The Power of Your Name

Sheela Banerjee is the author of ‘What’s in a Name? Friendship, Identity and History in Modern Multicultural Britain’ but what has she learned about how names reflect so much more than words?

Transcript
Dhruti Shah:

Hi, I'm Dhruti Shah, and this is my podcast Have You Thought About. I'm a writer who loves to find out about what passions people are pursuing, especially if they're managing to blend together skills in unusual ways. In each edition, I'm going to chat with someone I find particularly interesting and someone who has managed to fit things together in their life or profession that you might not think of as an obvious match. You're about to hear me chatting with Sheela Banerjee, author of What's in a Name: Friendship, Identity and History in Modern Multicultural Britain.

Dhruti Shah:

Hey, Sheela, it's lovely to get you on the podcast, and that we've met a couple of times. And turns out that every time we talk, there's a commonality. A few years ago, I went viral, I know after I wrote a piece about AutoCorrect, constantly getting my name wrong. But you have written this brilliant memoir, very much focusing on names and identity. So let's start with the book and how it came about. And it's called What's in a Name: Friendship, Identity and History in Modern Multicultural Britain

Sheela Banerjee:

It's basically it's an exploration of my name, Sheela Banerjee, and five of my close friends. And through our names, I'm looking at, you know, things like questions of race, immigration, colonialism, slavery, anti semitism, but also the stories of us as a generation of people. I'm in my 50s. And so my friends, and looking at us as a generation of minorities of all different kinds, living through this particular era of British kind of race and political history really, and telling our stories, and those of our parents, our ancestors, and all the histories that we bring with us.

Dhruti Shah:

But these are all huge topics. So how did you finish them down, and also bring your friends and family into it?

Sheela Banerjee:

Well, I suppose I just started off very small, I started off with my name. And I remember when I thought of it, I was actually teaching, I was still in academia. And we often had a, you know, breaking the ice routine, where I would get my students to say their names and tell tell me a bit about their names. And then I do the same with my own name. And I realised that with my own name, suddenly, in that sort of two, three minutes, where I was telling the students that there was so much in there when I just started with my own first name, Sheela, which is this actually quite an English very typically English sounding name, but of an older generation of English women. It was like, Why do I have this name, and you're suddenly down a rabbit hole of Well, yeah, I've got this English stroke, Indian name, because my parents were immigrants, in the late 60s When this name was very popular amongst the English. And it also worked in Bengali. And they were struggling to fit in themselves. And it's a kind of symbol, my name is almost a symbol of their attempts as immigrants to try and fit in. And, you know, sometimes managing it sometimes not as well, because they've given me this name, really, that didn't belong to my generation. So it's a name that doesn't really fit as well. So yeah, I started small, and then kind of went outwards. And also when I got the book deal, or I only really written about my own name in an article in The Guardian, and I had to think, Well, where do I look? Where do I start, and actually, when I started thinking about my closest friend, and because I am a child of immigrants, I probably made friends with similar people, other second, third generation immigrants, and I thought, Oh, my God, their names have got incredible stories behind them. So that's really how it sort of started and went on.

Dhruti Shah:

But with your name, you also bring in the fact that culturally, it's very important, and also your situational awareness, because you're not just in the UK. When you're talking about your name, you talk about overseas, and also travelling across countries as it were, can you tell us a bit more about but without giving too much away? So people do buy the book?

Sheela Banerjee:

Well if I think about this, you know, there's two elements to my name. There's by first name Sheela, as I said, and there's my surname Banerjee as well, which, you know, when I was at school, I was living in Hayes, that's where I grew up. And that's where you're probably as well. And at that time, when I lived there in the 70s, and 80s. It was an incredibly racist area. Hayes is next door to Southall, which is home to thousands of Punjabi immigrants. And I think partly because of that, but partly because of the national political discourse around race at the time and the rise of the National Front. Hayes was absolutely appalling. And so to be carrying a name like Sheela Banerjee, this Indian name in a place that barely had any ethnic minorities and actually were very hostile towards Black and Asian people, there weren't many black people, certainly, and we were one of the few Asian families was really, really difficult.

