'My Name Is Long As A River' Is A Book That Celebrates The Heritage Of South Indian Names

The cover and an inside illustration for Suma Subramanian & Tara Anand's book 'My Name Is Long As A River'
'My Name Is Long As A River'Tara Anand & Suma Subramanian

Growing up as a shy Tamil girl in North India, amidst a sea of Sharmas, Singhs, and Jains, my name always felt like an oddity.  My classmates sported these bold, two-syllable identifiers, while mine was a lonely initial of my father’s name. Questions about my strange surname were constant, and my mumbled responses never felt quite satisfying.

It wasn't until a college course on caste and Indian history that the puzzle pieces clicked into place. I learned about the Dravidian movement, a social reform movement that began in the 1930s, and its impact on Tamil naming conventions.  The movement aimed to dismantle the rigid caste system, and one of its tenets was the abandonment of caste-based surnames.  Tamils, including my ancestors, shed their surnames, both in India and in diaspora communities like Singapore. Their surnames, it turned out, were more than just family identifiers; they were markers of caste, carrying the weight of a social hierarchy that the Dravidian movement sought to abolish.

For years, I'd felt a strange shame about my abbreviated name, a subconscious desire to conform to the North Indian norm. But now I understood the history it held; the quiet rebellion it embodied. Unlearning the self-consciousness and embracing my full name, initial and all, felt like reclaiming a lost part of my heritage.  Now, when someone asks my full name, I say it without hesitation. 

Many people in India, like me, have their own unique journeys with names. In Suma Subramaniam's heartwarming picture book, My Name Is Long as a River, the young protagonist, Kaveri Thanjavur Jayalakshmi Ganesan, embarks on a similar quest. Illustrated by Tara Anand, this book takes readers on a journey not only across various landscapes but also through the profound process of self-discovery.

At first, Kaveri feels burdened by her lengthy name. She longs for the simplicity of "Kav", a nickname that feels insignificant compared to the rich tapestry woven into her full name. But as Kaveri joins her Paati (grandmother) on a pilgrimage to the Pushkaram Festival, a celebration held on the banks of the Kaveri River – the very river her name echoes – a transformation begins.

Subramaniam's lyrical prose paints a picture of a bustling household filled with the anticipation of the festival. We see Kaveri packing; the excitement bubbling alongside her initial discomfort with her name. Each stop on their journey becomes a stepping stone towards understanding. Everything from the emerald green banks of the river to the vibrant sights and sounds of the train journey all hold a piece of Kaveri's heritage.

Anand's illustrations are nothing short of stunning. Rich colors and dynamic brushstrokes bring the story to life. We see the warmth of family, the majesty of the river, and the intricate details of their traditional clothing adding layers of depth to Kaveri's experience.

Through her interactions with Paati, Kaveri learns the significance of each part of her name: Thanjavur, her birthplace; a city steeped in history. Jayalakshmi, shared with her mother; a name honoring the protector of the river and Ganesan; from her father, a name symbolizing new beginnings. Slowly, the river of her name starts to flow through her, connecting her to her family and her past.

My Name Is Long as a River is a celebration of cultural pride, self-acceptance, and the power of family history. It reminds us that our names are not just labels, but narratives woven from the threads of our heritage. Just as the Kaveri River nourishes the land, our names can nourish our sense of belonging.

It's a book that will leave you with a warm glow and an eagerness to explore the stories hidden within your own name.

Buy My Name Is Long as a River here.

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