of was pryaniki, a type of gingerbread cookie that was his favorite when he was a little boy growing up in Georgia.

While listening to him talk about pryaniki, I started texting one of my Russian friends and told him about the funny coincidence, and he responded that it was funny that I should bring them up, as his Indian coworkers specifically are very fond of pryaniki- it’s a beloved cookie in their office.

Beloved. Like my name.

A tasty treat for some, a childhood memory for others — and a new nickname for me.

As he continued to tell me about his life, I leaned against the backseat and listened quietly as I imagined the taste of gingerbread dancing on my tongue.

30. Chicago. Fulbright scholar. Writer | photographer | filmmaker | chef | artist | fangirl. Talk to me about your favorite things!

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