Sheela Banerjee:

So, you know, at school in my class, I was the only Asian kid around and I remember you know, I remember at school there was another girl and she was called Kamaljit. And I remember the kids kind of making fun of her name because it's an Indian name and constantly calling her camel s h i t. It it was really nasty people making fun of my surname, but also it identified me my brown skin and my funny in quote, sounding foreign name, identified me as not belonging. And in that environment. Were you going out? You're getting racially abused on the streets, you know, my mom was attacked, my aunt had been attacked, walk on the P word. And there's National Front signs everywhere as the 70s wore on. This was hard. You said in terms of the situation what I didn't know. Yeah, we went to Southall the whole time. I loved going Southall for, for the food and the saris and I think subconsciously I like being around other Indians as well, but Southall was undergoing huge racial tensions at the time that I was growing up next door in Hayes, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, a student had been attacked by racists and killed. And there were two uprisings, huge uprisings and just really horrible violence from the National Front and from skinheads who were constantly going into Southall and beating up Asian people. And a lot of those skinheads came from hayes where I live. And so carrying around this obvious sign, this marker of being Indian, with my name, and then obviously my skin was not a comfortable place to be at that time, which was, yeah, the 70s and 80s.

Dhruti Shah:

But you didn't always have such a troublesome relationship with your name. Yeah.

Sheela Banerjee:

In terms of when it was good to be called Sheela Bannerjee. Yes. So what happened to me as a child was that we I was constantly backwards and forwards between pays. And going back to India, we went back for good, supposedly to India, but we came back because it didn't work out. So when I went to India, so we moved, especially the one I really remember very well is when we we'd been living in Hayes for quite a few years, and it had been quite hard. And yet my name is something I was kind of a bit embarrassed about. And also it was incredibly racist, as I said, and then my parents decided they were going to move back for good to India. And so suddenly, we fly the 10 or 11 hours it takes to reach Kolkata. And I'm in a completely different universe. Suddenly, my name Banerjee is not this funny sounding foreign name that can be mangled and mocked the whole time. I'm in India where every other person is called Banerjee or Chatterjee, or Mukherjee. It's a really common surname. And Sheela as well, as you know, they both said completely differently. I'm, you know, my name is pronounced in Bengali. I'm in English, I'm Sheela Banerjee. In Bengali I was Sheela Banerjee. And Sheela sounded nice, you know, it sounded like a nice name to have, it wasn't the name of these older English women, it was, you know, in India, names are quite timeless as well, there were lots of people called Sheela, or Anita, which is another version of Anita or Rita, you know, these, these names sound completely different when you put them in a kind of Bengali category. But also, there's a more difficult side to it as well, because when I went back Bannerjee is a Brahmin surname. And in India, you've got the whole caste system, which is essentially a really, for me, horrible system of social segregation, a really oppressive system, with the Brahmins at the very top. And then you have the other costs below. And it is regulated, and you're classified by your

Sheela Banerjee:

surname, people can tell immediately What caste you are from your surname. And it's incredibly important.

Sheela Banerjee:

So when you're getting married, when you're going for a job when you're thinking about even where to live in lots of parts of Bengal in the 70s. It's your surname that determines that and as soon as I went there, I could, I could feel it - as soon as people hear your surname there, it's it's as if a kind of conversation that's thousands of years old has begun without you even saying a word. And I went from being a brown skinned little Asian girl who was always worried about being abused on the streets here to being in the most privileged echelon of society in small town, West Bengal where my grandparents lived. And so it's a completely different scenario. And also I as Asians in Britain, it's much harder to just exist to get work to have respect from people, let alone being abused on the streets. Whereas I could sense when I went to India that my parents, they're at home, they're, they're respected, they've got choices of what they can do, which aren't dictated by the colour of their skin, they're not looked down upon. That is a kind of subconscious feeling that as a child, you carry around the lack of respect that people have towards your parents, if there's racism in the society is a kind of really, it's a shaming and a horrible thing to experience. And suddenly that was gone. And it's the same is true for our surname, you know, the surname is almost a little flag that tells you what's going on really, in that society. So the surname was one that was was respected. But yeah, not always, in my opinion, for very good reasons.

Dhruti Shah:

Would you have realised that at the time, or was a lot of this coming to it writing the book, doing the research, those moments of insight, and jigsaw pieces coming together? From what you were thinking when you're a kid and being like, Okay, that's interesting to now like, Oh, my God, like, that's what was going on? And now I know the context of stuff like, did you have those moments of gasp, as it were?

