How to name a Bengali baby boy

“কানা ছেলের নাম পদ্মলোচন” —- “A blind boy is named the Lotus-eyed One” – Bengali proverb

Having gone through the arduous process of naming my newborn son – and yes, there is definitely a rigorous vetting process – I now feel competent enough to give unsolicited advice on how to name a Bengali baby boy. The rather involved process of finding a name for a Bengali newborn is a life-or-death situation; for most of us, an easy one, such as a Puja or Raj simply will not do.

I will briefly touch upon a couple of key considerations that apply to providing names for all Bengali children, but the focus here is primarily on Sanskrit and Bangla derived secular (and “Hindu-sounding,” for lack of a better phrase) names for boys born in the modern era in West Bengal. A wider discussion of Muslim and Christian Bengali names won’t be covered here, though some of the principles apply to nicknames, which almost all Bengali boys and girls are given. In addition, the discussion is restricted primarily to boys, and yes, of course to baby boys (for how many of you will ever need to name “adult boys” even if there was such a thing? So yes, Dear Reader, the title is somewhat misleading; it is an offering at the altar of search engines.)

A hundred years ago, Bengali names were drastically different. A Saratchandra, or a Bankimchandra born today would sound so provincial. Definitely studied at a mofussil school in the backwaters of Paschim Medinipur. Or maybe not even there. I’m from Paschim Medinipur and I’ve never met either in my entire life. In my own family, the Ayodhyanaths and Janakinaths passed on eons before my birth too. You will find few Rukminikumars, Rakhoharis, and Botokeshtos filling up the ledgers of birth certificates these days. They will not be missed. Do not try to resuscitate them, although we will applaud a Subhas Chandra (Jai Hind!) and a Rabindranath (Kabiguru ke pronam!) from time to time.

As an aside, gone too are many of the misogynistic names given to Bengali women; an Annakali, which roughly translates as an entreaty to the goddess, Kali for no more female children, is less likely to be spotted than an Anarkali. Interestingly, all married women carry the honorific “Debi” these days, and in many cases this is also used in a marital-status-neutral manner. Quite unlike what was the norm one hundred years ago, when a woman was generally referred to as Annapurna Debi if she belonged to a Brahmin family and as Annapurna Dasi if she was from a family of any other caste.  A good thing if you ask me. But I digress. Back to naming boys.

When my father was born, long names synonymous with the stalwarts of the Hindu pantheon – Rama, Shiva, and Krishna had just started to fall out of favor among the genteel. The bourgeoisie had also just started to separate Kumar, Ranjan,  Kanti, and Chandra from their given names to create middle names, even though in Bangla there are few true middle-names. As an aside, we can thank cricket-despotic Maharashtrians for forcing a Sourav Chandidas Ganguly on us.

But that was then. This is now. Middle names have again fallen out of favor.

Back in my father’s time, secular names derived from Bangla and Sanskrit words had just started to become popular. This has continued. Today it is often difficult to ascertain religion from a name: an Imon or a Shagor Chowdhury are somewhat ambigious. To confuse things, there are a few Buddhadebs and Jishus walking around too! Not bad if you ask me. (Where I finally draw the line is at the current trend of nonsensical onomatopoeic monosyllabic names.)

In these dark loadshedding-filled politically uncertain times, names synonymous, for example, with the sun and light are quite the rage. After all, my own name, Anirban, roughly translates to “inextinguishable”. Power-names are much in demand.

Another trend in vogue is to go back to the old books. Literally. Parents and well-wishers are scouring the Vedas and Vedantas for references to gods and sages. This process has become so commonplace that even the most obscure ones have been taken up. Go ahead and name a sage mentioned in passing in one of the Upanishads, and I’ll point out a bespectacled top-ranker on the West Bengal Joint Entrance Examination with that name, who graduated with an engineering degree and is comfortably settled in the United States. Sounik? Sounak? Yes, I know them both. I’m even convinced that if Arsenik had been the name of a rishi in the Vedas, well-meaning Bengali mothers and fathers would have given that name to their sons by now!

Another major trend is the creation of names from a combination of prefixes and suffixes.  Parents add “A-“ to describe what something is not, therefore Anirban is not Nirban, Anindya is not Nindya and Amal is not…  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) On the other hand, “Su-” is added to accentuate a positive trait in names like Subinoy and Sunirmal… (What? Binoy and Nirmal aren’t good enough for your son?)

