Sunday, September 16, 2012

What's in a name?

The birth of a new child is a big occasion for any level headed family. It is accompanied by anxiety, physical acrimony, and above all, joy. However, nothing can match the hype and fever that accompany the naming of the new born. There invariably is a tussle in the family in determining who can assert the most influence and whose choice prevails on the matter. There is an uncanny pride in being able to give the child your choice of name.
The Bhutanese social practice in this regards presents even more room for discord. Unlike elsewhere, there is no practice of giving the infant a paternal name after his father and there is no such thing as a family name. Therefore, every birth is an occasion to experiment with a new combination of Buddhist parts of speech, usually an adjective. The child can also be named after his perceptible physical characters like skin, colour, facial features and temperament.
On rare occasions, the child may be even named after his/her apparent deformities. Children may also carry ostensibly pejorative epithets depending of course on their parents’ social standing and awareness.    
Bhutanese names follow the general Tibetan Buddhist tendency of being descriptive in nature as against the Western culture of christening which basically is a denotation of the family’s relative position in the society. My son’s Tibetan name when translated into English brings this out. His name (The Supreme Conqueror Manifesting Auspicious Birth with Great Power of Speech, Eloquence and Persuasion) is a reflection of my family’s aspiration for his life.      
However, there is a general pattern in choosing the right combination in naming a child. Bhutanese names are usually an understatement and no more than a combination of two descriptive words. It is also not uncommon to have just a one word name. Taking after the name of the country, Druk and derivatives of this word were once a favoured choice of name. Bhutanese names also bear a strong regional character usually following the divinities of the regions. It can be observed, that Bhutanese baptism underlined the basic egalitarian fabric of the society while at the same time giving a strong sense of national identity,
But as they say, changes are all pervasive and they can be seen in the parameter of choosing names for Bhutanese children too. There has been a general increase in the level of affluence of the average Bhutanese family which has led to a subsequent increase in the level of awareness. Therefore, there is at present a growing need to make a statement of this rise in their perceived status. And what better way to do it then by meticulously christening our children with our choice of statement which they will carry and display for their whole lifetime?  
The large influx of diasporic Tibetan religious aristocracies has no doubt fanned this tendency. Removed from their homeland, these humbled figures suddenly find themselves needing acceptance and followership in alien lands. This need is in some ways met by ingratiating the large number of credulous people in places like ours. Naming people after their tradition which they could have never considered in their own places, often in stylistic ways helped win favour with the people. At the same time, the chance to give new, exotic and high flown names to their children fulfill our people’s need to stand out from the crowd and be unique.
Little do we realize that a generation hence, Bhutanese will become extinct in our own homeland. At least out names will. Our children’s names today bear disconcerting resemblance to the names given to our large pantheon of our gods and goddesses. Names that are essentially Tibetan in tradition like Lobzang, Gyatsho, et al replace the lexicon of our own names. Even those names which retain their Bhutanese character like Dema and Pema are today modified into Drolma and Palmo or their other exotic varieties thus betraying our national identity. The egalitarian nature of our names is also giving way and increasingly, names are being sought to identify a family from others.
For a small country like Bhutan, a strong national identity will ultimately be our saving grace in a world in which we are otherwise too small as to be insignificant. If we dissolve into the faceless homogeneity of the world, it will be to the detriment of our children for whom we are now making these senseless statements. Real beauty lies in simplicity and distinctiveness both of which our tradition rendered us. Therefore, it is only fitting that we pass down what is ours and there can be nothing that can have quite the same effect as a name for it sticks with a person once he has been given it.


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