Sheela Banerjee:

That's so true. And it's such an interesting question. It's like, when does the realisation calm, that what you were experiencing as normal as a child was like, Oh, Jesus, so that especially the things about living in Hayes and feeling a sense of threat, every time I walked outside the front door, I kind of I didn't like it. And I was hated living there. And when I was a sort of young adult I was at all it was a horrible place to grow up, I didn't really understand the political context of what was going on in Southall than those uprisings and riots that happened and people being killed and people being attacked. I didn't understand that. And the same goes for India with my surname Banerjee, I knew that it was different. I sensed it was different. I always have an image of my mom sort of striding around in her sari holding my hand in the middle of Kolkata. And it's always stayed with me, and I don't think she ever could stride around in that way, in a story over here, because both she and I would always be watching out on the lookout for abuse. Because a sari draws that abuse towards you. And it wouldn't be something that she's proud of. Whereas I remember, I think I have that image because subconsciously, she was confident I was confident I was happy. One of the things that I really look back on now is the whole way that my grandparents as Bannerjees as high caste Brahmins lived in a small town, West Bengal. So we came from a town called Chandannagar for that bit, which was called narwhal, para, it was a high cost neighbourhood. And so costs were separated spatially as well as in terms of socially. So this was a high cost neighbourhood, and then as a Banerjee, that's the priestly class, not everybody becomes a priest, but it is traditionally where the priests in Hindu society came from only Brahmins could be priests.

Sheela Banerjee:

And my grandfather was a priest. He had been sent off when he was 1314 years old to become a priest in a huge temple in India, and the Balaji Mundi, and he named his first son, my dad, his first child, and only son, my dad Balaji, after this temple, when he left the temple and eventually got married to my grandmother, they set up this kind of household of extreme religious religiosity, where they lived in this sort of old huge crumbling house. And you know, there were all kinds of rules about you can't eat this, you can't touch that it was strictly vegetarian, no meat, fish eggs, but also no onions and garlic. There were rules around the touching of rice, there were rules about a door which is a sort of polluting food by biting into it and then passing it to someone else or storing it somewhere. You've polluted the whole cupboard. If you store your half eaten apple in there or something, and my grandmother prayed the entire you know, she spent hours praying every day some of it I loved. I loved all the little shrines and the goddesses and the flowers and just the heady sort of sounds and smells that she created. She like created a little temple in her bedroom every day and sat cross legged praying and reciting mantras, mantras. So but it was it was really, really strict and my grandmother just lived in one room basically praying Eating in one room washing to the side where and there was a lot of washing. When I look back on what being a Banerjee a high caste Brahmin family meant, it seems that it to me now as somebody living in London as a sort of woman in midlife, you know, having grown up here seems so extreme went away quite isolated as well.

Sheela Banerjee:

And also so restrictive because as Bannerjees, they had to marry other energies, Chatterjees Mukherjees, Ganguly, people with names like that, because that denotes that you are not just a Brahmin. But you're a special subsection of the Brahmin world, which is a calling Brahmin. And it was incredibly restrictive. So my, my youngest aunt fell in love with someone from the caste below. And it was completely not allowed. She was really worried that they would not only stop the marriage, but possibly, you know, confine her to the house, and she had to elope and she left the country. And they had to live over here. And it was several years before they went back to India ever. It was hard. And my dad found it really hard because of all the rules and regulations. So when I look back now, going back to your original question, sorry, that was a very long winded answer. But yeah, it's like, I think God, that world is so different from what I have.

Dhruti Shah:

Now I find that fascinating. And don't worry about the long winded in this. That's the whole point of it. Have you thought about you've also worked in media? And do you have that working class South Asian immigrant heritage, as we've heard, how was that?

