Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Naming Syndrome

- by Janaki Krishnan

There is one sphere in Indian society that has undergone tremendous changes in my lifetime - the naming of the first-born.

In days bygone, among Hindu Brahmins from the South, naming or 'naamakaranam' was just a religious formality. A priest would be called, blessings invoked, and the name of the child would be whispered thrice into the child's ear. But there was no effort spent in choosing the child's name. No long lists were pored over, and no advice was sought from friends. By convention, the first born child got the name of the father's parents.

If it was a boy, he would be called exactly the same first name as his paternal grandfather, and if it was a girl, then she'd be named after her paternal grandmother.


The trouble was, in a joint family, the child could not be called by his first name, because it was also the grandparent's name. It would be too disrespectful! How do you scold a boy whose name is the same as your father's? Naturally, 'Subramanian' began to be called Mani, while 'Venkataraman' and 'Ramachandran ' were shortened to Ramu and Chandru.

Sometimes, there were added complications. The first-born sons of two brothers would both be named after their paternal grandfather. How do you manage two rascally cousins, growing up together in the same house, with the same name? This problem was solved by adding funny prefixes to names. My grandfather was called Mottai (Baldie) because his father never allowed him to grow his hair, while his cousin proudly flaunted a thick tuft at the back of his head.

Most names were derived from the names of Gods. It was believed that on your deathbed, if you had the Lord's name (also your son's) on your lips, your place in heaven was assured.

The second born child was named after maternal grandparents, reflecting India's patriarchal society. With no family planning, names had also to be found for an ever-increasing brood of children. For the third, fourth and so on, there were no prescribed rules. Usually they were named after the kula-devata (the family deity), or after specific gods and goddesses based on promises made to that god during domestic crisises.

As India's freedom movement gained momentum, people expressed their support by naming children Subash and Lakshmi. When India attained freedom, Bharat and Bharati became hot favourites. When the Second World War ended with victory for the Allies, my own sister was named Vijaya, for Victory.

Then in the post-independence era came our celluloid heroes. Every house had a Rajesh, an Anand, or a Dilip. Although the movie-star craze still continues, our cricket champions are their competitors. There are hundreds of Sachin's all over India.

In modern times, with intercaste marriages and nuclear families, couples have a wider choice in naming their projeny. They choose from books and lists, and from the Internet. Persian names are increasingly becoming popular. And once the first born is named, the second child's name is selected so that it either starts with the same alphabet, or rhymes or sounds pleasing when both names are said together. Ashan-Ahan. Deepa-Roopa. Akash-Aditya. Many Punjabi families pick names that have a Westernised feel to them - Bunty, Pinky, Babli and Sweetie, for example.

From an era where ancestral names were simply reused, naming has now become an art, a reflection of personal taste.

12 comments:

CanisLupus said...

Awesome, this is so RK Narayanish.!!!!!! Reading the first part of your blog took me back to Paanch Bldg, where my mamas, paati and my cousins, Periya Ramu, Ara Mottai,Goregaon Ramu, Dropout Venkatesh, Brush Mandai (yours truly) and others would congregate for holidays and festivals . My favorite maami was "Maanathu Mami", since they had a stuffed deer in their house.

Joy said...

This is my first time here and I really enjoyed the blog written by 3 generations. As far as names go, people now prefer smaller, simpler names. Sometimes, they want a unique name and that could result up in a real funny one like khayang

Can I blogroll you?

Deepa Krishnan said...

Joy, yes of course you can blogroll Mumbai Magic :)

By the way, why is Khayang funny? It sounds quite exotic to me, like a name from the snowy Himalayas!

- Deepa

Charu said...

interesting! what I find funny is not just these "pet" names but they way they stick to the person till death - old women being called 'baby' and 'chellam' - and why, my own dad, is the eldest in the family and is called 'thambi' to this day by everyone, even his younger brother and sisters!

CanisLupus said...

DK, doesn't K(h)ayang mean old woman/elderly grandmother ? its kind of like naming your kid 'Uncle' / 'Aunty' ;)

Joy said...

DK, I came to know about the name khayang when I was 7 years old and I could not understand what was the meaning. But now, it seems okay. Sorry about that.

Kumudha said...

Such an interesting post.

I never knew that kids were named after paternal grandfather or paternal grandmother. As far as I know, kids are named after their paternal grandparent, only if the grandparent is dead.

I know many who have same names as thier grandparents. But, their grandparents were dead at that time.

dhika said...

Very interesting observation about names. The good old fashioned names seem suitable only for the local 'kirana' or cloth stores for eg Radha Stores, Sharada Textiles, Lakshmi Super Market. It is the age of the Aryans, Rahuls, Aditis and the like. Some have to even consider how the name would have to be shortened if they have to stay abroad - Sid for Siddharth!!

Anonymous said...

I think the naming ceremony as written in the post is a tradition with the South Indians and not from the north or the east or the west of India.

Deepa Krishnan said...

Every Hindu has a namkaran, a naming ceremony. This is done across the country.
http://festivals.iloveindia.com/rituals/naamkaran.html

The way naamkaran is done varies, but it is one of the 16 samskaras prescribed for Hindus.

- Deepa

Prakash said...

I stumbled on this blog today and so thoroughly enjoyed it that I have decided to become a regular.

Kumudha, I have been named after my grandpop and he was alive then. Thus my name came to be Parameswaran and though in the US for over 10 years now, I continue to carry the torch. Actually it has been beneficial as that itself is the start of a conversation.I, also get some pleasure over the americans having trouble to pronounce it and then asking me if they were correct. This enables me to make some blunders of my own and ask the same question to them.

So, it's all good.

Prakash said...

Canis, your comment also took me back to Matunga and a scenario in which there were too many similar names in the same street or building. Thus Mani became Metal Box Mani, ACC Mani, times mani etc,etc.

On a lighter vein there was a mama on our street who used to continuously scratch his body. Maybe the poor guy had eczema or something but the mama became rava ladoo mama.