As far back as I can remember, I always imagined I would have a daughter. I even chose a name for her: Shalini. Shalini, the name of the protagonist’s baby, is the title of the first short story I ever published, in a now-defunct journal. I wrote that story when I was 19. It was the first story I ever wrote using Indian characters.
I grew up in an Indian community, but hadn’t met anyone with that name before. Shalini is not a common name amongst Punjabis, Gujurathis, and other North Indians, who dominated my parents’ social circles. The first Shalini I met was my high-school boyfriend’s cousin. A law student, she had a boisterous laugh and a robust presence, and I remember saying her name again and again because it sounded so beautiful.
I’ve only come across a few Shalinis since that time, so I kept the name in my head, saving it for the character in my story, and eventually for my own daughter
All Hindu names have meanings behind them. A quick search of my name, Swati, the name of a star, also means, “the first drop from the sky that falls into the sea and turns into a pearl”,which is likely what the star is named for. I always loved that meaning more than the sound of the name. But when I heard “Shalini”—I fell in-love with the actual sound, the soft “sh”, the delicate “l” and the rhythm of the three syllables. To me, the sound of the name is more pleasurable than the meaning, which is “modest.” And frankly, my toddler, with her perpetual lack of an “inside voice” and love for dancing vigorously at any time, belies modesty.
I kept that name close to my heart. When I was pregnant, I shared that name with my husband and parents, though it didn’t make much of an impression. Because my husband’s last name is of Spanish-origin, it was important to me that my daughter’s first name be of Sanskrit origin—reflective of her mixed cultural heritages. We threw around many names—Lalita, Sundari, Ananya—and eventually decided on Paloma—which “passed” as an Indian-sounding name, and meant “dove.”
Going into the hospital while having contractions, I assumed I would be meeting Paloma very soon. The labor was long, and my husband and I decided that we’d decide on a final name with our shortlist after the baby was born. After 36 hours, when the stitches were set, and the nurses and family members left the room, we looked at our baby girl. My husband decided to call the names to her and see what she responded to. She was relatively quiet when “Paloma” was uttered, but she squawked like a healthy newborn when he said “Shalini.”
-Swati, Bronx, NY, USA