April 26, 2008

What is in a name?

The basic idea for this post is not mine; it is something I read in “The unbearable lightness of being” by one Milan Kundera. The fact that he is a Nobel laureate is something else.

The question he asks is why one loves his or her name so much. As I ask the question, I can hear most of us raise an eyebrow, “Why do I love my name? Is it not simple? Because it is mine and how can I not like something that is mine.”

The question that I would like to ask, and the question is not mine, is that how did that name, with which we identify so much become ours? Did we choose it? Did we ever think that of all the names in this world, this is the one that I identify with and therefore I like to be called that?

In all cases, expect for those (un)fortunate few who did not have parents, all the names were chosen by our relatives, parents in most cases, grandparents aunts uncles and friends of parents in others. The parent or relative thinks of all the names that they have heard thus far in life and then proceed to give their child that name. Do they ever think that once grown up, their child may not like the name that they gave them, or does it cross their minds that their children may not live up to the names that they were given?

Imagine the preconceived burden that a child named Gandhi or Jawaharlal has. Take for that matter an Indira, or now a Laloo. These children are named in the parent's hope that they will turn out to be as great if not greater than the personality they were named after. Just think of the scandal if a person named Gandhi decided to be a professional criminal, a thief who was apprehended by the police. The first sentence that they would hear would be, “How could you, with the name of Gandhi commit such a crime?”

This could work both ways. Imagine that some person who disliked Mahatma Gandhi (there are a few people who do and they have a right to) and named their son Nathuram. Even if the child turned out to be a saint, the society will always retort, “How could you do something right? After all, your name is Nathuram” Now we are not here to debate if Ghodse did a correct thing or not, the one crime he committed, which is not pardonable is that he killed another human being. Now the fact that Gandhi was not just another human being is something that is secondary to the fact. If we stop giving names of people who have committed a murder, I am sure that we will end up with no names to give.

This is not restricted to the name alone. There are so many of us who are such narcissists that we spend hours looking into the mirror, reveling in our reflection. As most of us already know the root of the word, Narcissus, the story of the young man who saw his own reflection in the water and was smitten by it. He was so smitten that he did not move and kept glaring into the water until he turned to stone or something like that.

Taking the question of the name a bit further, we do not have a choice of how we look, unless we were the children of plastic surgeons who have the power to change how we look. When what we appear to be is the sum of a large set of permutations and combinations over the pair of genes we receive from our parents. It is a factor of which gene is dominant, which is recessive and which one is dormant.

The face structure, the physical build, the hair color, the eye color, the length of the nose, the shape of the nose bridge, the nature of the hair, the amount of facial and bodily hair, everything that we think of as an indicator of beauty is something that is not ours. By complimenting someone on his or her looks, are we not complementing something that has been handed down over generations?

If this is the state of our being, then how can we be proud of what we appear to be? I am not talking about my usual perceptions and perceptions of perceptions, but of the possessive nature of our physical appearance. Is this why we were told that beauty is skin deep and ephemeral? Or was it something else, which had the same effect? I do not know. All I know is I am Aditya Rajaraman, a name whose choice that was made by my parents. I thank them for that for I have built my identity around that name, if I were not “Aditya Rajaraman”, son of V Rajaraman, I am not sure what I am. There is nothing else that I am. However, it is something to identify myself and it is not me. I start much above the name and I end much below my face and skin. What those start and end is, I do not know, but I know they are there.

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