These are just two examples and there are quite a few suffixes as well.  You can add nearly an inexhaustible number of words such as Deb to “-deep”, “-jit”, “-esh”, “-ashis”and “jyoti” to make names like Debdeep, Debjit, Debesh, Debashis, and Debjyoti. It is the great Bengali-Name-Lego set that parents love to play with.

Unless you are absolutely convinced that your son will never come in contact with a non-Bengali in his entire life, keep his name, or at least the preferred spelling of his name, simple. I know this is challenging: on the one hand, you want your son’s name spelled Surya: on the other, you know that the accurate pronunciation in Bangla is Shurjo. Weigh the options. An uncle of mine related the story of a sadhu who took on the name Nandanananda. I am told that an American tried to pronounce it and went into an infinite loop of “nanda…nanda…nanda.” The story is probably not true, but the way my uncle said it, I bought into it at the time.

Consider the variations in spelling and ask non-Bengalis to test-drive them on their tongue. Do not pick an androgynous name like Suman. Yes, he is a male singer in Bengal, but there are way too many women with that name in North India who were conceived in 1989 after their parents saw Maine Pyar Kiya. Sudipta might be logically correct from a Sanskrit-centered phonetic point-of-view, but no one will ever pronounce it like your child is male. A better option is to spell it in the Bangla-centered phonetic, Sudipto.

Don’t make it easy for your son’s friends to ridicule him because of his name. You will never prevent his classmates creating nicknames, just don’t make it any easier than it has to be. For example, Aripro conjures up a nice limerick line ending in Wipro. Delicious! Animik is perpetually anemic. If you love your child, please don’t name him Achyut. Too easy. Which brings me to a related point…

Don’t get too swept up in your Bangaliana. Unless you are convinced that your son will be the heir to the famous Bangla poet Shakti, stick to Chatterjee instead of Chattopadhyaya. Save your Bangaliana for superior cuisine, football, literature, art, activism, and bus-burning among other things, and spare your child’s given name and surname from it.  

If on the other hand, your surname is Bose, change it to the synonymous Basu if you’re hell-bent on naming your son after your favorite actor, Dilip Kumar. Or if you were born after 1977, maybe the Left Front government forced the change on your Madhyamik certificate anyway.

Don’t get swept on the other end of the spectrum either. I knew a Benjamin Franklin Bhattacharya. He was permanently wincing. It was not a pretty sight.

The internet is your friend. Use it with caution. Don’t trust the online dictionaries to give you an accurate spelling in your native language or the modern meaning of your son’s name, because they won’t. Check if there are a million other people with the same name on LinkedIn. Google if the name you’ve chosen was chosen a few decades ago by the parents of a notorious killer with 10,000 of the top hits. These are not hypothetical situations, and they sure as hell aren’t palatable.

Take your time and put in the effort. You can’t go wrong. Unless you name your son Anal Kanti Shit.

When did my son become a “person”?

My son has been alive all of two weeks now. Alive. It is the wrong word. Let me try again.

My son was born two weeks ago. In a sense he has been alive much longer, and I, as his father, have also been thinking about his existence for many months now. How long has he existed?

On the one hand, there are those who say that a child becomes a person at the moment of conception. On the other end of the spectrum are those who say that a person comes into existence at birth, or even some point weeks or months after birth, when the child is capable of autonomous survival. I’ve discovered that most of these arguments are positioned in order to demarcate when developing offspring have moral and legal rights: arguments put forth are predominantly post hoc edifices constructed by those who have entrenched viewpoints on the morality of abortion.

I will not get drawn into the quicksand of motives. As a father, what interests me most right now, is in knowing just how my little baby boy is developing into an individual.

In my son, the chain of life is still unbroken. In that sense, even the first cellular divisions of his embryonic form were not entirely new: however, by this rigid assertion, there has been no new life after the first forms were developed and we are stuck back in the speculative days of the primordial soup when life might have originated. Hardly helpful if you’re curious how your own baby developed.

