Kavita Pillay: Hi, it’s Kavita Pillay and Subtitle is back with stories about languages and our relationship to them. I’m here with Patrick Cox. Hi, Patrick.
Patrick Cox: Hey, Kavi. So for the next few months, we’re going to bring you a couple of new episodes, also some from the archives. Today’s episode predates Subtitle but we’re both in it: me as the host and Kavita as a documentary filmmaker. Your other life, right?
That’s right. My movie that is nearly complete…ish. More on that later. But for now, here goes with our new season of Subtitle from Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America.
Ivanka Majic: My name is Ivanka Majic and I am 43 years old. My father was called Ivan and my grandmother was called Iva, and my parents decided that Ivanca was a more modern, updated version of Iva.
Patrick Cox: In some Slavic countries Ivanka is a popular name, including among the Croats of Croatia and Bosnia. That’s where Ivanka Majic’s father was from. Her mother’s from Britain, hence the accent: Ivanka’s British. She works as a digital consultant. And because of that job, she’s been an early adopter of all things digital. So when Facebook came along, she signed up even when the rest of us thought it was just some kind of college hookup thing. Likewise, Twitter.
Ivanka Majic: Twitter was a very new — this idea of social media was very new — so I signed up and my name’s Ivanka, so I went for “Ivanka.” I didn’t really think it through.
Patrick Cox: Yes, Ivanka Majic, resident of Brighton, England, self-employed, married, one child: she snagged the Twitter handle, @ Ivanka. I almost don’t need to tell you what happened next.
Ivanka Majic: I started getting messages like, “I don’t like your shoes,” or, “I like your shoes.” Or, “What were you wearing?” Stuff like that, but also things like, “I’d like to start a business, please could you ask your father to give me some money?”
Patrick Cox: This kind of stuff sometimes completely took over Ivanka’s Twitter feed, which was funny, but also annoying. She wasn’t a fan of Donald Trump or his politics. In fact, in Britain, she’s an activist on the political left. Equality, feminism, climate change: These are her issues. Which makes what happened next just that little bit more head-spinning. The day was January 17, 2017, three days before Trump’s inauguration.
Ivanka Majic: I woke up, my husband picks up his phone and goes, “Oh, ITV News wants to talk to you.”
Patrick Cox: First one TV station…
TV station: “And I’m delighted to say Ivanka joins us on the phone.”
Patrick Cox: …then another…
TV station: “…It was favorited fifteen thousand times…”
Patrick Cox: Then another. Here’s what had happened. For the millionth time, someone on Twitter had confused her with Ivanka Trump. The tweet actually was a quote. It said, “@ Ivanka — space — Trump is great, a woman with real character and class.” No biggie, except that this tweet was then retweeted by…
TV station: “…Donald Trump last night meant to put his daughter Ivanka Trump into a tweet.”
Patrick Cox: The Tweeter-in-Chief had been a little hasty. He hadn’t noticed the tweet was directed at the wrong Ivanka. So the British Ivanka was having her fifteen minutes of fame — and not really enjoying it.
Ivanka Majic: One of the TV stations phoned up and asked to come down to film me in the house to talk about how I’m classy, or, “Is Ivanka Trump classy?” The way it was phrased just got my blood up, just made me angry. Why would you come to my house? You’re not going to, you know, film my family just because of some nonsense,
Patrick Cox: Which was when she decided to turn the nonsense into substance. With the help of some friends, she drafted a responding tweet to the soon to be president that said this. “And you’re a man with great responsibilities. May I suggest more care on Twitter and more time learning about hashtag climate change?” And then she also included a graphic showing the overwhelming belief among scientists that climate change is caused by humans.
Patrick Cox: What was the response to the tweet? Did you get the kind of response that you were looking for?
Ivanka Majic: I think I did. I obviously didn’t get a response from the president of the United States — the president elect. But the point that I wanted to get across was about climate change. Given everything, I think I did the best I could in the circumstances.
Patrick Cox: That’s really interesting. I mean, it sounds as though you’ve leveraged the coincidence of just having the same name as the president’s daughter and having this confusion on Twitter to your advantage, or at least to the advantage of an argument that you kind of wanted to put out there.
Ivanka Majic: Yes, I think I tried to move the conversation away from, you know, accidental tweets.
