This business of names....

July 19, 2010

I do wish that parents, when, at the font or in front of the sacred fire of the Ayushya hOma, or whatever ritual it is that other religions follow….would give more thought to this whole business of naming their progeny.

Some of them, of course, are bound by strict parameters. For generations (how many, I do not know…I have no records beyond my great-grandfather!), in my father’s family, the first son was called Natesan, and that son’s first son was called Viswanath.

Customs also have the same binding effect. In many Indian cultures, the first son or daughter always bears the paternal grandfather or grandmother’s name, and the second, the maternal grandparent’s name. So it’s only if they have a third son or a third daughter that a couple would even have a choice of names!

But I cannot forgive those parents who have a choice, and yet decide to name their child Srinivasan, which is the south Indian equivalent of Smith or Brown or Jones. Srinivasan! The Bangalore directory has (I think) about 34 pages of Srinivasans. When I answer the phone and a bright voice announces, “I am Srinivasan speaking!” I am caught between amusement, irritation, and embarassment. Embrassment as obviously, I don’t know which of the 15 Srinivasans I know is calling. Amusement that anyone would assume instantly that I would know only one….and irritation because I wish this Srinivasan would look at that Bangalore (or Chennai) telephone directory, realize he is one of millions, and identify himself properly.

We’ve learnt about proper nouns and common nouns in English grammar, but I wish more were said about proper names (good not-too-usual names) to be given to a child, and common names such as Srinivasan, Ramesh and Suresh, which should be banned for a decade or two.

Well, there’s also the obverse of the coin, where in the quest for an unusual name, the parents choose names that are embarassing or difficult for the child. The music-loving parents who chose “Sushruti” for their daughter surely might have anticipated that it would be shortened to “Susu” by the schoolmates. When KM’s brother was hunting for a name for his daughter, they liked “Kavya” until the obstetrician quipped, “Oh, Kavya and champagne, eh?” So they moved to “Abhinaya”. I waited until they had actually registered this name before I told them KM’s response on calling from Germany and being told the name….”Oh! AbhinayA, kal sE purANA!” ( in Hindi, “abhi” is ‘now’, “nayA” is ‘new’…“new today, old from tomorrow!” was what he said.) I didn’t want them to go into another tizzy! When my cousin called his daughter “Ishita”, another relative retorted, “Ishita, eeshaliya?” (did it stick or not?) We have the Tamizh jokes about the beautiful female spin bowler (Balatirupurasundari), the remainder (Bakki, short for Bhagyalakshmi) and when one wit was challenged that he could make nothing of the name “Sharada”, he promptly said, “Sharada, irukkarathaannu theriyalai!” (I don’t know whether to live or die…“shAharthA” is colloquial Tamizh for “should I die?”)

My daughter was resolved that her child (if a son) would not be called names like Dikshit, Parkshit, or Akshit, for fear of how the Americans would probnounce the last syllable. Similarly, names with the prefix of “Su” (meaning “good” in Sanskrit)…such as Sucharita, Sunayana, and so on…were banned. Even now, the neighbours often call KTB “Kaya” instead of “Kavya”…and that’s the name of D’s parents’ dog!

Sometimes, indeed, some names are so tough as to remain unused, only to be trotted out on birth certificates and wedding invitations. A friend of mine has a brother called “Hrishyashringa” (the sage who brought rains wherever he went.) What do you think he is called at home? “Smalley”! (obviously, being a “smaller” brother as they say here.) We all know of the musical and melodic Bengali names like “Indrashish”,”Meghamrita”,”Madhavilata”, “Sanghamitra” or “Sharadendu”….the owners generally answer to nicknames like “Tubul” and “Chotu” and “Mittu”. Just now a friend told me the short form of his beautiful wife’s name is “Mamla”…she is from Tajikistan!…but I was instantly tempted to say, yes, I could say that, by making a pun: “mAmlA AsAn hai” (mAmlA means “matters” in Hindi…“Matters are easy”.)

Names…such a difficult tightrope to walk. My own daughter suddenly decided she didn’t like her name, and wanted to be called Anita. Along with this, my 7-year-old decided she would say she was 14! On a holiday in Kodaikanal, we were amused to see other guests in the hotel addressing her as Anita. It was only when I pointed out that if she said she was 14 years old and then added that she was in Class 3, people would think she was very dumb, that she got over this phase.

All this was brought on by my pinging a friend on Gtalk just now, and the response was, “….oh, Deepa MOHAN…then hello!” I suppose she has a list of Deepa’s some to be avoided, and some to be responded to…thank goodness,I belong to the latter list.

Now let me go classify my Srinivasans. Perhaps this is what the parents of people like Oscar Shottmeyer IV (and III and II, too) had in mind when they didn’t want to rock the boat.

Oh, and I must say, my name is Deepalakshmi…the Goddess of Wealth who is holding a lamp…but after several years of hearing Bengalis calling me “deepAlOkki” or, even worse, “deeplOsmee”, I cut it short!