Sheela Banerjee:

When I finished university, I really was so passionate about wanting to make films that decided that's what I wanted to do. I'd always love reading love stories, I think the storytelling aspect of it was really appealing. And I just set about it with the typical determination of a 22 year old thinking that okay, well, he's was really bad. But by the time I'd got to university, and I went to sort of Sussex in the 80s, very left wing, I felt like also Britain had changed that, yeah, the world is my oyster, that kind of thing. But go into something like television, and I basically was really passionate, I'd got kind of funding to make a documentary about Bangladeshi women or gone to Journalism College. And it was a incredibly competitive Journalism College to get into, I'd got a channel for scholarship. So I thought I was I was fine. I had a good chance. And I got a job at the BBC. And it went on like that, what I found and again, you have to kind of look back on it, you don't know at the time was that somehow it was always really hard to get on. And somehow always the people that seemed to have a smooth ride, who were taken on who were nurtured, seemed very different from me. So someone with a Hayes accent who went to a state school, very ordinary state school in out of West London. And I didn't go to Oxbridge. I seem to be from a very different background in the sense that I didn't see very many people like me in the BBC, or in the channel for production companies that I was working in. It was predominantly white middle class, often privately educated, often Oxbridge, who are working there. Now we were all trying to get one, we were all working really hard. But who is it? That gets kept on and that's something that you reflect on, when you look back.

Sheela Banerjee:

And what I found that happened, it's quite a difficult thing to explain in a way I got work because I worked really hard. But I seem to have to send off hundreds more CVS, go for loads more interviews, people repeatedly have short term contracts. In order to get the next job where I was, I would find that the people that were being given permanent jobs at the BBC and news and current affairs or specialist, factual, these kind of top sort of departments, they were of a different class background, different names. So there I was, I had been to school with you know, lots of people who had names like Lisa Tracy, you know, Michelle, Donna, there were those people that I was working with didn't have those names. It was a world of Lucy's and Emma's and Charlotte's, and Kate's and Simons, and Richards and Davies. These were the names that were common and the names say something about the background of the people that work there. And what I found out later was that there have been loads of studies that have been done but one of them is like, you know, if you've got a foreign sounding name, you have to send off on average 60% more CVS in order to get an interview.

Sheela Banerjee:

When I looked up the stats, the latest statistics which are something like from 2018 for directors, which is what I was doing, I was directing TV programmes, directors of Black and Asian and minority ethnic heritage who work in documentaries and specialist factual, which is what my area, only 3% of directors were from an ethnic minority. So 97% were white, I didn't really, I didn't stand a chance in a way. So yes, I got work and that old adage that you have to work, you know, twice as hard. Well, you have to work about 20 times as hard. If you work really, really hard. Of course, you can just about get there, but at what cost? Because also, when you're in these environments, you're the only brown person when you're suggesting ideas that are relevant to your community that you think will appeal to everyone else as well. You're often told no, it's too worthy. We don't want to hear about that, oh, we've had enough stories about racism, very difficult to tell our stories in that environment, because people don't understand you. And also, when I didn't get work, I would compare myself of course I would. And compared to my white middle class, Oxbridge, educated peers, I wasn't getting work. And I would think it was my fault. I'm not good enough. I'm not clever enough. And then if you don't get the next contract, and they're kind of kept on full time, they're getting the experience that you're not getting, they probably are getting better than you. And so it's a vicious circle. And I think that's the thing about being brown being state school educated, even though actually my parents back in India weren't working class. They were quite middle class, we're very middle class. But over here, that advantage, I'm not saying that advantage is good. I'm saying everybody should have those advantages. They didn't have any advantages over here. Both also suffered a lot in the workplace. So yeah, it was it's hard being being called Sheila Banerjee in all,

Sheela Banerjee:

virtually all white environments, in the media, in academia, where I went to work and even in publishing now, it's very white, and it's often very Oxford. It's hard.

Dhruti Shah:

How do you maintain a sense of sanity?

Sheela Banerjee:

I don't think I totally did maintain a sense of sanity, because I think what's pernicious about middle class racism and elitism, which is, it's perfect when you know, they're often going together, that classism and racism is that you think it's something to do with you you think the person speaking with the RP, you know, received pronunciation accent, the person throwing in those kind of literary references or talking about classical music at the, you know, nine o'clock meeting, you think they are clever, because it's seeped into your brain that these people are cleverer than you. And also when you're not getting work, it's very hard for any human being to think, oh, no, this is structural racism at work or a structural elitism at work here and just analyse who's getting the jobs and who isn't you think, Well, I must be useless. Why am I not being employed, and my best friend goes to one company and gets kept on there for five years, that you can't help. But take that on board. And also, you hear people being talked about when you're in those environments. So all we must find work for Clara or Anna, she's so so, so bright, so clever. You know, that kind of chat then seeps into you thinking, well, they're not talking about me like that, because they're not keeping me on. And it's very hard, I think, in those situations, to keep your sanity. And I do remember, I had to leave TV to keep my sanity, basically. And it's, it's very difficult. And I had to do a lot of work on myself really to keep my sanity. And I thought, Well, I'm gonna go and do something that I really like, I went off and did an MA in English literature, because I always love reading. And luckily, I had one tutor when I went back to college, who had telling me I was good, and that that was the first time that I'd actually happened in my professional or educational career, because schools weren't that great in the 70s either. And it was, it was amazing. And it's amazing