Patrick Cox: Accidental tweets based on mistaken identity are, well, really common, though, just aren’t that many names in the world. People are constantly making the wrong connections, just the people who are associated with Donald Trump. Many of them have Twitter doppelgängers. There’s a Mike Pence whose bio states he is, “not a Christo-fascist politician.” There’s a Scottish Steve Bannon, who mainly tweets about golf. There’s another Scot, an office worker called Kellyanne Conway. And there’s George Papadopoulos, not the former Trump campaign aide who allegedly told an Australian diplomat that Russia had “political dirt on Hillary Clinton,” and who later pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the FBI. Not him, but George Papadopoulos, certified public accountant, who does business in a suburb of Detroit and flies to Greece to look after his mum. A lot of these people put a brave, jovial face on their accidental notoriety. But just imagine the thousands of hate messages they must get. Humanity probably doesn’t seem all that nice to them. Well, on the pod today, lifetimes of the not rich and not famous — just people who have the same names as the rich and famous.
Kavita Pillay: Before we take you to southern India, where my family immigrated from, I want to tell you about Immigrantly. It’s a podcast about immigrants and the people around them. When I hear someone say the personal is political, I think about feminist politics, of course, because that’s where the phrase originated. But I also think of immigrants who themselves are so often personally affected by political actions. Out of all of this come immigrant narratives of pain and strife, also of love and connection. Immigrantly represents the human dimension that’s often missing from our conversations about immigration. Host Saadia Khan is an immigrant herself. Conversations on Immigrantly are complex, challenging and often messy, but they’re never boring. Immigrantly: Listen and subscribe.
Patrick Cox: This song is well known in India, or at least in Kerala. That’s a state way down in the south of the country. Kerala has a proud tradition of a type of politics that’s not exactly in fashion these days: communism. It’s not one party rule. Communists in Kerala are elected and they have been on and off since 1957, which makes Kerala either the first or the second place in the world where communists came to power via elections. This song celebrates that. The lyrics are all about martyrs who died in the fight against feudalism. It’s from a play that later got turned into a movie called You Made Me a Communist.
Kavita Pillay: My parents are Malayalis, and people from Kerala known as Malayalis because the state language in that part of India is Malayalam.
Patrick Cox: This is Kavita Pillay. She’s a documentary filmmaker who grew up just outside Cleveland.
Kavita Pillay: We would take trips to Kerala every few years to go visit our relatives. And as soon as you arrive, you see hammers and sickles everywhere. And I would say if you think of, say, the frequency with which you see stop signs or billboards in the U.S., it’s probably with that kind of regularity. I grew up in a kind of conservative Midwestern suburb in under Ronald Reagan. And so going from Reagan’s America to Kerala, where you see hammers and sickles everywhere, it was pretty stark. Like even as a kid, you know, like something’s up. There’s something going on here.
Patrick Cox: Did you ask your parents? Did they offer explanations for what was going on?
Kavita Pillay: You know, I think it was just it was just kind of understood because it’s everywhere. So I wouldn’t have had the ability to articulate it at that point. It was just, you saw it. You understood this place as different from where we’re coming from. This would not fly back in Ohio. We’re not in Ohio anymore.
Song: You Made Me a Communist
Kavita Pillay: in 2005, I ended up going to India on my own on a year long research fellowship. Pretty soon after I arrived, I met a young boy named Stalin, and I already knew that there were people in Kerala named Lenin. So and I knew something about the state’s communist history. But, you know, when I met this boy named Stalin, it was my first reaction was just like horror. And then I was fascinated. You know, I had to know, how did you get your name? So I asked him how he got his name. You know, he didn’t know anything, he was only 12 at the time, but his mom was there and his mother said, “Oh, well, in our town, there’s a bunch of Stalins.” I had to know more about this. And it turns out that there’s not just Stalins and Lenins. I mean, Stalins and Lenins are relatively common, but there are Khrushchevs and Brezhnevs and Pushkins. There’s someone named after Yuri Gagarin. There’s women named after whose first names are Tereshkova, after Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. There are kids named Pravda, which means truth. The one father who I met whose two year old was named Pravda, and I asked him, he said, “We could have given her the name Satya,” which means truth in Sanskrit. But he was a fervent communist. And so he said, “But I wanted to name her Pravda.”
