My new dear friend Kamakshi (of the matching elephant nightgowns) who I stayed with in Mysore told me a story about Indian names that has stuck with me. When her son was little, she and her husband were interested in hiring someone to act as a babysitter for him and help around the house. The young woman that they hired introduced herself as “Baby.” She became close to their family, and after a few days, Kamakshi went up to her and said, “The name ‘Baby’ is all well and good, but tell me, what is your real name?” The girl shook her head and her only reply was, “Nobody cared.”
It took Kamakshi a few seconds to realize she meant that she was never named. That no one in her family had taken the time, or devoted the energy to choosing a name for her. That she had always simply been “Baby”, because that’s what she was.
When Kamakshi shared this story with me, we both had tears in our eyes. Because, if someone doesn’t have a name, doesn’t have a way of defining themselves, of capturing their identity and eccentricities and qualities in a string of syllables, doesn’t have a way of placing themselves into the world, who exactly are they, and who can they be. I can only hope that Baby somehow took ownership of her name, somehow laid claim to Baby as her identity, instead of as a noun.
I think this story is made more pronounced (and Kamakshi, thank you for sharing this story), because in India, names are gifts. The honor of bestowing a name to a child is traditionally given to a much respected older relative, like a grandfather. Kamakshi’s brother Ramesh told me that for a long time Kamakshi herself didn’t have a name because her grandfather had to wait a few months before meeting her. He wanted to see what she was like before deciding what her name should be. The Hindu naming ceremony is a rite of passage, a way for someone to begin belonging to the world. It is why I think those 285 girls with the Hindi name meaning “unwanted” were recently encouraged to choose new names for themselves; I like to think it’s a way for them to find a different way of belonging within the world.
One of Dan’s coworkers Delhi told me that it’s common for children here to ask each other the meaning of their names. It’s a common conversation to be had, and I can’t say it’s that common in the United States. Names and their meanings are important everywhere, but I think in India, like in Bali, they come to stand for much more than individuals. As I discovered through conversations with Savithri, reciting names in India summons great power. Names are a form of prayer. Names from Hindu gods and goddesses act as reminders of their stories and values and lessons and greatness. Names come to stand not only for individual people, but these individual people come to stand for the stories of gods and speak to a shared history and culture.
As I discovered through conversations with linguists, professors and sociologists, names are a political issue here. Currently there is a continuing movement to keep renaming streets and cities named after British generals back to traditional Hindi names. Perhaps less spoken about are the ways in which the caste system comes into play, and how just now people are breaking free of the idea that only certain people are entitled to give their kids certain names.
And everything is changing. Names from mythology are being replaced by names of celebrities. In the south, families are beginning to give their children surnames (which doesn’t traditionally happen there) so that filling out formal documentation in the future will be easier for them. Many families I spoke with listed practicalities like filling out the spaces of a passport application or their child’s application to a college in the U.S. as new crucial considerations to the naming process. Many Indian parents want their child’s name to be able to be able to be pronounced worldwide. And then, in stark contrast to the idea that a name could be (part of) a ticket to an international education, there are baby girls being called the Hindi equivalent of “unwanted” because their families were disappointed by their sex. There’s a new push for more official documentation, a distinction between given names and surnames, and the abandonment of the system of initials. The matriarchal system of naming in Kerala is starting to diminish. Non-Brahmins are using names traditionally used by Brahmins. Couples are starting to give their children names that are a combination of their own names. Parents are naming their children themselves rather than ask their older relatives.
I think India is going to be a dramatically different place in ten years. Or five years. Or two years. And I think these changes will not only be reflected in the food and economy and fashion but also in how people introduce themselves, what they call each other, and what is announced at their children’s naming ceremonies (if they have one). To uncover Indian names in a more thorough way, I would need to be much more focused on my research than I’ve been here, I would need to more fully understand Hindu mythology, the thousand names for each god and goddess, the local deities and traditions in each region, and I would need to be in India for years.
But I’m walking away with stories and that’s enough for me right now. I’m left thinking about names as stand-ins for myths, names as stand-ins for hierarchy, names as stand-ins for showing respect to elders, names as a way of both preserving tradition and of bringing in the new. I’m left hoping that as this country of extremes continues to change, someone like Baby can find a way of defining herself within it (that is, if she hasn’t already).