by Vyasar Mamta Ganesan
There are 18 letters in my full name – six in my first name, five in my middle name, and seven in my last name. Seven vowels appear in my name, five of which are a’s. It is pronounced Vee-ah-sur Mum-tha Guh-nay-sun. Common nicknames for me have been: Vyasaraptor, VCR, Vivisector, Vy-Ass-Her, Yasser Arafat, Venasaur, Vyas, Vee, Veo, Big V, and VG.
My first name comes from my father and from south India. I am half-Tamilian by him, the man born in the small rice-paddy village deep in Tamil Nadu, India. His family has spread as far as Australia, Hong Kong, New York, and Texas, but much of them live in India. Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu, is where Saraswati, his younger sister lives. They have family in Tiruchirappalli, or Tiruchi, mostly aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, most of whom are still living. But further into the jungle is Gopalapuram, the village where none of my family lives but where we are all, in some way or another, from.
My father’s family traces their lineage as far back as the fifteenth century, where our last, most recognizable linkage is a horse lord of south India. The records show him to be a far-ranging tradesman, but the detail in the lettering is blurred. Possibly, my aunts murmur, he was either a horse thief or a horse chief, depending on the spelling or misspelling, as it were.
But the Gopalapuram house is still very clearly his, the horse lord’s. The entrance is low but quickly leads to a large, high-ceilinged space, tall enough to walk horses in from the back door. The pillars that support the skylight are ancient, carved wood, with angular designs snaking their way out at the top. You can just see the men bargaining under these supports, measuring value in pounds and hooves and manes. A kitchen can be found directly to the right of this room, long enough to prepare meals for a whole host of horsemen. There is plenty of room by the overgrown backyard well for grazing. The paint is a crumbling bluish white, the floor is cold and bare, and anything of value has long since disappeared, but the sense of history, of my father’s family history, is a treasure in the walls. They have soaked in so many secrets, these walls, bearing them as they bear the load of the home. And they are rank with them.
Vyasar, my name, comes from an ancient Hindu hymn, older than the Gopalapuram house by any man’s count. It is my father’s favorite, and it is exceptionally long, as far as hymns go. Nevertheless, he recites it daily, every morning after his shower. It begins with a salutation to God, and the very first word of the second verse, Vyasar, is a formal salutation to the saint responsible for the creation and preservation of the Hindu scriptures on Earth, the holy writer, Ved Vyas.
Mamta is my mother’s name. It was her idea to give me her name.
Because of this little choice, my mother and I share the same initials. I am Vyasar Mamta Ganesan, VMG, and she is Mamta Verma Ganesan, MVG. Though she divorced my father when I was very young, she kept a great deal of affection for him, and she kept his name. She told me, “I didn’t want you to forget that you had a father.”
So she raised me, an anagram of herself. She was female, I was male, and our names connected us with a strong, obvious genealogy. True to my backstory as Ved Vyas, I read religiously, often collecting my free personal pizza from Book It! and Pizza Hut well before the end of the month. I would read library books, books written by saints, paperback romance novels and military scifi adventures. I read comics with my cake and milk and I finished the Harry Potter series on walks from the bus stop. And my mother, giving as she was, was exasperated. “You read too much,” she teased, always uncertain if it was a good or bad thing.
She can be too generous, though, especially with my father. A few years ago, she entertained the thought of having him move in with us. His health was becoming increasingly poor, and multiple forms of dialysis were keeping him weak. I panicked, mostly for the simple and selfish reason that I haven’t spoken to my father since the day before I left for grad school. But I feigned concern for her well-being and played the part of a concerned son. Are you sure that’s the best thing you can do for you, I said. You can still go see him at his house, I said. He’s very set in his ways and he chose to live alone, I said. You can be his friend, support him, and honor his choices, all without moving him into your own home, I said.