Kavita Pillay: There’s one Stalin in particular who stands out to me. He’s a bureaucrat in his mid fifties, he’s a fervent environmentalist. He also has a menagerie of lots of animals. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he is an ardent admirer of his namesake.
Stalin speaking in Malayalam.
Kavita Pillay: So he’s saying that these days, people don’t even know the name of their grandfather’s father. But this particular day on which I interviewed him, it was Stalin’s birthday. So he’s saying, “This particular day is a holy day. And how lucky am I? Because I was named after Stalin, who is the most handsome man I’ve seen in my life! Just look at that mustache. What a masculine face!”
Patrick Cox: Alright, so the guy finds Stalin handsome. He likes the mustache and all of that. But does he know anything about Stalin’s life and what he did during his life?
Kavita Pillay: He actually knows a lot. He’s read a number of histories of Stalin. And so, you know, I asked him about this and I said, “You know, this is a man who’s best known for killing tens of millions of people of his own country. And what’s your response to that?” And his response was always, you know, some version of, well…
Stalin speaking in Malayalam.
Kavita Pillay: “Stalin united many small countries to make the great Soviet Union. And yeah, there were some atrocities along the way, but it takes some talent to do that. You know, I’m someone who can’t even kill a chicken. It takes some talent to do these cruel acts, and the ends justify the means.”
Patrick Cox: This is really interesting, Kavita, because about a decade ago I was reporting in Georgia where Stalin is from. I went to Stalin’s birthplace, Gori — the town of Gori — and I arranged a tour where I interviewed the tour guide of the Stalin Museum. Also in town at the time, although it’s since been taken down, was a huge great statue of Stalin. And everybody I interviewed in Gori would agree with that, that the ends justify the means. They were tremendously proud of the local boy made good. That said, he was the local boy. In Kerala, why? Why do they pick him out above other leaders who might have a little less blood on their hands?
Kavita Pillay: I mean, it’s not just Stalin and Lenin who are regarded with this kind of reverence in Kerala. You’ll find it for Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler. There is this respect for these people, not despite what they did, but in some ways because of what they did. There’s just this reverence for these people who very quickly managed to make these countries powerful, despite those horrors. Initially I thought it was, oh, there’s so much distance. They’re geographically distanced from it, and historically in terms of time, maybe that’s what’s going on. But even people who know what happened feel like they did what needed to be done. The whole country benefited from it.
Patrick Cox: What about American names? Are there any sort of great American leaders who are popular among as names in Kerala?
Kavita Pillay: People are certainly naming their children after other global popular figures as well. I’ve heard of a Roosevelt, Lincoln, Kennedy. I’m told that Kennedy’s son’s name is Clinton. I’ve heard of a Nixon.
Patrick Cox: Any Trumps yet?
Kavita Pillay: Not as far as I know. I thought there might be. But the thing is, people are very aware of how Trump is affecting Indian workers. So they say, “Oh, he’s trying to kick our people out of the U.S., so we don’t like him.” The other thing is people associate Donald with Donald Duck. And “Trump,” — you don’t find a lot of one-syllable names in Kerala. So maybe if Trump’s name had two syllables, maybe he would be more popular. But I think, you know, nowadays people are just much more well-versed with what’s going on with Donald Trump as opposed to in the past — people would not have known as much about what Stalin and Lenin were up to. They didn’t have social media to inform them on a minute-by-minute basis.
Patrick Cox: Is the name Lenin as popular as the name Stalin?
Kavita Pillay: The name Lenin is is more common than the name Stalin. There’s one Lenin who who we spent the most time with. And he’s probably the most ardent, the most fervent admirer of his namesake. He’s a young guy, he’s in his early 30s. He’s a politician, a local politician. He is pretty poor. His family is from one of the lowest castes. But despite the challenges that he faces, he’s also studying to get his Ph.D. in history.
Lenin speaking in Malayalam.
Kavita Pillay: He’s saying, “I believe the revolution will come to fruition. And as someone who has the name of the great Lenin, I want to build a life in line with what he envisioned. And I may not get there, especially because in a globalized world, there’s lots of challenges, and there’s lots of temptations, one could end up becoming bourgeois.”