Life is a game of probabilities. There will always be a relatively high chance than an embryo will never make it past the first few days: usually even mothers are unaware that these early embryos spontaneously cease to develop further. Even later, throughout the rest of the first trimester of pregnancy, as cells are dividing and the body systems are starting to develop, there is a possibility that the embryo will cease to develop naturally. Every day that the embryo grows, the chance of its survival increases. Still, there is a one in five chance of spontaneous termination of a pregnancy during those early months, and this is often thought to be a natural way to ensure that genetic defects are not passed on to living offspring. A fertilized egg or a developing embryo obviously possesses the possibility of developing into a person, but is it truly a person? If we consider it a person, then we must also come to terms with the fact that it has a 20% of not even passing to the next phase of its development and that this holocaust is predominantly natural and likely unpreventable. If it is incapable of survival on its own, does not have developed systems, and is considered predominantly parasitic on its mother, then it is formally possible to say that it is not a person. But we have to examine these criteria individually.

Just when did my son become a person? His mother felt his movements when his gestational age was approximately sixteen weeks. At the twenty-week ultrasonogram, the technician clearly pointed out attributes which remarkably turned out to be visible when he was born nearly twenty-weeks later. At twenty-weeks we were able to visualize his organs, see the blood pump through his heart, see his face, and notice him move his arms and legs. He responded to stimuli. By twenty-weeks many of his other organs were gearing up for primetime too. Was he a person then?

So much is made of time of birth and independent existence. When my son was born, a whole industrious coterie of hospital staff meticulously entered his vital statistics into the wired machines of society. Biologically, though, time of birth in humans is an evolutionary compromise to allow the large brainbox of the infant to pass through the narrow birth-canal of the mother. A newborn is not capable of taking care of itself. Does that make it not a person?

Only five percent of babies are born on their due dates. If a baby becomes a person when it emerges from the womb, shouldn’t we be better at predicting this event? On a tangential note, I’m curious how the pseudoscience, astrology, deals with “celestial” time-of-birth when it is predetermined by humans via elective or emergency Caesarian section.

Modern medicine has advanced to such a stage that premature babies born even twelve weeks before their due date can survive with a little help from neonatal specialists. In other words, a fetus is often viable at 28 weeks, something which was unheard of one-hundred years ago. With further advances, this early arrival stamp is likely to be pushed back even earlier. Do they become persons when they are delivered surgically by physicians, or when they are hooked up to artificial respirators, or, if and when they survive when they are taken off? Are lungs the organs that define life? And if they are, then are grownups who are temporarily put on respirators dead?

For adults either cessation of function of the heart or the brain is clinically considered death. Conversely, are fetuses whose hearts and brains functioning non-living? My son had not used his lungs yet, but his brain and nervous system were functioning exactly the same way ten minutes before he was born as they were at the time of birth; he was capable of dreaming, and his heart was pumping in the same manner that it will be for the rest of his life.

Even after two weeks of being an independent entity my son’s sense of coordination is very poor; it will take months for his hearing and eyesight to develop. His brain will continue to develop for decades to come.

The various vital organs of a human start to “boot up” many months before birth. Essential development continues unabated on a very long timeframe. Birth is the most important time-point during this process, but I am peeved: why do we take it for granted that existence and non-existence are binary and occur at the time someone looks up at a clock hanging on a wall in a delivery room?

For my newborn son. With love, from baba

Welcome!

I have been waiting for an eternity to meet you, son! I see you wiggle in front of me. I gaze into your eyes and I want to know you. I hope you will learn something about me too. I have to remind myself not to think ahead, though it is very hard to control my excitement. I have so many stories to tell you. One day when you are older, you will know exactly what I mean.

For months now, your presence has been indelibly imprinted on my psyche. When I first heard your heartbeat when you were still inside your mother, my own heart raced uncontrollably. I have spoken to you in many words that I imagined made you move, suspending in my consciousness the logic that you did not understand. We kissed the picture of your perfect tiny left foot the doctors gave us after the ultrasonogram. As you grew, your mother winced every time you jabbed her in the ribs. On the night of February 29, the rarest of days, your mother and I rushed the hospital. She grimaced as the contractions progressively got stronger. In the middle of the night, I briefly dozed off to the rhythmic sound of your heart on the monitor. But we would have to wait another day to see you. You stubbornly resisted for 24 hours. Those were the most intense 24 hours of your mother’s life. It was by far the most emotionally draining of mine.

You announced your arrival in this world by screaming and furiously moving your arms and legs. I understand, son. Each life is bookended by two traumatic events – and even though the central character involved in these events never retains memories of them– they define us all. You experienced one such defining moment: the curtains were just raised in an act in which the rest of us only play supporting roles.