Sheela Banerjee:

what validation can do to you. Because once I started to be told that I was good, I also started believing it and I know we should have the self belief but that's hard. When I just experienced you know, 15 years in the media, which was very difficult, which were quite difficult. And you know, I went on to get fully funded PhD, I did do really well but again, that is an environment which is absolutely dominated even more so than the media by white Oxbridge overwhelm I'm in near Oxford, often privately educated people who get the permanent jobs. And what I've realised now, it's not just one segment of these professions, the sort of artsy cultural professions. So the media, academia, publishing is the same group of people. And these are often quite so called progressive fields, you know, these people would be horrified to think that they were racist in a way, but as a group, it's like a phalanx defending their privilege, not situation when you repeatedly encounter that privilege, and the gatekeepers that that privilege, it is really hard to keep your sanity, really hard.

Dhruti Shah:

But how are you now reclaiming your identity, your creativity, you've got this amazing book, it's been on lists of books of the year as it were, upon time of recording, what are you doing?

Sheela Banerjee:

I can't say that it was all bad. Along the way, I did have bits of, you know, there was a lot of hard work. And I did have bits of luck. So yes, academia is incredibly white, Oxbridge dominated. But I had a PhD supervisor who was amazing, he kept telling me, I was good. So that really helped me. And I think by then also, I've realised what was going on. By that stage, I was in my late 30s. And I thought, hang on a minute, it's not just about me, I don't see anyone like me working in these places. So it can't just be about me. So I think I realised also that I've got to do what I've got to do. If I want to be creative, if I want to sit down and write in a notebook, no one can stop me, they might not give me a job as a producer, or a director on a prestigious documentary. But I can still write and also think, over the last 15 years or so it has opened up in the sense that yes, you can write and you can put that online, and people can read it, you might not have a huge audience, but you can communicate. So you might not be able to earn your living through that. But you can still create and communicate. And I think that was very different. When I started out in TV, you couldn't just go off and make a film, you know, using your phone or a camera that cost 2000 pounds, you would have to have a camera and a cameraman and an editing suite, all of which costs 10s of 1000s of pounds. So that was very difficult to penetrate as a brown woman who had no contacts or whatever. Whereas I now think, Okay, I will earn my money in whatever way I have to, but I will write if I want to. And if I want to make a film, I will make a film, it may be successful, it may not be successful. But I also think I finally got to a point where I know what I can do. If I managed despite all that discrimination, to get as far as I did in TV, becoming a director, you know, making BBC and channel four films, getting a PhD, doing well at it, then you might not want to give me a

Sheela Banerjee:

job. But I know that I can write I know that I'm good at telling stories. And also, I think creativity should be open to anyone in our own homes, we can do what we like you might not want me in your workplace, I'm still allowed to create what I want to in my time. So I think that's how I feel about it now, I think and the book has been amazing. It has been amazing. Probably it has come out of that switch in attitude. I wrote some articles for The Guardian. And an agent contacted me and said, Do I want to write a proposal and I think by then I had the confidence that I can I can write I know I can. And I think most people can, if you decide you want to do it, and you do it a lot, you'll probably be able to do it's about commitment. It's also about time, a lot of people don't have the resources to spend that time. And in a way, I was lucky I got funded to do a PhD. So doing a PhD means you write a lot and you practice so and you read a lot and that makes you writing better.

Dhruti Shah:

And that was the inspirational Sheila Banerjee, author of What's in a Name. Do you have an interdisciplinary life? I would love to hear from you. And perhaps we can chat on this podcast that goes with my newsletter, which is called Have you thought about and can be found via www.dhrutishah.com. Please join me next time for a fantastic conversation with another guest who likes to mix up lots of things in their life. Do listen to past episodes and rate and review the podcast if you've enjoyed it. Thank you Rian Shah for the music