Patrick Cox: What does he mean by that? Temptations? It sounds kind of pseudo-religious.
Kavita Pillay: It does. You know, and when he says the revolution will come to fruition, he has this, like, look in his eyes. It’s kind of like talking with someone who is awaiting the second coming of Christ. It’s kind of like that level of belief and reverence. It took me a long time to see that the the irony of how communism has manifested in Kerala has these really strong religious overtones. So, in the song that we heard from, You Made Me a Communist. they’re talking about “the blood of martyrs,” and building a monument to these martyrs. And of course, martyrdom has really strong religious overtones: a martyr is someone who will not relinquish their beliefs — would rather die than relinquish their beliefs. And Kerala itself is very religiously diverse. It’s around 60% Hindu, but 20% Christian and 20% Muslim. So, talking about martyrs will play out differently in a place like Kerala. But also, you know, in terms of the imagery that you see, it’s not just hammers and sickles. You will see these triptychs of Marx, Engels, Lenin all over the place. And it’s like Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Or Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. They are like prophets or apostles. And I think because of that level of kind of religiousness around these figures, it can be hard to question them — you know, for people who have any sort of doubts about them, it’s hard to question. I think one of the other elements is caste. For people from lower castes to give your child a name like Stalin or Lenin seems to have kind of a special importance. In a way, it’s kind of like thumbing your nose at the system and maybe seizing some of the respect that Indian society denies you. This very hierarchical place has been denying you some sort of respect because of the caste your ancestors were born into while giving your child the name of one of these, quote, strong leaders is a way to kind of say, like. “I’m rejecting this. I’m rejecting this system.”
Patrick Cox: Because people can’t figure out which caste you come from if you’ve got a name like this?
Kavita Pillay: It’s not necessarily that you can’t figure out your caste because people are looking at so many things. They’re looking at how light or dark your skin is, whether you’re fat or skinny, and trying to figure out where are you on the totem pole? Are you above me? Are you below me? So giving a name like Stalin or Lenin, it may not hide what caste you’re from, but it might just be a way of saying, “I’m standing up against this.”
Patrick Cox: So, Kavita, how about your family? Are there any Stalins or Lenins in your own family?
Kavita Pillay: I don’t have any blood relatives named Stalin or Lenin. I have a distant cousin by marriage. He didn’t know anything about his name, but I’d long heard about a family friend of ours who has two uncles named Stalin and Lenin. And these two uncles are brothers and they both immigrated to the U.S. in the 60s. So before they immigrated, they changed their names to something more, just Western and under the radar that wouldn’t raise any red flags. I got in touch with this family friend and she said, “OK, contact Stalin because he’s more friendly than Lenin.” And so I contacted this man formerly known as Stalin, and he was initially very warm and very chatty. But when we got around to the topic of his name and the fact that he had changed his name, he clammed up. And when I tried to kind of press him on it, he said, “Kindly forget about it.” And I couldn’t help but wonder that, you know, if you immigrated to the U.S. and you changed your name from Stalin to something else before you came here and maybe you didn’t tell immigration officials in the U.S. that you had done this, you might be concerned that going on the record about this might have some repercussions, especially nowadays. You know, there are people who have done nothing wrong and who are afraid about their immigration status in the U.S. And maybe, you know, even someone who’s been a citizen for decades might have something to fear.
Patrick Cox: You know Kerala very well, much better than most Americans do. And you’ve been going there now for several years interviewing people about the choices that their parents made to name them Lenin and Stalin. And there’s a kind of joke factor there. I mean, before we get why all of this is taking place — I mean, are you ever worried that you’re sort of just making fun of these guys?
