West Side Stories: Indian god’s name draws unwanted attention in high school

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WEST SIDE STORIES

This true story by Hari Sanghvi was recorded live on September 4 at Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma, as part of the monthly “West Side Stories” story slam event hosted by Dave Pokorny. Each month, storytellers are randomly picked from the audience to tell five-minute-long stories on a different theme each month, and winner is chosen by the audience. The theme for September was “High School.” The theme for October’s West Side Stories, on Wednesday, Oct. 2, will be “Magic.” For information, visit WestSideStoriesPetaluma.com.

I was born in India in the early 1970s. When I was adopted and brought to America, I had this generic Indian name, Munna, which just meant “little boy.”

(Pauses)

At age 4, I am so excited when my adoptive parents inform me, “We’ve decided to give you a proper name.”

I think, “I’m finally going to get a cool name like my friends have … such as “Adam” or “Mark.” Or better yet … “Luke.”

Like Luke Skywalker.

But instead of one of those good ol’ American names, my well-intentioned parents tell me my name will be “Hari,” spelled H-A-R-I. My first thought? Nope. I don’t like this.

My parents say, “Americans can easily pronounce “Hari” as “Harry.”

(Pauses)

But they go on to say my middle name will be …“Krishna.”

They explain I’m being named after an Indian God. You might think that would be empowering! But the problem is that in the seventies there is this cult called the Hare Krishnas. They have bald heads, wear orange robes, dance, and shake tambourines. They chant “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.”

For my entire school experience, whenever kids find out my name, they laugh at me.

In elementary school, we once had a guest speaker whose job was to analyze origins of names. When he gets to my name, the kids in class start dancing in circles around me and chanting. In middle school, our class goes to Canada for a soccer tournament. I bring my identity papers on the bus to cross the border. One kid sees my full name on it, rips it out of my hand, and shows everyone. For the rest of the one-hour ride, everyone bursts out in song chanting my name. I feel helpless to get them to stop.

When it’s time for high school, I get this brilliant idea to go to a Catholic high school in a different city where no one knows me. Even if someone finds out my middle name, I’ll say, “What are you talking about – I’m Catholic! I don’t believe in any Indian Gods!”

Things go really well at Canisius High School in Buffalo, New York. It doesn’t matter that the nuns look like they are 93-years-old and put the fear of God in us holding their rulers. It doesn’t matter I’m the only Indian in Catholic school, and lots of kids call me “Gandhi.”

I’m just happy because no finds out my full identity.

And things go so well that, in my senior year, I get on the high honor roll. But then, I’m mortified when I see that the school posts all of the top students’ GPAs on the bulletin board in the main lobby.

With our full names.

A couple days later, I’m in school mass, and the priest gives a sermon on loving your neighbor. He says to shake the hand of the person sitting near us. I turn around to shake the hand of this boy, John, sitting behind me. But he coldly says, “Hari Krishnas don’t belong in our school, Gandhi.”

[Pauses]

Years of taunting make me boil over. I say, “I’ll show you non-violence.” My hand becomes a fist, and with the wrath of Lord Krishna, I grab him and punch him.

[Pauses]

The teachers are shocked. They remove me, and after a perfect high school record for four years, I end up in detention … for hitting someone during church.

After I graduate high school, I change my name to “Galen” - G-A-L-E-N) - to avoid being teased anymore. But then, I experience a new set of problems as people pronounce it “gallon,” like gallon of milk, or they call me “Gaylord.”

I just give up and go back to “H-A-R-I.”

Now, as an adult, I don’t get teased so badly.

Every once in a while, people laugh or make comments. So just to be extra safe, I always go by “Harry” not “Hari.” And I’m hella careful never to reveal my middle name to anyone.

[Pauses]

Especially not … to large groups of people.

[Smiles, as the story ends.]

WEST SIDE STORIES

This true story by Hari Sanghvi was recorded live on September 4 at Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma, as part of the monthly “West Side Stories” story slam event hosted by Dave Pokorny. Each month, storytellers are randomly picked from the audience to tell five-minute-long stories on a different theme each month, and winner is chosen by the audience. The theme for September was “High School.” The theme for October’s West Side Stories, on Wednesday, Oct. 2, will be “Magic.” For information, visit WestSideStoriesPetaluma.com.

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