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Challenge posed by a name

The situation is ironic because there is no shortage of unique and beautiful Indian names. I believe a name should satisfy two key criteria: i) it is as unique as possible because the purpose of even having a name is to be uniquely identified and ii) the name is easy to pronounce by everyone, especially Westerners.


I have observed ever since I came to America that people find it difficult to pronounce my name. Every time I make a reservation, whether it is for a plane ticket or doctor’s appointment or a dinner engagement, I must spell my name: it is Basab – B as in Bob, A as in Apple etc. This came to me as a surprise because I do not think my name is at all difficult. However, I heard “Basib”, “Basad”, “Bosab”, “Basba”, “Besab” and a few other distorted versions.

Someone told me that Americans are lazy when it comes to uttering foreign words and make no effort to correctly pronounce them. If we look at American and more generally Western names, it seems that most male names are Biblical in origin: John, Peter, Paul, David, Mark, Mathew etc. In any given class at any school around the country, we will find several students with the same name.

Even the girls’ names are the same everywhere: Elizabeth, Ann, Susan, Deborah, Sharon, Sally, Katherine, Barbara etc. I am not alone in this predicament. Many in the Indian American community have adapted the practice of shortening their Indian names to something that sounds American. Thus, Nikhilesh became “Nick”, Abhimanyu became “Avi”, Vivekananda became “Viv”, Samudra became “Sam”, Rabindranath became “Robi”, Sunanda became “Sue”, “Debolina became “Debbie”.

Some use their nick names such as “Babu”, “Babla”, “Tumpa”, “Khuku” etc., in informal communications. I do not know what parents think when they name their babies, especially in this country. I am puzzled by difficult names from scriptures or epics such as Ramayana or Mahabharata. Such names can become a lifelong source of awkwardness for the person because of the repeated need to spell and/or teach correct pronunciations. I am also surprised by abundance of common names such as “Kishore”, “Ashoke”, “Raj”, “Rekha”, “Asha”, “Sunil”, “Sita”, “Gopal” etc.

The situation is ironic because there is no shortage of unique and beautiful Indian names. I believe a name should satisfy two key criteria: i) it is as unique as possible because the purpose of even having a name is to be uniquely identified and ii) the name is easy to pronounce by everyone, especially Westerners.

It would be great if the name had some significant meaning but that is not essential. It should preferably be a nice-sounding word without harshness or seriousness. I am happy to see that many such names are now appearing in the Bollywood celebrity circle in India. Examples are “Ipsita”, “Katrina”, “Kiara”, “Hrithik”, “Tanishk”, “Shreya”, “Monali”, “Urvashi” etc., and I hope that these and similar names would eventually reach the Indian community in this country.

Most people become fond of certain names because of their associations with famous people or respected and beloved relatives or characters in popular novels or movies. Parents often select names which rhyme with their own names or have the same initial as their names. The names could also have significance if they remind us of certain memorable events or places in our lives in some way.

Then there is a true story about a man who wanted to officially change his name simply to a number, because in this computerized modern world we are identified by some number anyway. A first name is, of course, essential for anyone’s identity, but what about a middle name? It seems that there is no universal rule about a middle name and while many people may have a middle name, a significant fraction of the population does not have one.

Most people never use their middle names except for passports and official documents, or just use the middle initial. Should you give your child a middle name? I think that the logic again goes back to the idea of making the name unique. If the first name is chosen for some sentimental reason and is not an unusual name a middle name can be added to make the full name unique. I am thankful to one of my aunts who chose my name.

The first name “Basab” is somewhat unusual but not too uncommon (There are, at least, four other Basab Dasguptas in this world). However, it is the middle name “Bijay” which makes the name “Basab Bijay” unique. On the other hand, names like “John Allen” or “Pradeep Kumar” are probably no more effective than simple “John” or “Pradeep” in uniquely identifying someone. Use of the middle initial is a good compromise because it distinguishes one from another person with the same first name but different middle initial.

Then there are even longer names consisting of three names such as that of the physicist Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac. As if first and middle names are not enough to identify someone, we also feel the need for assigning a nickname which results out of affection or desire to use a simple name when the formal first name is difficult for everyday communications. We use “cuddly” words for a baby to show our affection.

In many cases, a person simply has two names – one formal and one a nickname, with no correlation between the two when either name could have served as a formal first name. My own nickname is “Gora”, which has nothing to do with “Basab” and could have been my only name. I personally feel that a nickname is unnecessary. I do not understand the nicknaming protocols in a Christian society.

It seems that if one has a certain formal first name, he/she must have a predetermined nickname; otherwise, there would be confusion. In some cases, these nicknames are logical abbreviations of the formal name but in other cases bear no relation. It makes sense that Edward is called Ed, Peter is Pete, Joseph is Joe, Ronald is Ron, Elizabeth is Beth, Susan is Sue, Rebecca is Becky etc. Examples of baffling nicknames are Bill from William, Jack from John, Peggy from Margaret etc. It seems that African Americans are into more exotic names such as Nakeisha, Quiesha, Viola, Zaharra, Kanye, Kwame etc., perhaps indicative of their roots.

Indian parents in the US can think of similar sounding Indian names for their children to make them convenient for Americans to pronounce if they want to stay away from Biblical names. Examples are Kesha, Payola and Pahara. It is interesting to note that Muslims are not into nicknames. I am not aware of any nickname for Kareem Abdul or Syed Mujtaba.

According to information available on the internet about Muslim culture, if the nickname of a person is meaningless or has a “bad” or negative meaning then it should not be used. A nickname is acceptable if it is a nice Islamic name. Many Asians select a Christian name for themselves, and these names have no resemblance to their given names.

I remember a Chinese graduate student who adopted the name “William”, after his favorite author William Shakespeare, when he came to USA and would introduce himself as William. He was puzzled to see that everyone started addressing him as “Bill”. He mistakenly assumed that “Bill” was some type of a greeting like “hello”. So, he started to greet everyone by saying “Hi, Bill”. I practice what I preach.

When our daughter was born, we named her “Neela” – a simple and unusual name without a middle name or nickname. Actually, Neela is not that unique a name. I wanted to name her “Ninila”; however, her mother did not approve. When my granddaughter was to be born, I provided Neela with dozens of unique names.

Much to my disappointment, she did not select any one of them and named my granddaughter “Sonia”. I tried to regain some stake in that name by saying that “Sonia” was derived from “Sony-A” or Sony-America (where I worked at the time) but I doubt anyone bought it.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America)