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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Sometimes, I like to replay a scene from Dr. No in my mind. The clock shows three in the morning. Smoke swirls about the casino tables and luck evades a lady in red at the baccarat table.

“I need another thousand,” she calls, and a man from the casino leans over to collect the cheque she writes.

From across the table, she hears: “I admire your courage, Miss … uh?”

“Trench, Sylvia Trench.”

“I admire your luck, Mr. …?”

“Samarasena, Jasenthu Kankanamge Charith Akalanka Samarasena.”

In the unlikely event that James Bond will one day be played by a Sri Lankan, that scene would be the first one to be edited out. A typical Sri Lankan name is a thing of great length, unpronounceable sounds and bewildering origins; a living organism that grows with every generation collecting honours and scandals in equal measure. Centuries of conquest, colonization or even the mightiest winds of globalization have not been able to trim it. In this day and age, it flourishes in the same way as it did a thousand years before.

The names of the Sinhala speaking peoples are made of three parts: first, a patronymic name of the clan, which usually comes with the suffix “ge”; next, a middle layer with a generous amount of personal names; and lastly, a surname. What is sandwiched awkwardly between the clan name and the surname is the only part of the name that is picked by a parent, something my mother executed with relative ease by resorting to a character she found in her favourite book. Yet many struggle at this freedom of choice, and take counsel from the astrologers for picking the auspicious first letter of the name. In many families, it only took a few generations for an unsuspecting middle name (Akalanka, in my case) to join the league of the clan name and surname to be passed down to the next generation.

Any island nation is fated to have its own set of quirks, manners and customs owing to the simple fact that water acts as an indiscriminate customs enforcer. Sri Lanka fares no different in this aspect with a plethora of customs and manners that draws excitement from even our closest neighbour, India. Yet, among customs such as smashing coconuts for prosperity or cursing in equal ferocity, nightlong exorcisms and keeping doors open after funerals, it is our peculiar names that lead to the most excitement and even annoyance. Especially once a Sri Lankan wanders outside their safe haven for long names.

My name loosely translates as a “supervising military officer, below the rank of Arachchi, descendant of clean character who is of the victorious legions.” “Jasenthu Kankanamge” is from my ancestral clan, it’s followed by “Charith Akalanka,” which notes my character, and ends with the surname Samarasena, which implies a military victory.

As a custodian of a long and ancient name, my own ordeal started even before I left for Canada last summer. At first, I had the online applications to reckon with; in the carefully zoned area dedicated for the “name” my 43-letter, five-word name had to be shortened just as a hedge might be trimmed to please a local city council. As a man who deals with the intricacies of software as a profession, I marvelled as to why someone created such a small space to type in the name. Later, as a newly minted resident of the Great White North, I encountered many people with names that did not exceed 10 letters, and I understood.

And so began an endless summer of shortening my name while filling out applications for governments both local and federal, banks and utility suppliers. I only found a single website that allowed me to type in the entirety of my actual name. I wore a bright smile as I listened to the click-clack of the keyboard as my name in all of its glory and might was entered seemingly without any error. Yet to my great distress, an elusive error kept crashing the entire system when I tried to submit the form – as if an immovable force had met an unstoppable object. With wits honed from my profession, I correctly guessed the culprit and I was right, a much shorter name allowed me to move forward.

As I found myself sacrificing more and more of my name, I wanted to hang onto more of it just as a dragon guards its treasure of gold and jewels. However, the bearer of a great name should reconsider the level of trouble that he or she should bear to protect the assembly of words.

Although I did my best to be faithful, the allure of a short name is as tempting as a mistress. When my Permanent Resident Card finally arrived, I expected the name to be shortened but was horrified when I saw the shortening omitted the only part of the name that was in practical use. With this latest predicament, I began to succumb to the relative charms of using short names in the New World. It would be an act of adaptability, and also a wise one.

Yet, to a man with a penchant for nostalgia, all things from the distant homeland are of endless value. My name is a composite collection of family lore. It is a sonata of my ancestors, their toils on Earth, their futile struggles in countless wars, and of their lives both good and bad. To be rid of it in Canada merely to survive bureaucracy would be to survive bankrupt with even less to offer to my new home. Thus, against all odds and rational arguments, I shall remain steadfast and immovable as, yours truly, Jasenthu Kankanamge Charith Akalanka Samarasena.

Jasenthu Kankanamge Charith Akalanka Samarasena lives in Vancouver.

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