“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.