But I didn’t want a mother and a father. I had grown quite used to life with one parent. I didn’t think I needed a father. Whatever I needed from him as a teenager, I certainly didn’t need it as a young adult. I asked her to consider the reasons why she left him. I asked her if any of those reasons had changed, if anything about him had changed. And I knew that when she said no that I had won, that no, she would not be moving him back into our lives. And now it seems so sad, so hollow for me to have done these things, to have said these things to my mother. It was her house, it was her life. I was living in New York at the time, in grad school–I wasn’t coming home more than once a year. It was her decision to leave him, it should have been her decision if she wanted to help him. I wasn’t living there, it shouldn’t have been my opinions or my decisions to factor in here. The son should not kill his mother’s generosity.
Mamta itself is a word signifying motherly affection. To be “mamta” is to embody the loving qualities of the mother, to stand for birth, education, guidance and support. Arabic takes it even further, taking Mamta and making her Mumtaz, the distinguished, the great, the excellent. Others have been named Moumita, or Mamata, baby-babbling names, names meant to be cute and intimate and endearing (on several occasions, my youngest and most sharp-tongued aunt has called her Mamata, in a long, jeering tone over the phone or from around the corner). The junk mail we received often read Mumta, Momta, Moomata, or, my personal favorite, Mumpta. But the source of motherness, the wellspring of affection, is Mamta. It is, interestingly enough, considered a fairly plain and common name in India.
This last name comes from my father. Once, he told me that it wasn’t my real last name. “Our tribal name,” he said, puffing up with pride, “is much longer.”
He claimed it was so long it would take up the width of a full sheet of paper to write. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember the translation was something to the extent of “people from the rain country with big feet.”
Looking at my basketball shoes and his diabetic-friendly Crocs, I couldn’t deny it. Our ancestors had hit the nail plum on the head.
Of course, it’s not like my father is a reliable source of information when it comes to family history, whether it’s his family, our family or my mother’s family. He once told me that if I had been born a girl, he would have named me after his favorite pond, and my first name would have been longer than my last name by a country mile. I’m not sure whether I believe that or not–after all, he’d whispered to me in sullen tones that he should have been the one to raise me, that my mother had made me too much of a woman, but he hasn’t changed my name yet. It was a difficult conversation to have, especially in a Taco Cabana.
From what I can tell, both my first and last names are uncommon outside of India. My cousins and aunts swear the southeastern section of the subcontinent is rife with Ganesans, chock full of Vyasars. It is nice to think, I guess, about the other people who aren’t related to me but share my names, although I’ve never met one. All I’ve found from Google searches are street names and obscure literary references. In my youth, I searched the yellow pages for Ganesans, possible family to round out the binary household I lived in. Maybe one of the five I found was distantly related, through some cousin or the like, but I was too young to drive and my mother was too busy keeping rice and beans and customer-appreciation-week pizzas from Little Caesar’s on the table.
Ganesan is also the part of my name that people find the easiest to pronounce. I’ve had to correct the fewest number of people in regard to my surname. This is largely due to the phonetics of the English language, which my name complies with enough for a reasonably large segment of the population. Every once in a while, though, I hear gun-son, gains-sun, gannes-sone, and sometimes just straight up Ganesh, easily the most recognizable Hindu deity after black-skinned skull-splitting Kali.
For south Indians, though, Ganesh is a deity of immense import. Most Hindus revere the single-tusked elephant-headed son of Shiva as the ‘remover of obstacles,’ a good luck figure and a popular deity for children, whose parables are easily molded to early morning cartoon entertainment. But in south India the temples of Ganesh are more elaborate, the murtis more resplendent, and celebrations involving him more complex. He is integrated into temples that aren’t his, some of which aren’t even Hindu. Ganesh’s reverence shows through in the affection Indians have for elephants, and in south India they’re still preferred to lorries or eighteen-wheelers. And without Ganesh, it’s hard to imagine the grandeur and spendthrift nature of the subcontinent’s ritual celebrations. In one of my personal favorites, clay effigies of Ganesh are decorated with everything from flower garlands to bank notes and then sunk with great pomp into rivers, lakes, ponds or the ocean, if it’s near at hand. There, at the bottom of the waters, the murtis slowly crumble and turn to sediment over years and years, layering divinity into geological strata.