Kavita Pillay: I think of this story is a tragicomedy. You know, I started working on it in 2009, but I had been thinking about it for several years before that. It was initially the names Stalin and Lenin were an inroad into looking at these contradictions and even hypocrisies in Kerala. The fact that Kerala espouses all this like communist rhetoric and workers of the world unite, but the state is financially, kept afloat by the fact that millions of workers from Kerala go to uber-capitalist places in the oil-rich Gulf. They’re going to Dubai and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Oman and sending millions and millions of dollars back to India. Communism is kept alive in Kerala by capitalism, essentially. So that was the story that I was looking at. So when people would say these things to me about — you know, these kind of reverential things — about the likes of Lenin and Stalin, at that time, I just thought, these are outliers. This is an anomaly. And I didn’t see it for what it was at the time. I thought, I can’t put brown people on screen saying this stuff because they will seem ridiculous, especially for Western viewers. This would seem outlandish and freakish even. And my ideas about this changed a lot after the 2016 U.S. election. It was at that time that I realized that what I had been ignoring was actually a symptom of almost like this disease within our species. It’s not just in India that we see reverence for leaders who do and say some terrible things. So in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, I suddenly realized that people saying things like, “Stalin and Lenin were great leaders. They committed some atrocities, but they did it to make Russia great again.” Suddenly it didn’t seem like outliers. Suddenly it felt like a version of a lot of what we were hearing here is like, “So what if Donald Trump said and did such and such. He’s doing it to make America great again.” This was no longer just contained by the boundaries of Kerala. It was a reflection of just stuff that is in our species, this reverence for, quote, “strong” leaders who will do whatever it takes in the minds of some in order to like enact their vision.
Patrick Cox: Kavita Pillay, documentary filmmaker, and nowadays, of course, co-host of Subtitle. Kavi, what’s the latest on your film and when we might see it?
Kavita Pillay: Well, last year this time I said 2021, but now I have no idea. I just I can’t put a date on it until we’re in a post-pandemic world.
Patrick Cox: Fair enough. Fair enough.
Patrick Cox: Well, it really is a tricky one, naming your child. Even if you don’t deliberately name them after someone, who knows how that name will come across decades later? Just ask Ivanka Majic.
Patrick Cox: So Ivanka, just the name carries so much baggage. I mean, it’s not the same as being called Stalin or Lenin, but nonetheless, it’s kind of problematic, I would imagine. I mean, do you have people sort of double-take when you tell them what your name is?
Ivanka Majic: Do you mean just in the sense of Ivanka Trump?
Patrick Cox: Yes.
Ivanka Majic: Because there is a longer answer to this. The longer answer is, as we’ve we’ve established at the very beginning of this conversation, I’m 43 years old. I was born in Britain in the 70s. When I was a little girl in Birmingham, I wasn’t foreign. I was had a funny name, but I was white. Later as a teenager in England — obviously, my first name rhymes with something that people like to use as an offensive word so that that caused a whole different strain of problems.
Patrick Cox: OK, if you’re not British, you may not be picking up on what she’s saying. The British pronunciation of Ivanka is Ivanka, which rhymes with wanker. If you don’t know what that means, I’m not going to tell you. Look it up.
Ivanka Majic: But somehow in the intervening period with the Slavic name comes an assumption of foreignness. So I know now that it’s law. But about 20 years ago I got asked to turn up for a job interview with my passport. I really didn’t like that. I really was offended by it because one of the things I always liked about the difference between by British self and my what was then Yugoslavia self was that in Yugoslavia, you had to photo I.D. and three stamps for everything — everything had to have a rubber stamp on — but in England, you just signed your name and you were who you said you were. And that was that was cool. And I really, really didn’t enjoy this, particularly as the person who invited me to this interview had a foreign name, too. And I was like, well, “Where’s your passport?” I felt like they were expecting me to walk in and go, “Hello, my name is Ivanka. Lock up your men. I’ve come to eat your children.” Suddenly this Ivanka Majic name made me really foreign and really, you know, Russian. And so your original question was something about the burden, the luggage that comes with the name. I actually find in the day-to-day of being called Ivanka, that people aren’t that bothered by it other than “foreign,” and fewer people than you imagine associate me with Ivanka Trump when they hear my name the first time, I think. Now since the Twitter thing a year ago, people go, “Ooh, are you that Ivanka?”. So I get to have a minute of being recognized and then we have a laugh. But I think the burden is more to do with immigration and Slavs — the Stalins and the Lenins — than it is to do with Ivanka Trump. I’m sorry, Ivanka Trump.
Patrick Cox: Ivanka Majic is a digital consultant who lives in Brighton, England. If you want to know more about her life, she co-hosts a podcast. What does that sound familiar? It’s called Michael and Ivanka’s Grand Podcast.
Thanks to Tina Tobey, Alyson Reed, Jeremy Helton, and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective including Wade Rousch’s podcast about designing the future, Soonish.