A few weeks ago, I was invited to the birthday party of a distant brother-in-law. His is an old aristocratic family and most of the guests would be from the erstwhile aristocracy too, so I stuck on a tie and wore black shoes. It was a cheerful party, with conversation and the juice of the barley flowing along easily without ever threatening to overflow the banks of propriety.
Shikaar, share-cropping and Shahrukh Khan were duly discussed, as were pistols, politics and polygamy. Gliding between repartee and refill, I was almost run over by a trolley bearing the large cake festooned with little candles. Everyone gathered around; the candles were blown out and the cake was duly stabbed and people started singing ‘Happy Birthday’. My brother-in-law is about a decade-and-a-half older than me and, of course, I do not address him by name. So, as we approached the part that goes ‘Happy birthday, dear …’, I fell silent.
And so did each of the other thirty-odd guests.
There was an awkward silence. Then someone laughed self-consciously and we sang the last line extra loud to cover up the awkwardness, and the party carried on. Just a little hiccup that underlined a curious aspect of our culture.
Our names are beautiful, carefully chosen invocations of gods and graces, so we don’t want to get them all worn out by over-use. A name is probably the least used possession of any Indian. Soon as you’re born, a benevolent close relative gazes philosophically at you and serenely bestows upon you a nickname – Pinky, Cheenu, Pappu, Jolly (worse if you’re Bengali). It’s your working title for everyday use. By the time the formal nomenclatural tussles are settled, your nickname is already entrenched and the only person calling you Sharadendu is the clerk who writes it on your birth certificate. It’s a beautiful name; pity it won’t be used at all for the next three years.
Like the party frock that’s only taken out of the cupboard for special occasions, your name is given its first airing when you’re enrolled at school. And even then it is sparingly used (averaging about five times a week when the class teacher calls out the attendance roll). Your friends, if you have any at that early age, will probably call you Shoddy and that’s the name that’ll travel with you to college and maybe beyond.
You’re still Pinky, Cheenu, Pappu or Jolly at home (Tonku if your home is in Bengal), but you pick up other titles as you go along. Kaka, mama, tau, phoopha, mausa – our relationships have very specific names instead of the catch-all ‘uncle’ of the West. In fact our uncles aren’t related to us at all; they are neighbours, friends’ fathers and father’s friends.
Thankfully, your nickname relaxes its grip a bit when you get married – if you’re female. You now stop being Pinky / Cheenu and become Tonku Ki Bahu to the elders in your new home and kaki, chachi, mami, bhabhi to those who are younger. A year later, a new name happens. Now you could be Paltu Ki Amma or perhaps Kallu Ki Mai. In fact, many women choose early motherhood just to stop being called Tonku Ki Bahu.
I have at least three aunts whose names I do not know. Not distant aunts I’ve only met twice ever; these are ladies who frequently dandled me on their knee in my dandling days and now regularly yell at me whenever they get the chance. I have known them all my life, but that does not qualify me to know their names. The first is called Taiji, the second is also called Taiji, and the third is Kaki. To differentiate between two kakis, you may refer to the families they belong to or the places they hail from. Thus Kachaura Wali would refer to a specific person, and the entire biradari may know her by that name.
Of course a husband knows his wife’s name; but he does not use it in public, or even in front of close relatives. Her name is an intimate detail, rather like the birthmark on her shoulder. And because it’s a detail, you’ll only come across it on official records. The first time I read my mother’s name was when she signed it on my school report card. I’d heard it before that, during the long summer holidays at my maternal grandparent’s house. Her maika (parents’ house) is the only place where a married woman’s name is freely used. And the real reason we have such long summer holidays in India is so that women can escape being called Kallu Ki Mai for a month and just revert to being Bitti for a while. Or maybe Rinku.
A proper name is like a precious jewel, and must not be paraded on every trifling pretext. A name is a thing to be taken seriously, with due pomp and honour. It looks best on certificates and wedding cards and high value cheques; and it may be that many names have been written and read more often than they have been pronounced.
The thought struck me recently while I was gazing around in a doctor’s waiting room. All those framed degrees and participation certificates (even one from a painting contest) – they weren’t hung on the walls so you’d call him Dr Sarkar instead of Daak Saab. They were the nomenclatural equivalent of wearing a suit. They were the public airing of his name – and a defiant middle finger to the loving uncle who had gazed fondly into his newborn face and whispered: “Bholtu.”