On this day every year, I feel a tug at my heart. It’s a distinct, minor little shock to the chest that without fail brings me away from whatever present situation I find myself in—sort of like when you find out about something unsettling while you’re mid-conversation with a friend, and mentally tuck it away to deal with later. While the feeling, for me, isn’t blistering, or tragic, it does, for at least a day every March, confront me with a particular yearning for a faraway place with which I’ve had a long, complicated relationship.
India sleeps soundly now, but earlier today, it was alive in every sense of the word. Across its many parts, the country rang in the first day of spring with Holi, a festival that takes its origins from Hinduism, but has come to be celebrated by Indians of all religions and beliefs hoping to dedicate a day to spending time with loved ones. They take to the streets, gardens, parks, and virtually all public space available to engage in riotous acts of color play, throwing fistfuls of brightly hued powder at one another in games of tag and hide-and-seek—a beautiful, vibrant mess. It’s India as seen from glossy postcards, with flashy peacocks photoshopped in front of that brilliantly white stock image of the Taj Mahal; it’s hennaed paisleys on outstretched palms, elderly street vendors with their selection of kitschy, mirrored Jaipuri pillowcases and tote bags heavy with jewel-toned embroidery, tinselly bells, beaded tassels, the works. It’s quintessential India, as viewed from the outside in.
I’ve lived my life evenly between New York and New Delhi, within the nucleus of a very close, if not culturally fluid, familial network whose own formative experiences were shaped by multiple cities, cultures, and, largely, international schools. While my Delhi life, which began at about age 5 upward, was privy to enough of those precious years of childhood during which you actually enjoy emerging from the festivities caked head-to-toe in rainbow powder, it was one of many traditions that I engaged with from a distance. My family—hardly great proponents of the holiday—made sure to keep us off the streets to the best of their ability, lest we come face-to-face with stoned Delhiites running around at light speed (a milk-and-cannabis concoction called bhang is especially popular among a certain set before play), or, worse still, ersatz powder, laden with the capacity to procure some terrible skin disease. Instead, when we did celebrate (if at all), we did so from atop my grandparents’ picturesque, garden-set rooftop. These mini Holis, played without much pomp and circumstance, probably lasted for all of 10 minutes.
Which brings me to my point and the undercurrent that accompanies my I-miss-India funk on Holi every year. While I did indeed spend significant time growing up there, it was under a highly curated lens that, after my years in New York, left me feeling untethered to any one place at all: that is to say, an international school, diplobrat bubble, that provided me, an Indian girl, with a very sheltered sense of India that has left me with a bit of an identity problem. And I’m reminded of it every time I say my name.
My name is Noor. On regular days, I don’t think about it so often. But I am still somewhat in that administrative phase of my writer life, so I answer phones a lot. I assume callers won’t hear me when I say my name, or that they’ll need clarification, so oftentimes I’ll revert to spelling without saying it at all. “N like New York, O like Oscar, another O like Oscar, R like”—and for a split second, I always forget what the R stands for—“Robert.” Robert is a good name for the phone. It has two syllables so even if you cut out for a second or the connection is bad, the other person can usually guess the rest.
In the last position I held, I assisted an editor in chief. Much phone time, many humans. A noted decorator called once and asked to speak to my boss. I said of course and he asked me, quite suddenly, who I was before I patched him through. “Oh wow, what a beautiful name,” he said, a little too effusively. “Where are you from?” I told him India and transferred the line. In my boss’s office, I heard her say, “Oh, Noor? It’s a beautiful name. I don’t get why people don’t know it. Like, hello, Queen Noor of Jordan?”
I’ve always felt that the name Noor is, in my mind’s eye, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a jewel I appreciate only from afar; a twinkling thing that has gravitas and a beautiful history that isn’t my own. Noor is a Muslim name; I am not Muslim, and should the odd person ever ask about the disjointedness of my name and identity, which happens once in a blue moon, I feel an unintentional note of apology enter my voice. “Yes,” I say somewhat sheepishly. “My parents just liked the name.” The explanation of my name, you see, if someone cares or knows enough to ask, usually leads to a nonspecific jumble in which I try to convey an understanding about a background I haven’t entirely digested. There is a particular comfort in playing dumb about it all, in choosing New York or New Delhi and committing to one or the other within the context of the conversation; in saying this is my name, and there is no complicated backstory to accompany my relationship to it.
But it’s harder when the questions are asked by someone who is Muslim, or someone whose culture presents an inherent connection or ownership to the name Noor that I do not share; a feeling not totally unlike playing Holi from a private rooftop as the city below me erupts in shared revelry. And under today’s hyper-focused lens of cultural appropriation—trickier still under the umbrella of microcultures within the vast Indian subcontinent—saying my name feels like admitting I have borrowed something without permission. It’s not quite like I’m stealing—I am a believer in cultural appreciation, have been formed by many cultures and claim their influences to some extent—but I feel this pestering need nonetheless to acknowledge the gap. And all it shows me is that I am shy in the face of my own name, and the chasm it reminds me of.
Last year, around the time of my 25th birthday, though, I decided to try something different and started saying it with more conviction. I let my lips round about the double OO’s and slightly rolled the R, in the way it is meant to be pronounced, rather than the clipped way I used to pronounce it (“N-ohr”), if only then to spare the other person from a possible visceral feeling of discomfort or distaste they might experience in the face of the hard, almost liberal pronunciation of vowels.
And then one day I ordered a tall coffee with room at Starbucks and looked the barista square in the eye when she inquired after my name for the order. “Noor!” I said, with maybe too much gusto.
“Okay, and how do you spell that?”
My cup read “Door” when I got it back, and I couldn’t help but smirk that the easier thing would have just been to say it like “Nohr.” It will never be simple. And maybe that’s okay.
I am Indian, and I am American, and I am international. I am more comfortable in a room full of hodgepodge cultures than a uniquely Indian or American one. When I think of the word “home,” I don’t have a specific place. My longest friendships are ones of tried-and-true elasticity stretched over multiple cities and time zones. And while my name is something I cannot entirely claim, maybe that’s what works best in the end. Maybe it is perfect in that it will never fully fit.
But it is part of me, on my coffee cups and on passport applications; at the top of this essay; sidled up next to my Hindu-rooted middle name, to form a bicultural “Noor Ambika” and then “Brara,” which suggests no one thing at all. But I know that it’s a kiss to my father’s native Simla, a town in North India, where he was raised, where he played Holi with his loved ones on snow-capped hills.
Maybe the gaps and the crevices that will never be filled inform their own story, and whether my name is borrowed or not it, is, after all, the one I live by.