India Debunked #7: What’s in a Name?

I was teased about my name as a child. My name is Tania. In the Malay language, ‘tania’ means ‘to ask’. Cruel joke or just coincidence? The story goes that my sisters got to choose between Rachel or Tania for my name. I was too precocious to care about the teasing but it did happen a lot. When I moved to Australia as a teenager, I finally made peace with my name and now I love it. I can’t imagine myself as a Rachel.

In India, name matters a lot.

A person’s last name can be used to identify their ‘native place’ (an Indianism meaning birthplace or ancestral land), tribe or caste. In the past, name and caste were entwined with ancestral occupations, much like we have the Smiths, Millers, Brewers, Weavers and Cutlers in Europe. (Fun fact: Scrivener, my husband’s last name, was the guild of writers and scribes). These days, affirmative action and educational attainment has led to a socially mobile younger generation being able to choose their own careers and transcend the traditional occupations of their caste, in urban areas at least.

There are 22 official languages in India and hundreds of other languages with fewer speakers. This land is diverse and its people even more so. It was common to hear colleagues from Delhi and from Chennai conversing in English as that was their common language. As such, names sound completely different depending on whether your native place is in the north, south, east or west of India.

First names are steeped in meanings and often derive from the names of gods and deities in one of the Hindu sacred texts like the vedas, upanishads, Mahabharata or Bhagavad Gita. Priests and gurus are consulted when babies are born in order to draw up a list of suitable names based on their astrology and numerology charts.

Here in Delhi, most of my Indian friends and acquaintances are Punjabi. Through them, I have been introduced to the amusing world of Punjabi nicknames. Alongside the common first names of Sunita, Anita, Pooja, Priyanka, Rahul, Saurabh, Amit and Gaurav, we also have the nicknames of Dimple, Simple, Happy, Honey, Chotu (small), Golu (fun loving and roly poly), Guddu, Rocky, Pappi (kisses), Monu, Sonu, Pinky and Baby. Some of these nicknames are even legitimate first names these days, they tell me. Have you heard of Hirdesh Singh? Probably not, because Hirdesh is an Indian rapper better known as Honey Singh.

The majority of its population is Hindu. Which is why it may come as a surprise to some that the most common male first name in Delhi is Mohammad. Many forget that Delhi was ruled by Islamic rulers for around 800 years. Fanatic Hindu nationalists would even have us wipe out the entire history of Mughal India from school textbooks, in the same way that the Persio-Arabic script for Urdu has been wiped out from schools. Along with many cultural treasures written in Urdu, the language of Delhi during the height of its renaissance.