Some people, like politicians and film stars, thrive on controversy. Their careers depend on publicity – good or bad. Psychological studies have proved that bad news attracts more attention, and therefore spreads faster and wider, than good. So, to be in the eyes of the public, ‘stars’ (or their PR agents) ‘leak’ rumours or scandals against themselves. They prefer being written against. Being ignored means death.
But to be controversial and become the centre of a raging social media debate from birth is the privilege of the scion of the Pataudi dynasty. Saif Ali Khan Pataudi and his wife Kareena Kapoor, named him Taimur and thereby touched off a debate on the social media like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. What was the right of the parents, to chose a name which an individual has to live with for his or her whole life, has come into the public domain.
The ostensible reason for the digital storm is that the name happens to be that of Taimur Lang (Langda -lame- shortened. He had a deformed leg). Taimur was an Islamic invader from Mongolia who had attacked and sacked India, especially Delhi, with unequaled barbarity. Over 1.7 crore people were killed and thousands of women raped. But he was not the only one who did it. Other invaders and rulers like Ghajni, Sikandar, Babur, Tipu and Aurangazeb emulated him. Even after that the name Sikandar was given to many in India, without any protests. And yet India is home to the second largest number of Muslims in the word! To get their votes, some call India intolerant!
This is the first time naming has touched off a public controversy. Muslim actors marrying Hindu actresses (Saif, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan) gave Muslim names to their children and no one objected. Hindu actors marrying Muslim actresses (Sunil Dutt, Aditya Pancholi) gave their children Hindu names without any protests. Pankaj Kapoor calling his son (with a Muslim wife) Shahid raised no dissent.
Why now? Would a controversy have arisen over the name had Saif not been a Mulsim? Is it a sign of ‘intolerance’ raising its head because a party that believes in Hindutva has come to power? On the face of it, it appears efforts are being made by vested interests to whip up controversy over what is a purely private issue.
On the other hand no Hindu public personality has named children after Ravana or Dhritarashtra (or Shurpanka or Kaikeyi for girls). So it is not known what the reaction would be, if they did. Are Adolf (Hitler) Joseph (Goebbels) popular in Germany, where neo-Nazism is said to be rising? We do not know, but it can be argued are that Adolf and Joseph are first names, not surnames.
Saif and Kareena (if she had a role in it at all) may have thought of Taimur only as it means iron (and so the boy a future Iron Man) in Persian. Can we give them the benefit of doubt to say they did not have the invader in mind?
Hero worship is common all over the South, more so in Kerala. So not only Stalin and Lenin but also (Subhash Chandra) Bose, (Charu) Mujumdar (Ajay) Ghosh and names of some Communist leaders are given to the newborn. Not just the first names but even surnames identified with other linguistic communities are used. In AP names like Tagore and Jhansi are quite common.Nehru and Gandhi were the names of two gang leaders of Vijayawada.
The system of names is different in the North and the South. Northern surnames often indicate caste and are used in full with and first names abbreviated, like M.S. Dhoni. Dhoni is the surname and given name is Mahendra Singh. In Maharashtra, the middle name (second initial) is the father’s name while in Tamil Nadu the first initial is the name of either father or the place the family hails from.
Caste names like Iyer, Nadar, Chetti or Mudaliar, used after the given names, are not surnames. In Bihar the surnames which indicate caste, like Prasad, Sinha or Yadav, are being dropped to make a show of castelessness, while casteism dominates the state’s politics.
In Andhra the surname is abbreviated and the given name is the one that is used, often with a suffix like ‘Rao’ or ‘Kumar’ (or Devi in case of women), which are just decorative and have no meaning. A ‘Rao’ in Karnataka is always a Brahmin; in Andhra Rao can be used by a Dalit or a member of any caste. Both in Andhra and Karnataka some suffixes like Reddy, Naidu, Sharma, Shastry or Bhat also indicate caste. When they are not used, the caste can be known only if the surname is written out in full, which is the new trend in the two Telugu states.
A common system of names for all Indians could not be evolved so far, causing a lot of confusion and problems in passports or IDs. A new fashion, especially in Hindu middle-class families, of using ‘modern’ artificial names instead of the names of dieties is emerging in the name of secularism. So Trisha, Ayan, Keya, Ashna, Ahana or Ishan are the favourite names.
In all communities, names of dieties and saints were normal in India earlier, but this is becoming less common, especially in the urban middle class. Often grand parents’ names (or their modernised versions) are given to the newborn, on the tenth day or even later, at elaborate naming ceremonies. The Western practice of submitting one name each of a boy and a girl to the hospital or maternity home to enable it to give a birth certificate in the child’s name is rarely practiced here.
The most interesting names – normally highflown Sanskritised ones – are given by the Bengalis – as also nicknames. The minute a Bengali child is born an elder, usually a grandmother, annouces “Koki is born”. Or it may be Kesto or Tutu or Bulu. And the name sticks to the person till death – at least in the family. Even before getting a name, every Bengali gets a nickname.
In olden days infant mortality was was very high and when many children die during delivery, the parents or elders of the family decide on an odd or ugly name for the child if it survives. Thus Huchhappa or Pichhaiah (meaning ‘mad man’ in Kannada and Telugu respectively) or some such name is given in the hope that it would result in the survival of the child. Dravidisation of names has become a fashion in Tamil Nadu.
Some names are very common in some areas. It is said, “If you throw a stone blindly in Vijayawada, it will hit either a Subba Rao or a pig,” as the town has plenty of both. Similarly Manjunath or Somashekhar are very common in Karnataka. Every state has some such names.
Only in India can such debates go viral.There have been agitations, even violent, for naming airports, universities and projects after eminent (caste) leaders. They are decided on the basis of caste politics and not the person’s eminence.
In the fight between prejudices and rationality – over names or anything else – it is the prejudices that win in India. Name a prejudice and we have it.