“What is your name?” Papa asked in English, the foreign words sounding funny in his mouth.

It was the same ritual every evening. Papa would come back from the office and change into his kurta-pyjama. Ma would bring out steaming-hot chai and Marie biscuits. Then they’d sit him down on a stool, his legs swinging as he faced the three-seater sofa on which Ma and Papa sat at opposite ends, and the interrogation would begin.

“Shoob-uncle Dee-ve-di.”

Ma closed her eyes and shook her head. “He’s three and he can’t even say his name!” She wiped beads of sweat off her forehead with the pallu of her saree.

Papa raised his palm, as if to tell Ma he had this under control, then turned back. “Let’s try again, beta. What is your name?” He’d fallen into Hindi but corrected himself to finish in English. His voice was indulgent, encouraging.

“Shoob-uncle Dee-ve-di.” He said it slowly this time. Then, before his parents could react, he pointed to the calendar on the wall, unmoving in the thick summer air. “One nine eight five,” he painstakingly read out, to show them he could say the numbers.

A smile escaped Papa’s lips. Papa found everything he did fascinating,
unlike Ma, who never seemed to be impressed enough, always goading
him on to do more.

“Yes, beta, the year is 1985. But first, you have to say your name properly, na? Otherwise how will you get admission into the convent school? It is the best in all of Lucknow.”

Ma reached out and straightened his collar, brushed strands of hair off his forehead, then patted his cheek. “What is your name?” Her English was funnier than Papa’s.

‘Shoob-uncle Dee-ve-di.’

Papa put the teacup down and sighed. “Uff, we are Tri-ve-di. Dwivedi is the uncle down the street.”

He couldn’t tell the difference; they sounded the same to his ears. “Who is better? Them or us?”

“Both are high-caste Brahmins. But our ancestors knew three Vedas; theirs knew only two.”

“What are Vedas?”

“They are holy books, son. They have everything one needs to know.”

“Have you read all three, Papa?”

“Okay, enough now.” Ma put her teacup down too, struggling a bit because of her big tummy, where the baby was asleep. She slid across to the centre of the sofa, and the tummy seemed to move slightly after her, like a separate object. She looked sideways at Papa as though she’d given him enough time to do this his way, and was now taking control.

“Don’t you want to be like your Nana-ji? He was an engineer,” she said to her son, mouthing the word carefully, like she was uttering something holy. “He used to say – I have built one of the first bridges of
independent India, and I have made sure it is strong enough to keep standing when our dear country turns hundred!”

He knew this. Ma said it every time they crossed the bridge over the river.

“Shoob-uncle Dee-ve-di.”

“Badmaash!” Papa looked genuinely angry now, his nostrils flared a little. Papa didn’t like Ma praising her father, the engineer, because Papa wasn’t an engineer himself. Just like he didn’t like it when Ma praised the Dwivedis’ twin daughters. So pretty, so well-behaved. Their names were even more difficult to pronounce than his own.

Papa gave him a tug on his arm. “If you don’t say your name properly, you will have it from me. Do you know how many people Papa had to put maska on to get you this interview at the convent school?”

“And who stood in queues under the scorching sun at all the English-medium schools to get the forms?” Ma lowered her voice as if speaking to herself. “Keep working like a donkey, not a minute to even read the newspaper. . .Wake up before everyone else, cook, pack tiffins, do groceries, bathe and feed the child. . .” Ma always spoke in half-sentences when she had to say something Papa wouldn’t like hearing.

Ma wagged her finger at him. “If you don’t go to a good school, you’ll be stuck in this village. Little people with their little minds and big-big talk.”

Papa turned sharply towards Ma. “Lucknow is not a village. It is a city with a thousand years of civilisation. It was the capital of the Awadh kingdom. This is where the first rebellion against the British Raj was –”

Ma cut Papa off. “Well, now it’s a wasting small-town. It’s no Delhi or Bombay.”

His parents fell silent. The whirring of the ceiling fan took over. All he had wanted was to play with them after a day of picking branches alone on the terrace.

“Shubhankar Trivedi.”

The words formed in his mouth like a chemical reaction. His parents turned, shocked. “Say that again, beta!”

“Shubh-ankar Tri-ve-di.”

Papa clapped so loudly in front of his face it made him blink-blink-blink.

“Now say your mother’s name – Vasundhara Trivedi.” He nudged Ma’s arm with his elbow and smiled.

She smiled back shyly. “And your father’s name – Ashutosh Trivedi.” He burst into tears. “Why are all our names so long?”

Excerpted with permission from One Small Voice, Santanu Bhattacharya, Penguin.