Personal Stories

My Uncommon Name Irked Me Till I Recognized Its Delicious Queer Layers.

As someone who is still questioning and curious about their sexuality, I found such comfort in learning about Thadani’s Sakhi. The loneliness of being queer receded with knowing that, by sheer coincidence, my name is etched in the memories and legacy of delightful, delicious, and deviant intimacies, even if they weren’t what I was named after.

Like most South Asian names, mine also holds meaning, but unlike most others, my name—Sakhi—is a unique one. It is almost on the threshold of peculiar, because while a lot of Hindi speakers have heard it as a word that means friend, they are often unable to digest it as a name in itself. And so, for as long as I’m capable of remembering, most people mess it up. It’s mispronounced, misspelled, or just avoided altogether. Till day, whenever I hear the name Sakshi (a more common name in India than Sakhi) out loud, I still turn to check if it’s me the person is talking to, because more often than not, I have been called Sakshi, especially by those who do not know me closely.

I had no problem correcting peers, teachers, relatives, and acquaintances, but I would get irritated when the same people would still resort to some new annoying pronunciation of my name, which was quite common during my teenage years. Life was irritating enough as it is, and it felt like no one understood me most of the time. The least they could do is get my name right, right? After all, no disrespect to Shakespeare’s “What’s in a name?” but we all relish the sound of our own names—nothing grabs our attention like it. Perhaps those who have a fairly common name cannot in the slightest fathom the joy that surges within me when, on a first encounter, someone calls me Sakhi right away.

As a child, I used to constantly pick fights with my parents over this, complaining about it so much that sometimes, I could feel them almost regret their choice. It was my dad’s idea and he had put in so much thought behind it. When he was a kid, he heard the name in a Bollywood movie called Bemisal, starring the legendary actor, Amitabh Bachchan. He adored it ever since and cherished the way it sounded. Even though I was aware I was being a jerk with my incessant whining, I would still despise my name because being bullied and teased about it in school (where Sakhi, which is supposed to be pronounced s-uh-kh-ee, deliberately became sucky often) was no fun. 

Only after starting college and studying literature though did I come to recognize the mischievous and queer layer that my name was marinated in, all while I’d been obnoxiously complaining. In Hindi, the word sakhi refers, on the surface level, to a friend. Not just any friend though, it is a gendered word and is only used for women. The word’s intimacy grew exponentially for me when I learnt that the first openly lesbian organization in India was also named Sakhi. It was started in 1991 by Giti Thadani, a prominent figure in Indian lesbian activism. Lesbians in the 90s wrote letters to the organization expressing their loneliness, asking for guidance, and blatantly expressing their desires. As excited as the fact was that I shared a name with such a subversive organization, it also left me utterly curious and clueless. Why, sakhi?

The answer to that was one that I discovered in Thadani’s book titled Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. One of the most interesting elements of the text for me remains the manner in which Thadani excavates the socio-cultural layers behind the term sakhi. By closely analyzing ancient Hindu mythological writings, she substantiates the word’s erotic and sensual dimensions that dominant homophobic discourse suppressed, reducing it to a simple designation of friendship that could be contained within “acceptable” hetero-social dynamics. Naming her lesbian space Sakhi then was Thadani’s act of resistance and reclamation—beyond its mainstream curtailment—as a “female companion, friend, and lover.”

Cultivating a safe sphere for lesbians networking prior to smartphones and apps, the daring responses that the Sakhi collective received from across India transformed it into an archive of subverted shame and silences. The letters poured in and were proof that even in the most ostensibly heteronormative spaces, queerness did, and will continue to, nestle in chinks and crevices till equity was achieved.

As someone who is still questioning and curious about their sexuality, I found such comfort in learning about Thadani’s Sakhi. The loneliness of being queer receded with knowing that, by sheer coincidence, my name is etched in the memories and legacy of delightful, delicious, and deviant intimacies, even if they weren’t what I was named after. The word’s crisp and intricate enunciation will always unspool echoes of sapphic tales that slipped beneath the seemingly ‘innocent’ and ‘neat’ designations of friendship between women in India.

Comprehending all of this, I have started to relish a newfound coziness in my name. Sure, a lot of people still mess it up, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I strive to be just as unusual as this name is and hold up its worth. I understand now—fitting into the norm is in no way a prerequisite to belong with people, and such a fixation could gnaw not just me but anyone hollow.

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Sakhi Thirani (she/her) is a writer based in India who has written for platforms such as JSTOR Daily, Autostraddle, Certified Forgotten, Offscreen, and Indiatimes. She has pursued a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Delhi.
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