lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What's in a name?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...

No, I am not going to blog about Shakespeare, I was just musing about names and meanings.

I thought we had a wonderful name for our dog, named after the celestial hound in Japanese mythology. My mother preferred to call her Silk Smita, because she was so seductive and flirtatious; (my dog, that is. Not Silk Smita, though I must admit there was a voluptuous woman.) and because my dog's name came close to offending Telugu ears and sensibilities.

Would-be parents devote a lot of time and thought to naming their offspring. The child would be saddled with it life-long, after all.

A name after some attribute can be fraught with danger of contradiction.

What if a Lata turned out to be plump, or a Visalakshi a slit-eyed maiden?

Concepts and adjectives aren't without risk, either.

What if Vijay failed at every venture or Abhay turned out timid? A Satya could be mendacious, a Subhashini could have a stutter. Take me, for instance. I am not what my name suggests, at all. :D

Mostly parents used to name their children after family gods or mythological characters.

Even here, there are pitfalls. Naming a daughter Sita could invite the travails of the namesake. You can't saddle a girl with the name Damayanti, in case she gets deserted by her husband, too. Call her Ahalya and risk her falling into adultery? And forget about Draupadi.

And some aspects of the gods and goddesses just won't do. It's not often you find a Kalika or a Chandika. You can't have a Kalabhairav or Yama.

You didn't name girls after celestial maidens either; before the advent of Rambhas, Menakas and Oorvasis in the film industry, that is. They were of easy virtue, after all. Likewise, you don't name boys Suyodhana or Karna or after the other baddies of the classics.

It used to be thought naming girls after rivers was bad luck. (This must be true, I read it in an ancient treatise about auspicious names, the Kamasutra. :D)

Naming a child used to be a major event, with all the relatives pitching in with suggestions. Family priests would cast the horoscope of the new-born and determine the first syllable of an auspicious name which would bring the baby the best luck.

Andhra used to abound with Venkataramanas, and V V S S Raos were all over the place.

But like with everything else, there were fads in naming children too. In the fervour of the Freedom struggle, there were children named after the leaders. You found Tilaks and Boses in Andhra, never mind these were surnames of the leaders.

There were a whole generation of Indiras. When Indira named her children, most of the nation named their offspring the same names, too. When they in turn had children and named them, the nation followed suit.

From naming children after gods and goddesses, the trend shifted to exotic names; elegant and dainty names. Madhulika, Mrinalini; Niharika, or Avanti. Boys got named after Gautama Buddha than gods. Parthasarathi fell out of favour and Arjun was preferred.

All these names have meanings or associations that conjure up the right image. I have problem with some of the modern names that are current though. What on earth does Neha mean? Sneha is friendship and lamp oil in Sanskrit, the mother of most Indian languages. So does Neha mean lifeless, friendless since the negative start seems to suggest it? Or does it mean moisture, as in Niharika, which is a moisture bearing cloudlet?

Naming children after heroes is all well and good, but Bengalis do it differently from the rest of the nation. Only in Bengal do you find people named after anti-heroes. Oh, Karunanidhi named his son Stalin, and the poet Sri Sri named his daughter Lenina, but in Bengal you will find Indrajits, Rumas, Sharmishtas and Devayanis. Oh, and Othellos too.

In a way, this perhaps suggests that Bengalis have a greater grasp of the nuances of the characters, or that they know their classics and mythology better than the rest of the country. Or does it?

Indrajit was a great ascetic and a warrior of repute. Vaali was a good king, too. Akshakumar was a fearsome warrior. But they were all on the losing side.

But Vibishana was the original Quisling. Nobody names their children after him, not even in Bengal. Though Bhishma is admired and boys do get named Devavrata.

But Ruma? Devayani? Sharmistha? Ruma was Sugriva's wife, then Vaali's and then Sugriva's wife again. Devayani was a vindictive and selfish spoilt brat, and Sharmistha was a princess who became a maid.

Only Bengalis seem to think these are names to bestow upon their girl children.



Anonymous The Bard said...

Thats a real bunch of names I can think about...Very funny and thoughful.I ahd some good pals with official names like kabaddi kumar, delhi babu and my neighbour had a golden retriever name venkatakrishnan..

Guess u missed out mallu naming formulas like taking a part of mom's name+part of dad's Suresh and Sharon = Susha or Joseph and Beena = Jobi... some even claim JEStin and UShae=jesus and a book on the theory chirst was from india is gonna make waves like 'da vinci'.. Lets keep our fingers crossed..Adios

10:20 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

I was consciously avoiding being region-specific about trends upto the point when I mentioned the Bong affair with anti-heroes. :)

keep visiting, Bard. Adios

10:32 pm  
Blogger U said...

What does AVANTI mean in Sanskrit?? I saw somewhere it means MODEST in Sanskrit??

5:25 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

U- It means a city, and a woman, according to my dictionary. Nothing about modesty.

12:37 pm  

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