My could-have-been name

Exploring the value in a name

Graphic | Gauri Manoj

Graphic | Gauri Manoj

Gauri Manoj

Chandan and Diya.

As our parents told us about their lives before us, my brother and I sat in the back of an auto-rickshaw in India and laughed at our could-have-been names. I really cannot imagine our lives as Chandan and Diya — it feels odd to think about these two strangers, even though, technically, we’d be the exact same people. It’s Sid and Gauri, and that has always felt right. 

Though I can’t help but wonder what life could have been if I was Diya Manoj right now. Perhaps I’d be more athletic, or a much better singer than I am right now (I am not a good singer). It’s crazy how much your name affects the trajectory of your life — I think that’s why famous people have some of the coolest names ever. 

But I know that my name, Gauri, added some real conflict to my story. If I were Diya, I’d really miss constantly correcting my teachers or keeping an eye out for my drink before the Starbucks baristas absolutely butcher my name. I don’t think my parents ever predicted that G-A-U-R-I would be the most challenging sequence of letters for people in America. 

For a long time, I never even bothered to correct people when they said my name wrong. I like to pronounce my name as gory, like a Quentin Tarantino movie, though instead of correcting people, I memorized every (often bizarre) rendition I encountered and just grew accustomed to the various things people would call me. I let people develop the strangest nicknames for me when these five letters were just “too difficult” for them to pronounce. 

I never thought it was anyone’s fault for mispronouncing or trying to change my name, because I knew it wasn’t that intuitive. I blamed myself more for letting people continue to mispronounce my name — it made me feel disassociated from myself whenever they called me a name that was not mine, like they were speaking to a stranger. 

But as I grew older and my name became more important for credit cards, SATs or my driver’s license, I realized that I deserved to be recognized by the real name that my parents chose for me, and that was only going to happen if I taught others how to say it. Now, I’ll always tell the Starbucks baristas, “Gauri, G-A-U-R-I,”  with both the spelling and my pronunciation, even if that takes them a few tries to get right. We can always sacrifice a few seconds to respect and appreciate each others’ stories, and we can expect others to do the same for us.

But there are some things we cannot shorten or Americanize without losing that sense of belonging.”


We fear things that are unfamiliar to us and find ways to mold them into something we can understand. But there are some things we cannot shorten or Americanize without losing that sense of belonging. My name belongs to my family and my culture that they tried to preserve upon moving to America. And if I allow that name to transform into something that it was never meant to be, then it just feels like I belong nowhere. 

I’ve learned that my name is more than just my signature, or an annoying tag on my shirt that I can’t seem to remove. It’s how I interact with the world and a testament to my parents who hand-picked it over my hundreds of other could-have-been names. And I am the only one with the ability to preserve its charm and significance, so I’ll stop letting it be overlooked by the people around me. 

I’m not sure if my parents had any of this in mind when they named me, but I’m so glad they skipped over Diya.