I know everything around you is confusing now. If I could speak clearly to you, I’d tell you that this is natural. Like a little bird trapped in a cage, you were flitting inside your mother all these months. Now you are free from one cage but inside another larger, more chaotic one, which we inhabit for all of our days. I do not profess to understand this larger cage. It bewilders me too. As your parents, we promise to provide a security blanket, so that you have some semblance of regularity in your life until you are prepared to collide with this immensity of the world. And when that moment comes, son, spread your arms to embrace this chaos!

Soak in the oxygen with your brand-new, expanding lungs. Move around and claim ownership of your immediate space. This is the world that we inherited, which is now rightfully yours too. Much of which you have in your possession, you received from us. I cannot fully catalog what I have given you, but perhaps as you grow older and you notice prematurely graying hair or a natural propensity for high-blood pressure, you will smile knowingly. The world calls certain traits, imperfections, but there are no perfections, son. We are all dealt a certain hand. Our characteristics define who we are.

Though I speak in incomprehensible words today, you need not worry about such trifles for a very long time. You were born with a multitude of neurons, but your brain is still plastic. Absorb all the information you can. Let the neurons fight it out to form connections, to develop skills, strengthen senses, and form memories. Your mother and I will watch you as you learn to smile and to clap. We will hold you as you crawl and as you take your first steps. As you learn to articulate both nonverbally and verbally. As you learn to express yourself through letters, numbers, lines, motions, and sounds. And all the while, we will learn how to be parents from you.

You know, I just have to tell you this story. The other day, we were visiting a specialty store for babies, which in itself was like entering a new country for the first time – complete with its own language, customs, and totems. We picked out some clothes for you and smiled at the cute taglines, “Mommy’s Little Helper,” “Daddy’s Rockstar,” but paused when we saw a shirt with “My Grandpa Loves Me” emblazoned across the front. Yes, he would have loved you, my dear.

You will get acquainted with our oral histories because we will feel the urge to tell you about those who we were honored to have known. I wish you could have known my grandparents. They were exemplary individuals, as were the uncles and aunts who can no longer personally welcome you into the extended family. But most of all, your mother and I are immensely saddened that you will never meet her father, your dadu: that void can never be filled with words and recollections.

Stories of other ancestors have passed from generation to generation, often so much that the distinction between history and legend has blurred. We will recount these stories to you. But I must warn you, son: there were some who treated men who were not like them and even their own women on unequal terms. In our own lives, we can renounce their despicable acts, but we must not forget that we are their descendants: lest we ever be proud of our distant past, we should remember that we cannot wish away the stigma associated with caste prejudice and religious persecution that hang like a proverbial albatross around our necks. We can never deny that we are inheritors of the asymmetry which they created, and the blessings and curse which come with it.

Of course you did not ask for this life. None of us came into existence of our own volition. As you came to this world through us, we were brought here by those who preceded us. Sometimes, when I see how we have treated this planet, words fail and tears escape. If I could believe, I would pray. If wishes came true, I would wish to make this a better place before your arrival. But that is a father who wants the perfect home and world for his son speaking.

When the burdens of the world bear down on you, as they surely will many times, please forgive us for our selfishness; you brought new joy and fulfillment to our lives in a way we had not known was ever possible. But son, that is not even a brushstroke on a painting. We did not rush in this direction. We made the decision at a relatively ripe age, not for ourselves or from any pressure from anyone else; we made it for you. It is true that you had no say in this life, and neither did any of us in ours. But son, what is volition without existence? What is reality, perception, joy, or even suffering without life? The clarity that even pain brings is a burden indeed, but how should it ever compare to not existing at all? My darling, know that we brought you here because we sincerely believe that despite all the suffering in this imperfect world, it is truly worthwhile to live.

To be able to experience the world is a gift beyond all others. To know that you are connected to all life is the ultimate thrill. For your true lineage extends billions of years into the past to form an unbroken bond with all life that has ever existed, from the first organisms which arose on our planet to every astounding form you see, and billions of others which you cannot perceive. And while it is true that you are I are infinitesimally small compared to the vastness of time and space, we are part of this spectacular chain. Our planet developed through a specific series of events; bubbling, expanding, seething, and cooling. The atoms in our body are cosmic; our energy, solar; the oxygen we breathe, excreted by ancient microorganisms, and our water, possibly from comets. If life had not formed on this pale blue planet, if through changes in the environment certain species had not existed and others become extinct, if our ancestors had not persisted through an evolutionary bottleneck that threatened to decimate them, modern humans would never evolved. We are the true extremophiles comfortable in our tiny refuge when compared to the inhospitable vastness of the known universe.

