The Naming Game
By Anitha Devi Pillai
"Who names a child that?" hissed my husband.
"Oh Krishna, it's so old-fashioned!" moaned my mother-in-law, summoning her favourite deity to her rescue.
"Aiyee, such an old man's name! Even I gave both your sister and you modern names!" groaned my mother.
"Have you lost your marbles, chichi ('older sister' in Malayalam)? Don't be silly. Choose a modern name starting with 'A' or he will be called last for all oral exams and the teacher will put him at the back of the classroom," reasoned my sister.
"I have no comments about such a silly name," said my father in his usual quiet way.
What was wrong with Thulasi Das? It would be a perfect match in so many ways. It was the name of a famous saint, the name of the holy basil plant that embodies purity of thought and heart, and the name of our family deity, Lord Krishna. In fact, both my son's paternal and maternal family trees were peppered with men named after Lord Krishna.
Thulasi Das is a perfectly decent name, I insisted.
If the child had been a girl, she would of course have been Thulasi, a name that I had given to my dolls while I was still playing with them. Understandably, Thulasi was also the name of the heroine in many of the stories that I wrote in class.
But the scan results had just shown that we were expecting a boy. I then decided that I was going to choose the masculine form of the name Thulasi. I just needed to add Das (which meant "servant to God") to the name and I would have created the masculine form. I would still have the satisfaction of calling my son Thulasi.
However, unable to bear the vehement and incessant protests from my family, I caved in and agreed to consider other options.
"Why don't we name him after both our fathers?" I suggested to my husband one night over long-distance call. Like many overworked computer professionals, he was working in the USA. Our conversations were usually short as we were on different time zones. That suited me fine for the moment – he had fewer opportunities to argue with me. His parting words during that conversation were: "Email it to my mother in India so that she can check if the name is auspicious, will yah?"
I did so promptly and spelled the letters out in caps for good measure: ARAVIND KESHAV. It was an abbreviated form of both our fathers' long names: my father, Aravindakshan Pillai, and my husband's father, Therat Keshavan Kutty Menon.
Uncharacteristically, there was a long silence at the other end – usually any advice would have been immediate and then flowing non-stop. Finally, a few days later, I received only a two-word reply, typed out in caps and bold for good measure: KESHAV ARAVIND.
I remember reading the name a few times while trying to unravel what was in the mind of my mother-in-law. Finally, it dawned on me: she wanted my son's paternal grandfather's name as the first name. I reached for the phone immediately even though it was 3am in Washington DC.
"Look, he will be first in the class register if it's Aravind Keshav and probably 20-something on the register if it's Keshav Aravind," I reasoned. "Why are you fighting with me on this? Do you always want him to be seated at the back of his classroom?"
The time difference between USA and Singapore served my husband well this time. He mumbled a few cryptic messages about it being the right way to do things in our community, before saying that he needed to hit the bed right away.
I was fuming mad.
Oh well, if we were going to name our child according to the Malayalee tradition, then my son should take on his mother's surname and not his father's. The Malayalee Nair community is matrilineal, and extended families trace their roots to their ancestral homes (known as tharavads) by including their ancestral home name in their names. They also took on the surname or caste name of their mother or maternal uncle, not their father.
There was a formula to the naming convention: ancestral home name – maternal uncle's name (substituted with father's name by migrants) – given name – maternal caste name. These traditions faded away sometime in the 1950s in Singapore due to a growing number of second and third-generation Singaporean Malayalees who had weaker ties to Kerala, a southern state in India.
I texted my husband that night just these words: "Keshav Aravind Pillai". According to tradition, my son should carry my surname. I had discarded my ancestral home name, Kuruppatha Veetil, that really had no relevance in today's society. I had only been to my ancestral home once in my lifetime and then only for a few days. Otherwise, I would have suggested: Kuruppatha Veetil Keshav Aravind Pillai.
Surprisingly, I received a text message from my husband – who was supposed to be in slumber land by then – within a few minutes: "Therat Keshav Aravind Menon".
There was no compromise in the response. In fact, the name had gotten longer with my husband's ancestral home name, Therat, in it now. My surname, Pillai, had been replaced with his surname, Menon.
I was livid. My son was not going to end up with a name that would fit into his examination book nor one that his teachers would be able to pronounce. Neither one of us budged for the next few days.
I shot him an email a couple of days later: "Therat Keshav Aravind Menon-Pillai", copying it to all our family members. My son would carry his father's ancestral home name, his grandfathers' names and both our surnames. It was fair.
"Great, now my nephew is going to have punctuation in his name! He will be the laughing stock among his peers!"
My sister was right. Thankfully, we thought it was funny too. I was tasked to find another name that was palatable to everyone. The name had to be modern and unique, and also carry his father's ancestral home name and surname.
I did not push the matter of my son using my surname any further, as I had only included it to make a point. I didn't relish the idea of having to constantly explain why my son carried a different surname from his father to all my friends.
Finally, I stumbled upon the name Tejas ("radiance or the enlightened one") and it was a name that everyone liked.
"So that's it then. He will be named Tejas Therat Menon. It's a little long but okay, I guess," my father was relieved that common sense had prevailed.
"Nope, I have to consult the numerologist once he is born to ensure that the spelling of the name is auspicious for him. I can only do that once I have his date of birth," I added.
"Whatever you do, please tell the numerologist not to spell my ancestral home as 'Therat'. My friends kept teasing me as 'The Rat'. Just make sure that it sounds the same," quipped my husband thousands of miles away.
So when the time came to fill in the forms at the hospital to name my child, I wrote the following with a broad satisfied smile: THEIJES THERRAT MENON. The numerologist had suggested an auspicious spelling of my son's name to ensure that he was victorious in all that he embarked on.
Ironically, these days, no one calls my son that. A fifth-generation Singaporean Malayalee who is now 14, he is merely T.J. to his friends and teachers. He christened himself as T.J. in nursery school because he was tired of spelling out his 19-letter name on his worksheets.
In the end, the family can only propose what the child may eventually dispose, we mused.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018