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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 123 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 19, 2003

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Naming of parts

Neeman A Sobhan

The idiosyncratic basis for Bengali nicknames continues to this day. Some names, especially for men come from a pseudo revolutionary vision as in Biplob (revolution) and Lenin (commonly mispronounced as Lelin!). The Russian theme is further exploited to include Misha, Natasha, Tanya, Lena, Gorky, even a Pushkin I know of, but luckily no Dostoyevsky!

My mother, like other Muslim Bengali women of her time, had two names. One was the nickname or daak-naam (literally the name by which one is called, and of which more later), and the other, the Islamic name given formally and officially. These were mostly verbal compounds that defined some quality, like Badr-un-Nisa (sun among women), Hosney Ara (endowed with beauty) or Kaneez Fatima (servant of Fatima, daughter of the prophet) and mostly ended with the suffix meaning 'lady': Begum, Banu, Khanom or Khatoon. A surname was not required since a daughter did not belong to her parental family. But straddling two eras, that of their parents who had given them these old fashioned names and the more modern times in which my mother and her contemporaries actually lived, many of them eventually dropped the staid endings and added on their husbands surnames.

Thus my mother's given name was Hamida Banu, which she detested, and her new avatar was the more acceptable Hamida Nazir. Her own preference had been Muneeza, a name that had been short-listed at her birth and then rejected. Alas, we are not asked that quintessentially important question of how we shall be called or known all our life! In a less conventional time, a spirited woman like my mother would have changed her name, liberating herself from the personality sometimes imposed by a name. She would have found a ready following among the Nain-un-Nahars, Ummey Kulsums, Khojesta Khanums and the lone Amtey-Fatima-Shamsey Ara (real person!) of the times, ready to unyoke themselves from the tyranny of ignominious cognomina!
The bland Hamida Bano, who was a stylish and vivacious Muneeza at heart, came from an 'average' sized family of yore, comprising ten siblings; she was one of six sisters. In an inspired moment, whoever named the girls, grouped them in neat pairs, like earrings, in terms of name-endings. Thus we have the kaan-pashas, Hamida Banu and Ruqaiyya Banu; the jhumkas, Shams-un-Nahar and Qamr-un-Nahar; the kaan-baalas, Sitara Begum and Mushtari Begum. Chronologically the earrings were grouped correctly except for the middle pair, the dangling Nahars, which consisted of the eldest sister being coupled with the fourth sister in line.

These formal appellations usually languished on paper and like wedding saris were seldom used except to grace certificates, legal papers and in wedding cards receiving which would cause many old friends and family to exclaim, 'Oh! Is that her bhalo-naam ?' This term which means, literally, good name seems to imply that her other name was bad! Actually, these 'other' names or nicknames could be nonsensical like Shanu, Panu, Tunu, Ranu, or meaningful but whimsical indeed, like buri (old woman), paakhi (bird) or pawtol (a vegetable) or dolna (swing) or jelly or China, even chocolate! The logical ones, that is, those that were shortened forms of given names like Biloo from Bilquees, or Janu from Jahanara were few. For most, the rule of mere abbreviation never applied, so a Sakina in school was not necessarily a Saki at home, rather she probably sported an irrelevant calling name of Shayla or Parool or perhaps an anglicised Rebecca (pronounced not Rebek-a as in the original but the more evenly stressed rey-bey-ka) or Ivy (pronounced, perhaps, eye-bhee) or Dolly, the mis-pronunciation of which begs a story. A fashionable friend of my mother, on her wedding night, found herself being addressed by her less polished husband as 'dole-ee', hearing which she walked out of his life leaving him forever dole-ful!

To get back to my mother and her sisters, to illustrate the idiosyncratic basis for nicknames of that time, I'll take my eldest aunt as a case in point. This innocent lady was named after a house whose picture in some magazine enthralled my grandmother. It was labelled Villa Rose, so the baby was promptly named Villa! Then came my mother's turn. She was born in 1932, the year of the Talkies when silent films learned to talk. My grandparents were fun loving and adored music, gramophones and films. Not surprisingly, the new daughter was named Talky! She was followed in quick succession by Lucky, Jolly (whose husband did not mispronounce her name on their wedding night) June (born naturally in that month) and Moon (presumably on a moonlit night).

