Tuesday, January 03, 2006

What’s in a Name?

Everything, if you ask an Indian, according to this.

Indians strictly refrain from naming their children after members of their family, a custom often followed in the West. It is unheard of for an Indian son to have the same name as his father, and naming children after grandparents, great-aunts or great-uncles, or other such relatives is almost equally rare.

Vikrum writes,

“Names are not only sacred and inviolable but they are also supposed to confer uniqueness on the name holder. Because names are supposed to be unique and descriptive of the name holder, Hindu parents sometimes wait for years before naming their child.”

He further goes on to state,

“In traditional Hindu culture, names are chosen days, weeks, months, or sometimes years after the child’s birth. The rationale is that the parents and others have to see the child, see how he behaves, and gauge his personality before conferring a name upon him.”

And concludes,

“All of this is ironic because the United States is considered an individualistic country, in which the individual is supposed to individually forge his identity. India, in juxtaposition, is considered a family-dominant society in which the family forms a great part of one's identity. It is ironic because the individualistic society (America) has a trend of recycling names in tribute while the family-dominated society (India) stresses individuality in naming.”

An interesting concept, that I have spoken about before , is the Indian convention of using one’s father’s name as a second name of sorts, quite like one would normally use a middle name. Thus, my middle name, Christopher, is often mistakenly assumed to be my Dad’s name, which as you can imagine leads to confusion. Girls too, take on their father’s name (and not their mother’s) as a middle name. In the South though, I am told, both boys and girls use their mother’s name in the middle.

Indian names and surnames are strictly distinguished from each other. Thus, no name is also a surname or vice versa. This is in stark contrast to Moslem cultures where it is quite common for the same name to be used as both a name as well as a surname for different people. A cursory glance through the Pakistani cricket team would clarify my point.

Indians are also careful to distinguish between male and female names. The only prominent exception to this are the Sikhs, who often use the same name for both boys and girls. This, of course, leads to situations like the case of the former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, whose wife is also named Navjot. In the West too, a few names like Alex and Ashley are now unisex.

Personally, I have always been against the idea of one not getting to choose one’s own name. The one thing in this world that is mine, and I don’t even get to select it. I know of at least a few people who, displeased at the names their parents conferred upon them, actually decided to change their names. What’s funnier is that some of them actually switched to names that were even worse than the originals! To me, that’s the equivalent of a woman going to a cosmetic surgeon and saying, “Can you please make my breasts smaller!”

I think I’ll just leave my kids to name themselves, and refer to them as numbers until they’re old enough to do so!

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