Newspaper headlines announce the name of Harry and Meghan Markle’s baby daughter–‘Lilibet’. And one marvels at what happened to all those Anne, Alice, Beatrice, and Margaret, the darlings of British Royalty for generations. For those who didn’t follow ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, Lilibet is the nickname for the baby’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, derived from the mispronunciation of her own name when she was an infant.
Thus defying the traditional baby names, I think the young couple has rebelled upon a trend–the quest to brand one’s child with something unique and personal, and even quirky.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose | By any other name would smell as sweet.” — Yet I wonder–WOULD a rose be as nice if instead called cabbage or a cactus?
Shakespeare must have played mischief when he asked — ‘what’s in a name?’ Well, just about everything, if you are trying to buy an apartment in Mumbai, or applying for membership in a century-old gymkhana, or even filing for a government job application!
Name is a proper noun, a personal moniker attached to one’s identity. It is our Unique Identifier, our centuries-old Adhaar card — so we better pay attention to it.
It’s fascinating how the naming protocols developed. Each generation lives in a different time and space and their conventions reflect contemporaneous sensibilities.
Describing these covenants for a great and diverse society like India is an insurmountable task (and I am not much qualified), but VERY broadly–
My grandparents grew up in pre-independence India when families were large, and one mostly lived their entire life, within a radius of 50–100 miles from the place of their birth. India of that time (c1930s) had one-fourth the population of today, and 85% of them lived in the agrarian countryside. Girls’ education was a privilege for the elite, if at all; and marriage by the age of puberty was a norm. Religion and rituals were an important part of daily life.
Their names had a first name-middle name-surname structure. Our parents’ first name came from the pantheons of gods and deities, the middle name was a multi-purpose placeholder, and the surname denoted the caste, sub-caste (gotra), etc. In the south of India, the names also included a village, name of the father, and so on. For a certain E.V. Ramasamy, E stood for Erode (village name), and V stands for Venkatappa, the father’s name.
The long names perhaps necessitated a short nickname (or pet name), though it never found a place in official records–Golu, Pappu, Rani, Guthi… There is a character in Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy — Rang Birangi — Police Inspector Dhurandhar Bhatawdekar-played by Utpal Dutt-called Dhuru or Dhuriya, at home. I still feel the gravitas of Dhurandhar, with spic-span uniform and gleaming service belt at the police station, and a more approachable Dhuru at home, in a loose vest, with a cup of tea, sprawled on a recliner in front of a 21” B&W TV!
My parents grew up in post-independence India that saw great social transitions. Urban migration kicked in and people moved farther away from their place of birth as new opportunities opened up. Education levels improved, families became nuclear, females started working, and urbanization weakened the village-based identities.
Parents’ generation was more daring in their selection and thus our first names did not confine to just Gods and Goddesses-though the middle name started falling out of favor. The surname, however, remained the moniker of one’s caste identity.
The attachment to one’s roots got tenuous and limited to annual visits to village family priest, guruji, or astronomer, called in for creating horoscope or suggesting a name or initial that bore celestial benediction.
In our time, nicknames met a different fate. Originally coined as a short term of endearment by and for the immediate family (Pappu, Bablu, Gitti, Tindali), they embarrassed us by its vernacular, and we quickly swept them under the carpet. After all, which self-respecting Padmabhar Pratap would bear to be called a Pappu in public?
But the desire for that short endearment re-emerged as we hit adolescence. But this time our peers and friends chose the name on our terms, and with a touch of modernity — Siddhartha Singh became Sid and T Raghvanshi Rao was Rags. Venky just rolled off the tongue better than Venkateshwaran, and a Sandip gladly accepted being Sandy.
And lest this leaning to the west is sneered by an older generation, be reminded, this urge to align with the winner is centuries old. That’s how Pal became Paul, Lal became Lall, and Mumbai turned into Bombay!
Our generation maintained the naming trends, but astrologers and horoscopes lost sway. In my case, both I and my wife named our kids with short, easy-to-pronounce names–that obviated the need for a nickname. Far away from home, and in those pre-internet days, we turned to a book by Menaka Gandhi, to decide on names. My parents never believed in family pandit, so that was never in play. Our only fear was to evade the naming fiasco where the chosen ‘unique’ name is sometimes shared by four other kids in school! Luckily, that didn’t happen.
And the surname remained standing as the book-end.
Through these generational changes, the surname has remained constant, deaf to changing sensibilities. In India, the surname has defined a person’s identity for centuries. Being a ‘Sharma’, ‘Iyer’ or a ‘Gupta’ signals a certain privilege; or lack of it. It opens doors for some and closes on others. This was the oldest ‘Old Boys Club’. This was the core upon which society operated for inclusion or prejudice. This was the slant of the playing field that promoted some, to the detriment of others. This was the stake in the ground that tethered the limits of one’s circumambulation through life.
Surname (Last name) is the ancestral blessing, or bane, depending on one’s luck in the lottery of birth.
I recall my growing-up years when an introduction at a social function will soon result in a flurry of an intricate mental Rolodex, where linkages and relationships would be revealed. Surnames were the key used to decode the person’s position in the caste hierarchy.
The first name was the parent’s discretion, the surname was a given. First name was de facto, surname de jure. First name could be an aspiration, a metaphor, or a hope for happiness, success, wealth, or celestial linkage; surname rooted one to a certain reality.
