What’s In A Name
Story About Oneself
It was chosen for me at birth because of its unique sound and the cadence upon the lip. Shanta. Like firm instruction from a seer or an edict from a mad woman, as I blossomed into womanhood, my mother reminded of my name and its meaning.
“It is French and Swahili. It means to sing and to dance,” she would tell me when I would ask repeatedly because I liked the sound of the story. My mother also would proudly declare the meaning of my name to anyone who inquired of its meaning, taking a credit like a proud artist of a new creation.
I later discovered different variations of my name, but overall, I would get the same response — “That is a very pretty name, unique” — from everyone from telemarketers to chance meetings with strangers. Yet, not unique enough. When I was an elementary school, every other year I would add an “e” or drop the “e” at the end of my name. I figured I did not want to be an adult being called by what I thought to be such a girlish name, Shanta.
Perhaps I also was influenced by the existence of the rapper Roxanne Shante, so by spelling and pronouncing my name with the “e” at the end, it would encourage all of my classmates would think of her. The other truth? I wanted some way of showing my rebellion, spelling my name on school papers in direct challenge of what was on the birth certificate or what my mother would call me.
This rebellion resurfaced when I was an adult. Though my name and birthright was “Shanta,” it was pronounced like the “a” in the word “ape” by my mother, family and old friends. I chose to continue as a freedom fighter for my identity by gentle insistence that my name was pronounced “Shant-tuh.” I embraced my name as a part of me, treasuring its story and the intimate relationship I had with it in terms of acceptance; to change and surrender to it. Occasionally, over the years, I took out my birth certificate, looking at its proper spelling and chuckling over the ways I attempted to alter my given name as a little girl. I never sought out the truth about its meaning, wanting to keep the magic of my mother’s story.
Years before I went to India, I encountered someone who repeated my name softly and asked, “Do you know what it means?” I piped up with pride repeating its meaning. The reserved stranger listened and then responded, “It is also Indian. It means peace,” he said softly, with soothing voice. My smile grew wide as this new information became a part of the fabled meaning of my name.
I started to search for the meaning of my name on the Internet years later, looking for clues that this individual shared with me some years ago. Shanta was Hindi and Sanskrit in origin. She also was a princess within the Indian epic, Ramayana. I guess this explains the reason why I was drawn to story and mythology during most of my life — it connected me to the inexplicable growing connection to Indian culture that eventually lead me to journey east and stay in India for five months. My connection to the country, its people and their stories was decided for me long before I had any conscious thoughts of such things. Thus, the name that I once tried to change in my way to choose or control out of foolish youth is now that which has chosen me.
more by SHANTA LEE
photograph by Lechon Krib