What’s in a name? In my case, it depends which one.
When I was born, my parents named me Manorama.
It means “one who thrills the mind,” my mother always told me.
But it was also early 1960s America. Cinerama, a wide-screen format, was popular. My mother started to worry that kids would rhyme Manorama and Cinerama—unaware that the fad was nearly spent.
The hunt for a new name began.
My father suggested Malini, a name of a Bollywood actress. The more modern appellation meant “having a garland.” Or as my mother explained, it was another way of saying goddess, given Hindu deities are decorated with garlands of fragrant flowers, though it also can be associated with a humble gardener.
The utmost procrastinators, my parents never officially changed my name. On my birth certificate, I was Manorama. Ditto for my passport, gotten when I was 2 years old for a trip to India. But Malini was my alias, the one that ultimately ended up on my school records.
Enter name three.
In Lexington, Ky., where I grew up, I was the first child of Indian origin to be born there. Family lore says strangers visited the nursery of Central Baptist Hospital to see this exotic, brown baby. No surprise then that Mah-LEE-Knee did not roll off the tongues of Southerners.
Before long, it was abbreviated to Lini, a nickname bestowed to fit into America.
It didn’t necessarily prove to be the charm. Inevitably, it was pronounced Lynn-Knee. More often, it was morphed into Lina, Lynn, Lisa, Linda—anything more familiar that started with an L.
At school, it did not take long for classmates to tease Lini-Weenie or rhyme my full name with Lady Godiva. My parents’ best intentions were thwarted.
Over summer trips to India, relatives had their own, less-than-favorable opinion of this moniker that had become official enough to appear on report cards and class pictures. One uncle wanted to know if I was Lean-Knee because of my knobby knees.
Still, the name persisted, and when I went to get my driver’s license as a teen, the clerk barely glanced at the birth certificate (this being pre-9/11). She signed off on the application that stated my name as Lini S. Kadaba, which also went on my Social Security card, issued when I landed my first summer job.
In 1989, when I got married in India, my in-laws were none too pleased with this strange diminutive. When my father-in-law registered the marriage in Chennai after the traditional ceremony, he used Malini.
All of which is to say, I had a ream of documents with a variety of names. Travel was becoming more complicated. As ID laws tightened and the enforcement of the REAL ID Act was approaching in 2020, I worried I was running out of time.
For years, my husband urged me to officially change my name. Better safe than sorry, he argued. I’ve procrastinated, a gene I apparently inherited.
But it was more than laziness. I liked this convoluted story about my multiple names, evident from my passport, or driver’s license, or marriage certificate. It was about immigrant parents wanting to preserve something from a left-behind culture, but it also was about wanting to protect a child from bullying and ultimately about assimilating to America—or at least trying to fit in, but not always succeeding, being denied a full place either here or there.
Reluctantly, I reached out to an attorney to start the process. I told her the epic. She boiled it down to “petitioner’s parents assigned her a name at birth, Manorama Sharda Kadaba, however, they used a different name, Malini Sharda Kadaba, when they signed her up for school. The first name was shortened to Lini.” Part of the 6-month process, costing $2,200-plus in legal and other fees, involved being fingerprinted and taking out two ads in local publications—just in case the name change was really about avoiding creditors.
The County Press and Delaware County Legal Journal each noted the petition for change of name filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County and notified the public of the court date, “when and where all persons interested may appear and show cause, if any they have, why the prayer of said Petition should not be granted.”
When my court date arrived in March, I anticipated the day, expecting to be asked why I wanted to change my name and getting to explain—all of it.
As I waited through the day’s miscellaneous docket of property disputes, requests for continuances, and name changes, I planned the story I would tell.
Three hours later, it was my turn. I stood nervously beside my attorney.
The judge spelled out each part of my name.
“Yes, your honor.”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Correct, your honor.”
And that was that. No one asked for my story.
In less than five minutes, 57 years —in all my iterations—was boiled down to a spelling.
Now I am officially Lini, four letters that don’t mean much of anything in particular, but, if only asked, still hold the story of a lifetime.