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What’s in a name?

Growing up, my first name was a cross that I bore as patiently as I could. In every classroom I transited through, there were inevitably another three – if not more – Seemas, and the opportunities for confusion proliferated.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2009 18:21 IST
Seema Goswami

Growing up, my first name was a cross that I bore as patiently as I could. In every classroom I transited through, there were inevitably another three – if not more – Seemas, and the opportunities for confusion proliferated.

Teachers found their own ways of handling this problem of plenty. Some christened us Seema One, Two and Three. Others took to calling us by our surnames. And then there were those who called us by our first names and the first letter of our surnames.

I consoled myself by thinking that Seema G sounded like Seemaji, and wasn’t it fun to have grown-ups call you by such a respectful honorific. But honestly, it wasn’t fun at all. Every child secretly wishes to be thought of as special. And there’s nothing special at all about sharing your first name with half a dozen other children in school.

Not that it is any better when you’re all grown up and working in a newspaper office. At one time or another I have shared office space with a couple of other Seemas, and while all of them were very nice indeed, I did tire of having my calls forwarded to their extension and vice versa. And I’ve lost count of the times when I have had conversations at complete cross-purposes with people who assume that I’m another Seema altogether (Guha, Mustafa, Chandra, go on, take your pick).

And yet, if you were to wander into a classroom today, you would be hard pressed to find even a single Seema. The name seems to have gone right out of fashion. None of my friends or relatives has kids called Seema. Hell, even the days when Hindi film heroines were called Seema – a favourite name of Javed Akhtar in his script-writing heyday – are over.

Talking of Javed Akhtar and his Angry Young Man persona for Amitabh Bachchan (Zanjeer, Deewar and many, many others) when was the last time you heard someone naming their son Vijay? It’s gone right out of style like those other old faithfuls, Rajesh, Ramesh, Kamal, or even Shankar. But strangely enough, Shiv remains as popular as ever, along with Karan and Arjun, those old mythological stand-bys.

But increasingly these days, when someone wants a strong, traditional name for their sons, they seem to go right back to the Vedas. Thus, we have Aryan, Aryamaan, Aryavir, and whatever other variations on Arya that you can think of. In fact, parents today seem to take great pride in choosing the most unusual names for their kids. The most recent examples I’ve come across include Digant, Agastya, Vidyottma, Manugya and Mrigyanka. So what if no one can ever pronounce them in the playground? That’s what nicknames are for, right? So, little Soundarya becomes Sandy; Moksha is shortened to Mickey; Samaira turns into Sammy; well, you get the picture.

Though, I have to say, when it comes to nicknames there is no beating the Bengalis. Jhontu, Montu, Bhutu, Tutu, the ‘pet names’ just roll off the tongue. The Punjabis try and keep up with their Sweetys and Lovelys not to mention their Pickles and Chuckles, but somehow there’s simply no contest.

But no matter how hard you try to give your kid a name that marks him or her out as different, there’s a special Sod’s Law that operates to ensure that several others of that generation end up with the same monicker. My uncle, for instance, named his daughter Priyanka in the fond hope that this was an unusual name. But lo and behold, when they went to enroll her in kindergarten, there were a dozen other Priyankas queuing up alongside.

It’s much the same story with Niharika or Neha, as the name is sometimes shortened to. Clearly, it was the name of choice some two decades ago for lyrically-minded parents, because these days it is impossible to get through the day without meeting a couple of 20-something Nehas. Three of my friends have daughters named Niharika, and I’m sure they had much the same problems in the classroom as I did growing up.

Then, there was a phase when Russian names were all the rage: Natasha, Tasha, Tanya, Sonya, etc. Though thankfully, the Punjabi tendency to give ‘Western’ names to their kids – Pamela and Monica are the ones that come most readily to mind – seems to be over.

Of late, the names that seem to have gained in popularity are religion-neutral ones that seem to be a tribute to our secular society. Ayesha, Aliya, Sara, Sheylla, Tahira are some of the names that parents from across the religious divide are giving their daughters. And Aseem, Kabir, Samir, Sahil, Suhail are their most popular male equivalents.

But all things considered, we have a lot to be grateful for. In India, at least until now, there is no propensity to saddle kids with names that are guaranteed to be an embarrassment to them when they grow up. Even our celebrities seem to be remarkably restrained in this regard.

Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow who named her daughter Apple, Nicole Kidman who christened hers Sunday Rose, or David Bowie who called his son Zowie (not surprisingly, he grew up and changed his name by deed poll) our celebrity kids go by relatively normal handles like Arav and that old faithful, Aryan.

Though, I’m betting that when they turn up in school, there will be a dozen other Aravs and Aryans to keep them company.