An inability to pronounce one’s name can meddle with one’s self-esteem. Child psychologists might study this some day: take a roomful of first-generation American children and ask them to introduce themselves to one another, then watch them struggle to eke out the syllables on loan from the lands their parents left behind. For much of my childhood, speaking my own name was a conscious effort. You need not love your name but you ought to be able to speak it easily, without diverting the better part of your cognitive power to your tongue. Consider my second-grade self in front of the classroom, preparing to give a presentation (about marshmallows, say), more nervous about the introduction than any of the words to follow. Mine was a curious, highly specific kind of social anxiety.
A name is one of the only facts of a child’s world that stays perfectly constant. Meanwhile you learn of storks delivering babies as bundled nuggets, disappeared pets ascending to dog heaven, lampshaded lightbulbs ignited by magic. But a name is among the first and most resilient facts, a fact in which you deserve to be unshakably confident, because there is no underlying truth—no sex, no death, no electricity—that a more mature self might someday substitute for the childhood euphemism. A name is the same at age three as it is as thirteen or thirty. Its syllables cannot be escaped; you learn to live with them. A problem arises when those syllables were taken from a language that seems a little more ancient and fiendish than the one you picked up with your peers in preschool. In that situation—in my situation—the learning is arduous, and the fact starts to feel like one you wish would go away.
It’s not that I didn’t know how it ought to be said: I heard it tumbling fluently out of familial mouths every day. I just couldn’t reproduce it, couldn’t make my mouth go through the same motions. “Giri” on paper is deceptively simple, spare: four letters congeal into two syllables. But for a long time I could only muster the first. The second confounded me. Among me cuter delusions was the idea that a running start would help, so I tried speaking my name faster, gliding smooth straight through the “Gi,” gaining momentum, only to trip even more tragically on the “ri,” that dense glob of sticky rhoticity. A single letter r was responsible for many years of anxiety, for all my clammy hand-wringing in the pockets of my Gymboree khakis. It is odd and somehow refreshing to be able to root one’s insecurity in something this particular. Odd because insecure people can rarely pinpoint to a single letter, and refreshing because it sets up a well-defined goal: conquer the letter and feel.
I should explain the proper execution, which took me too many years to master. Unlike the r in English, the r in my name demands that the tongue flick briefly to the palate, and linger there longer than it would for the letter d, but not as long as it would for a brassy Spanish trill. Until my mind and mouth matured circa age 10, all this nuance was impossible for me to perform. Before that maturation I set lower goals. At one point I opted for a bland unassuming r, the same one I spoke freely in eerie. But like so many children foiled by their own mouths in much the same way, I fell short of that standard too: for a while I was just “Giwi.”
Given my own history with my name, these days I keep very lax standards for others. In introductions these days, I sigh and say my name and fully anticipate confusion. I then dig into my stock of well-worn palliatives: “it’s a tricky r,” “takes a while to figure out,” etc. (I have known some extroverts who go out of their way to arm themselves with conversation starters—provocative garments, startling questions—to ease their way into. My name does the trick just fine.) I am blithely indifferent to all sorts of mispronunciations, and I almost never interject to correct—most people are corrected by my well-intentioned friends, who are themselves (unknowingly) guilty of some mispronunciation or another. Because I take perfect pronunciation to be an undue burden on my close friends, let alone momentary acquaintances, I long ago accepted that my name would be routinely mangled, so if I could just find my favorite mangling I could tell everyone that and simplify my life. There were two main manglings under consideration. Because the devious letter in my name might be crudely construed as something between a simple r and a simple d, you can take those two limits and cook up two candidates: Geery and Giddy.
I have over the years become aware of other Giris, though I know none well, and I find that they, without exception, opt for the former mispronunciation. This I fail to understand. Geery is to my mind a watery-eyed rodent in the dusk—a shuddering squeak of Styrofoam against cardboard—a first bite into a mealy apple slice, browning even now. I settled instead on Giddy, much more euphonious to my ear, and much riper for nickname punnery (Consult my middle school peers for an exhaustive list: “Giddyap, “Gidiot,” “Gettin’ Giddy Wit It,” et. al.) Giddy is at least sturdy, so it hearkens back to what my name means in Sanskrit: mountain. I hesitate to make too much of my name, to ascribe telos where there may be none, but I’ve always suspected that Giri was an odd choice for me: at no point in my life, neither during my preteen obesity nor after my meek attempts at gaining muscle mass, have I ever amounted to or felt like much of a mountain. No mountain could have ankles this thin. I got those, like my name, from my father.
I asked my parents how they decided on my name. They sent along the date and time of my birth to an astrologist in India, who watched the stars and shook out some letters: “ga”, “gi,” or “gu.” My parents could choose between them. I asked them, somewhat incredulously, whether they still believed in astrology. “I don’t know,” says my mom, “but I am not convinced that there’s nothing to it.” My dad’s convinced it’s a hoax, but he went along with it, perhaps just to have some design, some guidance—some constraint on the endless expanse of possible names. Whether or not there is anything of cosmic significance to my name, I am grateful for what they have taught me, and I’m glad my parents chose it. I still cannot say it the way they do, and though I do improve over time, asymptotically approaching perfection, I cannot quite shake my sense of futility, like some smaller Sisyphus forever climbing the mountain of his own first name.