All In A Name!

In India, one is apt to find some very curious names. The entire process of naming a child is given a lot of importance. In certain cultures, there are long elaborate naming ceremonies, and finally with the help of ‘divine intervention’ the ‘correct name’ is chosen for the child in question.

Such importance is given to the name of individuals that many children are named after gods and goddesses or famous people. So with time and region, names like Jawaharlal, Subhash, Indira and the like crop up. However, the point here is not the actual naming of children after such ‘iconic’ people, but the significance of the given name in context of the family and its future ramifications. Here in India, it is widely believed that name makes a man.

Thus, Indians do not take it very well when criminals go by the names of great men, especially when the great men in question are “exalted national leaders”. In a recent incident, the Supreme Court has reported been outraged by the fact that a convicted rapist who had to appear before it answered to the name of Jawaharlal Nehru. The judges sitting on the case apparently felt that criminals had no right to the names of national icons. Something should be done to change the names of such offenders, seems to be the widespread feeling of the bench. Thankfully, the judges were not out of their mind and they just made an observation. They were just irritated to have to address – or pronounce on – a rapist with that name. Else the question of the right to one’s name could become embarrassing, one that even the most active judiciary might leave alone. The court cannot be seen to behave like an old fashioned marital home, where the name of the newly arrived daughter-in-law is changed so that the identity bequeathed by her parents is erased for good. The court cannot act like anyone’s in-law or parents, strangely enough, not even the criminals.

A child’s name is often symbolic to its parents’ fond hopes and ideals, given without an inkling of what the child might turn out to be. To a certain extent, parents in India are not fundamentally different from the irate judges in their attitude. There is something almost animistic in the Indians’ approach to names and naming. A name is like a magic token, a kind of verbal amulet, that endows a child with the qualities and virtues it is associated with. The secret prayer hidden in the act of naming is best illustrated in the names of little girls coming at the end of a line of sisters. Their names often signify a plea: “No more, please”. But there is another element in Indian culture that is prominent in the judges‘ remarks- the deification of national leaders. It is as if their names cannot descend any lower than the heights they have ascended to by belonging to a great man.

Moreover, it is an august institution of India (such as the court) that will decide which individuals are unfit for the names they carry, and will take those names away as keepers of national honour. The image of possessiveness and ruthless intervention this creates is terrifying. Even more terrifying is the possibility that in some not-too-distant world and time, changing names might become a more absorbing preoccupation than changing or reforming criminals. As it is, courts cannot in actual practice keep a tab on the names that parents give to their children – one is forced to question whether parents have the absolute freedom to name their children as they wish, irrespective of any other considerations. To be honest, it’s a very tricky issue which probably has no right answer. I fervently believe that names of children should be given with certain restraint as many names may be questioned under various circumstances due to a variety of reasons, ranging from social, political, and religious, etc. Otherwise the infamous “Shahrukh dog” blog by Aamir Khan may well be repeated under a different scenario with potentially disastrous consequences.

Anupam Dhar

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