He had changed his name. I didn’t even have to ask why. Dev, to call him by his new name, had joined our school and become a perennial butt of jokes the moment he said his name. His was a long, clumsy, antiquated, totally ridiculous name. Nobody should be made to bear the unreasonable weight of such a name. His father adored a religious guru, and this pretentious Holy Man had foisted the horrid name on his disciple’s child, claiming that it would bring the kid endless blessing. It had brought my friend endless ridicule. To his father’s mortification he had gone to a court of law, repudiated the guru’s christening and chosen a simple new name.
To change a name has huge consequences. You have to amend your birth certificate, seek new certificates from your school and university, pay for a new marriage certificate, buy a new passport, and solicit new identification papers for your job, car, home, gym and club. It takes time and it costs money. But Dev was prepared to do it all to disencumber his life of what he thought was an obnoxious name.
When my two daughters entered my life, I wanted their names to reflect the unlike traditions of their mother and father alike. I knew my parents would like the children to have Indian names, but I also knew that my parents-in-law would like them to have Scandinavian names. At the same time, they would grow up in the US, and I did not want them burdened by names that would seem bizarre to their friends. To meet all the criteria seemed a bit of a challenge.
Before they were born, I had drawn up four lists: first, names of girls that would work perfectly both in the east and the west; second, names of girls that would work well in the east or west, and work reasonably in the other hemisphere; third and fourth, names of boys, chosen on the same basis. When I knew I had girls, my wife and I focused primarily on the first list to the exclusion of the others.
Of the thirty names in the list, we excluded the ten we did not care for. Of the remaining twenty, we quickly chose Lina. In several western languages, it meant ‘the beautiful one,’ which seemed appropriate for our charming baby; in several Asian ones, as in Sanskrit, it meant ‘the committed one.’ The word even occurred in the Indian national anthem. The striking thing was the name was also the abbreviation for Magdalina, a hallowed Biblical name, and a popular Scandinavian appellation.
The spelling was a challenge. The current American usage dictated Lena, but in other countries it was likely to be mispronounced and taken as equivalent to a Japanese name. The Indian spelling of Leena would seem overly exotic in the US. We chose the European spelling of Lina, following my favorite Italian film director Lina Wertmüller or the Russian tennis star Lina Krasnoroutskaya.
For my second daughter, we returned to the list and picked Monica. The word may be of Phoenician origin, but, associated with the Latin word moneo, it means advisor or ‘the wise one.’ In Asian languages, it denotes ‘the little gem,’ which has a fortuitous but fortunate link with my own immodest name, which means, I am embarrassed to admit, the fairest gem.
The day I was wheeling Jane out of the hospital after our first child, the receptionist stopped me.
“Wait a minute,” she said, “I have to give you the birth certificate.”
Since my wife and I both have the same last name, the computer had automatically entered the correct last name.
“Tell me the baby’s first name,” the receptionist asked.
When I did, she asked, since a middle name is common in the US, “And the middle name, please.”
Jane responded, “We had so much trouble finding the right first name! Don’t ask about a middle name.”
She gave me the birth certificate in an envelope and I took it home, unscrutinized.
Some years later when we admitted Lina in a school in Manila, we were asked to produce the birth certificate and we did. Several weeks later we received a report on her progress. I was amazed to find the name at the top: Lina NMN Nandy.
Presumably the computer at the hospital would not produce a certificate unless a middle name was provided, and the receptionist had simply written No Middle Name. Now my daughter will forever carry an official name that would suggest a father too lazy to bother about a middle name.
Monica has just had a baby, and she has averted that catastrophe and made sure that her daughter has both a first name and a middle name. The baby has a charming first name from Greek legends, the very loyal spouse of Ulysses, Penelope; but my tongue has trouble getting around a four-syllable name without faltering on the accent. Nor can I use the middle name, Jane, without confusing everyone whether I am calling out for my grandchild or my wife. I may truly take the lazy man’s way out and lovingly address the tot as a precious Penny.