In the summer of 1969, my mother and father watched Easy Rider. My mother was fully pregnant and my father was a medical resident. Both were new immigrants in the old Southern city of Chattanooga on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. Last spring, my parents, my wife and I watched The Namesake, director Mira Nair’s portrayal of two generations of Indian-Americans. My wife was fully pregnant, and my mother was fully expecting to be a grandmother.
I was born in the Scenic City in the summer of 1969. My parents, like Gogol’s parents in The Namesake, were alone. My father wisely decided against naming me Ulysses, which was not a popular name in the former Confederacy. He named me Susrut after the ancient Indian plastic surgeon. It was his hope that I would follow in his profession, as so many Indian-Americans do.
After my parents settled in Fayetteville, they changed my name upon my first-grade teacher’s suggestion. It was too difficult to pronounce in combination with my last name. Instead, they named me Jay Jyoti, a modification of Joy Jyoti, the name of my grandfather.
Last fall, my wife and I agreed to name our baby daughter Mili, a name that satisfied our desire to find a so-called crossover nameone that both Americans and Indians can appreciate. It also sounded Southern. But we encountered a problem: My brother-in-law informed me that Mili was the name of a Bollywood character who dies a tragic death.
So, we revisited our search for the right name. I began to carefully examine each of the 20,000 names in the 500-page, dictionary-like Book of Hindu Names. This book has been circulated on my wife’s side, beginning with my sister-in-law seven years ago. On the inside cover page, in bold letters with double underlines and quotes, she declared, “PASS IT ON!” After completing a review, I compiled a list of 10 names. Uma occupied the top slot, but our mothers thought the name was too old. We remained frustrated.
The week before my wife gave birth, we dined at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant. I solicited names from our waitress, and she told us about a famous Ethiopian model named Leeya. We were impressed; like Mili, Leeya was a crossover name, but now with global appeal.
My wife gave birth to our baby daughter in April. The next evening, we began to write out the spellings of our top choice on a white eraser board in the hospital room. We debated various spellings (Leah or Liya) and settled on Leeya. It seemed more Indian, even Southern. The following morning, I filled out her birth certificate and wrote “Leeya Mehta Chaudhuri.”
One name, two continents and three generations. We pass on The Book of Hindu Names to other family members, even if we did not find our daughter’s name in those pages. We pass the book on because we fully expect our tree of life to be more firmly rooted in American soil. The arrival of Leeya deepened the roots of my parents who immigrated to this country more than four decades ago. To be sure, her new roots also tangled our old ones.