On an even more mind-boggling level, a precise chain of events had to occur for your birth to occur. One seemingly minor temporal change in billions of years of stochastic noise would have resulted in none of us being here. You are the result of a fantastic equation which even our most complicated mathematics cannot derive; your existence alone holds the key to more wondrous insight than any banal text can offer on the meaning of life. And not only do you exist, but you bear the gift of consciousness.

I speak, of course, of years to come. Your existential concerns now are quite different from what they will be two, ten, or twenty years from now. As you grow, you will build a mental library which you will be able to tap to develop definitive skills – hindsight and premonition. But there is a tradeoff. Today, you start with countless possibilities. Mine are more limited. As the years progress, we all walk along a path strewn with memories, regrets, and missed opportunities, a path on which we cannot return. I have my own share of accumulated baggage, son. Yet, I consider myself exceptionally fortunate for all I have received in this life, and most of all, for the love of your mother, who with her kindness, hospitality, and grace is quite certainly a better person than I have the capacity to ever become.

I am also fortunate because I have you.

You know, the other day, when I was up in the air, I looked out of the window and saw the setting sun light up billowing clouds: one day I will show you what it felt like to see those clouds. I want to read books to you that have made me smile and cry. I want to point out flickering stars in the wondrous night sky and tell you tales of galaxies beyond our farthest grasp. I want to show you microscopic life teeming in a drop of water and tell you that we know next to nothing about them. These are unexplored worlds, which maybe one day you will journey into on behalf of all of humanity.

You will see through your own eyes, but I will offer you my perception. Sometimes, you will want to walk fast; and I ask you to be slow. You will speak directly from the heart; I will insist that you also learn to think critically. I want to teach you how to play cricket, but maybe one day you will teach me how to play baseball too. (Either way, your mother will insist that you wear a helmet. Listen to her. Try not to hurt her sentiments, even when they are at odds with mine).

Through pure chance, you and I we were born men. We will never face many of the hardships women suffer in this inequitable world. Remember that a woman left everything she knew to start a family and bring you into this world: she carried your burden, nourished you, and bore the pain of your birth with strength. Honor her sacrifice and those of your female ancestors by treating women as your equals– with dignity, love, and respect.

Your mother and I were not born in this country. We made the long voyage leaving everyone and everything we knew behind. This country gave us a new life. We sought refuge here: we also found exile. This country accepts you as one of its own, but one day you too may heed an urge to leave it behind.

In life, you will find many who include you in artificial groups. There will be others who exclude you based on what you look like, what you think, or what you do. Do not despise them. We must all stumble through life and make our own way without a roadmap. And as we harness technology to tear down the physical barriers that separate us, we create other barriers based on criteria such as nationality, ethnicity, and wealth.

The day is not far off when you will learn to speak. Even though groping for words can be frustrating at times, I will say that language is a beautiful invention. Languages are inclusive and inviting, even when their speakers are not. Becoming fluent in a multitude of languages will give you wondrous vistas into the mind. We will teach you our words. In return, I hope you will teach us many new words in new languages you learn. And although today I write to you in English, a language you will learn, treat Bangla with respect. It is the quiet peaceful home where you will always find your name properly pronounced in your own voice, and your baba and ma talking to you.

Your mother and I connect you to incipient experiences rooted in an unknowable time and space. You will never fully understand our compulsions, but that should not drive a wedge between us. We will try to protect you, sometimes failing to realize that you will make mistakes like we did. In turn, you will be puzzled by our cluelessness. We will be wary of change and risk-averse. We will speak with a strange accent. When you interact with your peers, we will unwittingly embarrass you. We cannot help it. Such is the whimsy of the world.

We, in turn, will never fully understand you either. Your clothes will never be fashionable enough. Your allowance will never be adequate. The food on your plate will not always be what you want to eat. You will be angry with us. In many ways, this is deserved: we need to come full-circle too.

But as I look at you today, I promise you this much: even if we don’t always see eye to eye, you will get the affection, respect, and support you deserve as you seek to be true to your calling. When the time comes for you to move on– distant though it might seem now– I can hope that we will have provided an environment in which you will have learned well. For in the end, as much as I want to see the world through your eyes, I know that is not possible. There will always be a new country to discover, an unfathomable ocean to cross, another dimension to unravel. And even though, one day we will set sail for different shores, your mother and I will always be a compass on your voyage of self-discovery.