The brothers, my uncles, were all broadly and unimaginatively lumped under M.Rahman (the John Smiths of Bangladesh), of which two were Dr. M. Rahman like their distinguished father, a civil surgeon of British India. While pater was Dr. Mansur-er-Rahman, the fils chipped off the old block thus: Mahboob-er, Mowdood-er, Maqsood-er and Mahfuz-er-Rahman. However, what their proper names lacked in originality was amply made up for in their nicknames. One of them is called Ludo (as in the board game of snakes and ladders!) and perhaps, in continuation of this tradition, my mother named my youngest brother Tash (as in the game of cards!) and though Tash is better at chess, I don't think I could have survived a brother called 'Daaba', Na Baba!

The idiosyncratic basis for Bengali nicknames continues to this day. Some names, especially for men come from a pseudo revolutionary vision as in Biplob (revolution) and Lenin (commonly mispronounced as Lelin!). The Russian theme is further exploited to include Misha, Natasha, Tanya, Lena, Gorky, even a Pushkin I know of, but luckily no Dostoyevsky! Russian currency as name came into vogue among the conoscenti but now also among those who don't know its meaning, thus when I asked my maid what her son's name Rubel meant, she said, 'It sounds nice.'

Well, so does the sound of breeze as in 'jheer-jheer' but would one torture a human female with such a name? Apparently, if you were a misguided parent much into alliteration and onomatopoeia, you would. And many offspring have survived names like 'moon-moon' 'tuk-tuk' 'room-jhoom' 'tun-tun' and 'koo-hoo.' Which brings me to the whole business of rhyming nicknames. In accordance with the principle of Alal in the home of Dulal, a Fulu was obliged to have a brother called Dulu, and a Babloo invariably followed a Dabloo; Flora's sister could be none other than Dora, Mina was twinned to Bina, Rina, Lina or Tina. If sisters' names didn't match, people would be visibly disappointed. I had paternal cousins named on a sort of AABA rhyming scheme of ontoo, montoo, naantoo and shontoo.

After simple rhymes came the complex Hopkinsian sprung rhythm of such poetic compositions like Manoshi Maya or Batool Chaya, or the number game as in our friend Two whose siblings One, Three and Four have since then modified their names somewhat. The category of gems having been looted for generations with the inevitable Hira, Chuni, Panna, Mukta; the more everyday dairy products have been no less milked dry to form Noni, Makhon and Chana. In this context, I must add that a female friend of ours named Panna, came to Italy where the word means cream, and to make matters even richer in cholesterol, her proper name was Zubayda, which in Arabic means butter.

Sometimes a nickname could sound hindu being a word in Bengali that someone in Indian Bengal might have as her proper name like Shuborna or Chitra or Nondini or Kanchon or Preeti or as in my father's name Mohon. Of course, this was supplemented by a double barrel, high power Islamic name to counter any residual hindu-ness; thus a Priya was Zohra Khatoon and my father was officially Nazir-uddin Ahmad. But even as nicknames, certain conventionally hindu names like Arundhuti or Protima or Arjun with very definite hindu religious connotations were avoided.

Some names overlapped the gender barrier, and Moni or Bachchu or Bonny or Ronnie or Bulbul or Nilu or Mithu or any strictly sound based, nonsense name like Miloo or Jhiloo or Tulu or Tutu etc. could belong to both males and females. My own nickname falls into this unfortunate category! I am called Titi with a soft 't' which leads many kind folks to pronounce it as Ti-thi giving it a respectable meaning as in date or time, when the source of my name is total hogwash or rather chicken feed since it is an arbitrary sound one supposedly makes with one's tongue while gathering chicks for feeding them in some farmer's homestead as in 'Aaye, tee-tee-tee-tee-tee……' I'm not chicken enough to change my handle, after all, what's in a name?


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