For a remover of obstacles, Ganesh didn’t do much for my father. He’s very proud of his successful years in this country, and is constantly shouting about how he pulled himself up from the bootstraps, how he came to this country with the clothes on his back, pumping gas and driving trucks before becoming one of the leading computer hardware designers of his day. He didn’t have an easy life, he says, and if you’ve been to the Gopalapuram house, you know it’s true–the history of domestic abuse is deep within those walls. No, my father removes his own obstacles, for the most part. He knows eight languages, has fifteen patents, and he rigs up Rube Goldberg-esque antennae to steal his neighbors’ cable when he’s bored. One could say that Ganesh gave him the power to remove his own obstacles, that Ganesh had removed the biggest obstacle from my father, he removed his sense of inadequacy, restraint, incapacity or whatever one wants to call it. One could say these things, but my father was incarcerated for 10 years on a murder conspiracy charge, shuffled around Texas state prisons like they were shuffling the deck, was stabbed, brutalized and mistreated in all manner of ways. He refuses to talk about it. Certain obstacles, it seems, have foundations too strong for Ganesh, the currents, or the slow passage of time, to simply crumble away.
Apparajan is my father’s first name. It is in two parts. The first part, appa, is a common pet name for fathers and grandfathers in India, signifying respect and the position of the head of household in a cutesy, kid-friendly couple of syllables. Rajan, the latter part, is almost directly translated as “of kings,” or closely related to kings (notable Indian examples include Rajastan, or the ‘land of kings’). His name can be interpreted in a number of different ways, depending on your command of Hindi, knowledge of regional dialects, or personal bias towards the man. It can be read as father of kings, or king of fathers, or supreme patriarch, or the fatherland, or quite simply a conflation of the two, king-father, one who is both godlike ruler and domestic overlord.
So for parents, I have the literal translation of father, appa, and mother, mamta. For my identity basis, I have a name that belongs to Hinduism’s generator saint, Ved Vyas. Two of my names come from Hinduism, from gods deeply immersed in wisdom, tradition, values and spirituality. These parts of me come from my father, who was deeply religious in his youth, the kind of person who makes regular trips to the family shrine and wears a string around his body to remind him to be humble. Religion holds that much severity for him, and the same firmness resonates in my name. But any softness or mild temperament that I enjoy has its roots in the middle, from my mother. My mother, the middle child with two sisters and two brothers, who gave me her name to be my middle name, is in the core of my name. She may not have been the perfect mother, but she did the things we believe mothers are supposed to do: protected me, cared for me, teased me, carried me, fed me, and prepared me for the day I had to make my own life. To do all of these gently is no small task.
And I do not forget that it was Mamta, my mother, who told me the story of how the Vedas, the holiest scriptures in Hinduism, first came into being. Ved Vyas asked Ganesh to help him write the scriptures, because only Ganesh could write fast enough to keep up with the saint’s speaking. Ganesh accepted, but only on the terms that Ved Vyas could not stop speaking for as long as he wrote. Ved Vyas was quick to accept and add a term of his own–that Ganesh could not write a verse without fully understanding its meaning. In this way, she said, the saint could throw out a puzzler every hour or so, in case he had to use the bathroom or grab a snack.
But the story is also about identity, the fundamental lesson that, before we tell a story, we must understand our relationship to that story. Before we have a relationship, we must have a sense of self. And before we have a self, we must have a name.
Vyasar Ganesan is a writer from Austin, Texas. He’s been published in various places, including the National Gallery of Writing, Agave Magazine and My Entertainment World. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. His specific literary interests are amateur engineering, food writing, Indian life in America and travel writing, among other fields.
Vyasar is also overly fond of terrible jokes. You can share yours with him here.