The first name was a call to Karma; the surname was the given Dharma.
Until now, the first names carried some literal meaning, an aspiration, or a promise. But now, one hears newer names–Sia, Dia, Ryan, Anika, Neev, Myrah…., which have no literal meaning, just an attitude. They seem to be coined in some Karan Johar Academy and are easy on tongue, light and luminous, much like a curated Instagram post of pastel-colored cupcakes.
Baby-naming is turning into a competitive sport, with parents vying to find a name that no one else has discovered. There is a race to christen their newborns with one-of-a-kind names guaranteed to turn heads.
A lot of parents ignore the standard lexicon and look instead to place names, invented names, international names, and names that defy gender stereotypes. These first names, Reyan, Tia and the like, are names that could fit into any culture or global city.
There is a delicious piece–“The class of Kaira, Shyra and Shanaya in Bollywood” by Sohini Chattopadhyay, where she calls them ”First World Yoga Names”. Linked in footnotes.
These names are embraced by a small niche of highly-educated, English-speaking, westernized global citizens that have risen in the last 15–20 years. They live in the top 6–7 cities of India; concentrated in distinct clusters (Gurugram, not Lajpat Nagar, South Bombay, not Ghatkopar). They order a cold press juice through some fancy app, carry the latest I-phones, meet for a vanilla latte at Starbucks, shop at Anokhi, Good Earth, and go for a vacation abroad. Their kids go to international schools, and undergraduate from foreign universities, or NLS, OP Jindal, Shiv Nadar, or Ashoka. This new marker needs a new way to be cued. And there comes the first name as a signal to convey a new privilege. In this slot of society, ‘Kaabi Yadav’ has a better resonance than ‘Mohan Lal Sharma’, other things equal.
To them, being a vegan is an environmental and not a religious choice. They chopper drop on Kedarnath/Uttarakhand as a trekking destination, and not as a religious compulsion. Their spiritual sustenance comes from Sri Sri or Jaggi Vasudevan, and not Ramdev or Asaram.
This demographic is Hindu-centric, not a surprise when 80% of India is Hindu. But within that vast pool, the distinctions of upper/lower castes is blurred. They have found success in the opportunities afforded by new liberalized India in the last two decades, through high-paying corporate jobs, tech startups, or the good old entrepreneurship. Accomplishment predicates inclusion in this class, and not the surname afforded by birth.
They are making life choices, based on compatibility and not caste. Anecdotally, one hears a lot more instances of inter-caste, inter-faith alliances–
check out this Instagram link for many such stories — #Indialoveproject
They are largely self-made and do not feel the need to use their surname as means of identity. They seem to have uprooted the stake of a surname that defined the limits of success in their parents’ life. They are the karmaveer, and they are using their kids’ first name as a virtue signal of their station in life.
Sajith Pai has carved this demographic in his epic piece of “Indus valley playbook”.
In brief, he estimates this slice to be c 15 million (about 4 million homes), with a disposable income analogous to a western country. They are alpha consumers and prime targets for affluent brands. While the top corporates drool at their consumption patterns and hold them in their marketing crosshairs, politically, the group is too small to matter. Yet.
In smaller towns, I can see these new-age Yoga names become a cause of levity and disdain. Sia? Most traditionalists cringe at the idea of naming their daughter after Sita–perhaps for the arduous life she led, or maybe just because she crossed a line. Then you have verbs like Diya, Lia, etc. which can easily be turned into jokes. Yet, in today’s world of ubiquitous smartphones and Instagram, one wonders how long before a young couple in Bareilly or Ratlam adopts these names in the footsteps of some new-age influencer?
Time will tell if this new niche of society is a true meritocracy, beyond caste and class discrimination or it’s a new class with its unique cultural norms, practices, and pacts for admittance, association, or exclusion. Watch this space….
Sometime soon in future
So, the way ‘name’ the basic unit of human identity is metamorphosing with changing time, it might be a fun thought-experiment to imagine the future.
The year is 2051. The world is now two distinct halves–‘Haves’, and ‘Have Nots’, euphemistically called the ‘Developed’ and the ever ‘Developing’.
The developed world is facing steep negative population growth, which the government tries to balance with politically contentious immigration policies. The state provides huge subsidies to bring up a child. The institution of marriage has become obsolete; sex is now safer with AR/VR and a host of haptic sensors. And it’s disassociated with procreation. Those few who want to raise a child can choose from customized options available through gene sequencing and IVF.
All members of the developed world carry a unique identification, issued by FBG (Facebook Google holding Conglomerate) by way of a crypto bar code that contains one’s demographics, medical bio, political affiliations, sexual biases, and so on. It is refreshed in real-time and acts as one’s passport to get anywhere.
Second generation Ria in a suburb of Norway, and her Turkish girlfriend have brought home their customized baby. FBG has issued 10329$FHC as the baby’s crypto code. For sentimental reasons, and with the support of her partner, she has chosen a nom de plume after consulting “Nameberry” app. She has settled for “Madan Lal Khurana” for the newborn, and she hopes it will remind her of the by lanes of Delhi, from where her own parents had migrated.
You are invited to virtual Namprashan sanskaar — details in the QR code below.
Rose, by any other name, still smells as sweet… Bard, after all, had a point.