'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Of Names And Naming Wars

When people choose modern 'all-India' names such as Pravin, Mohan and Sunil,... for their children, they don't realize they are contributing to the marginalization and demise of rich local cultural traditions. For all their national - and indeed pan-Hindu - appeal and reach, names such as Sunil or Mohan are hardly 'pure Desi'. Indeed, the correct Sanskrit original of Sunil is 'Sunilah' and 'Sunil' is a by-product of the forceful violation of Sanskrit by the Turko-Iranian syllabaries brought by Muslim invaders. ... it is but a sad fact that for each baby christened Sunil or Mohan, there is a Koran, a Chappan or an Othenan (some old Malayali Male names)consigned to oblivion.

That was eminent Malayali writer O.V.Vijayan, sometime around 1990.


The other day, I read this bit said by Ghelubhai Nayak, an elderly Gandhian social worker and activist who works among the poor (and largely tribal) population of the Dangs region, Gujarat (Times of India, March 10, 2009):

"During my work (among Tribals), I realized that changing the names of Tribals will make a lot of difference to them. With names like Ravio, Thagio, Budhiyo, Somo, Mangu, Ravji,... they stick out like sore thumbs. And if we want them to join the mainstream society, they should not feel awkward... I gave them names like Sukhdev, Mangalbhai, Ramesh... and they, in turn have learnt to give more commonplace names to their children."

As is well-known, Dangs has for long been witnessing a full-blown turf war for the souls of its population, between Christian Evangelists and Hindu 'Reconverters'. And 'Ghelukaka', while probably not a Sangh Parivar-member, is among those actively involved from the Hindu side - his interest appears to be more in preventing conversion rather than retrieving converted souls. At any rate, it is obvious that his renaming activity has a strong religious (communal, if you wish) angle to it, something the Times report has not mentioned at all.

In this same conversion-context, let me quote an old acquaintance, a Telugu by name (say) Vinay. "My grandparents were very poor. They were approached by some local Missionaries who said they will educate their son - my dad that is - for free. In return they requested that they be allowed to give him a Christian name. So, my dad, who is still basically a Hindu, has the name 'Asirvadam' (a standard Desi Christian name meaning 'blessing')."


Note 1: Interestingly, Ghelubhai did not apply the 'joining the mainstream' argument to his own name. 'Ghelu' appears a very local, most probably pure Gujju name - though it sounds somewhat similar to the (now old-fashioned) coastal Marathi name 'Zilu' (pronounced 'Jheelu'), which may well be the only purely Desi (Hindu, if you wish) name beginning with a 'z'.

Note 2: And O.V.Vijayan himself named his son 'Madhu' - which is in no way a specifically Keralan name, although there are thousands of Mallus belonging to my generation with that name. And up North, Madhu is usually a female name; and 'typically dense-mooched' Mallu migrants who answer to that name do cause a lot of confusion.


A recent (post 1950) phenomenon is the sharply increasing prevalence of 'mainstream' Indian (even obviously Hindu) first names among the Christian communities in the South - and to a lesser extent, practising Hindus adopting Christian-sounding names. It is not clear if it is any urge to 'join the mainstream' that drives these trends. And such naming is often observed to lead to rather 'interesting' social difficulties. Indeed, for all our 'secularist' efforts and pretensions, one-on-one behavior and conversations between individuals is still strongly moulded (at least regulated) by the information the parties have of each others social (caste + religious) identity - and the deliberate(?) obfuscation of this identity by adopting 'neutral' or even the 'wrong' kind of names often leads to 'troublesome' things (critical remarks on other religions, politically dubious jokes, etc..) being articulated to an inappropriate audience.

I will leave it to a better-equipped future chronicler to comment on these naming fashions among people - whether the trend persists, what effects it has in the long run etc...

But for now, let me briefly look at the *institutional* name 'Dharmaram', given to a famous Bangalore college. When I first heard the name, it *felt* like it has something to do with 'Ram', the Hindu God. Then when I visited the place as a schooler, I was quite surprised to see an out-and-out Christian Theological institution - not for long though, as a resident priest explained the name to us: "In Sanskrit, 'Dharma' means 'Virtue' and 'Aram' (with both 'a's stretched in pronunciation,like in ... 'Ram') means 'Garden'. So, the full word means 'The garden of virtue'"

The derivation had sounded quite smart (and appropriate even at a physical level - the institution maintains some really beautiful gardens); but later I understood it has a little but non-trivial problem: There is a Sanskrit word 'aramam' which means Garden all right - but there is no 'aram'.

One could readily argue that the college name is actually Hindi rather than Sanskrit and neuter nouns in Sanskrit often lose an ending 'am' when adopted by Hindi (eg: 'anandam' went to anand') and so 'aramam' could go to 'aram'. But that is not going to work either! The word is already 'taken'; there is already an 'aram' in Hindi, which came perhaps from Persian, and means 'pleasure' or 'relaxation'. And 'dharma' too, when going from Sanskrit to Hindi has a subtle meaning shift and begins to mean 'religion'. So, if the language is taken to be Hindi, 'Dharmaram' will be a not-entirely-sensible compound of two words meaning 'religion' and 'pleasure'.

Of course, the 'problem' has a simple resolution: to change the name of the institution to 'Dharmaramam' which sounds Sanskrit and properly means 'The garden of virtue' as intended. But then, it won't quite have the effect - and impact - that comes from sounding interestingly close to 'Ram'.


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