In 2005, as a teenager preparing to exit secondary school, I represented my school in the Commonwealth Youth Parliamentary Debate in the Red House, the physical seat of our democracy. It was no small feat, a proud but humble privilege in my young life.
The following Sunday, while reading print media coverage of the event, it was disappointing that the commentator stated that names such as ‘Vedavid’ or that of a colleague, ‘Ahalya’, would never find themselves in national politics of Trinidad and Tobago.
I wondered why my name and not my contribution was a focus, but dismissed this as a mere nonsense statement.
Then I read a commentary published by Dr Winford James, entitled ‘The shame of my name’, in the Sunday Guardian of May 1, 2022. Perhaps the positive message was lost in the challenges of the English language. Still, it dawned on me that the belittling of Indian names is reflective of an insidious disease in society, a post-colonial hangover.
India is an ancient and diverse land, has more languages than a human has fingers and toes, each with its grammar, linguistic styling and alphabet. No doubt those English officers of the British East India Company and the British Raj would have struggled. The result would be many anglicised spellings of the same name, such as ‘Maharaj’, ‘Maharajh’ and ‘Maraj’.
The colonial masters also introduced prejudice and perversion to make Indian names seemingly offensive, invoking a sense of shame. This ridicule extended beyond the school grounds.
Names of yesteryear, such as ‘Rajkaliya’ or ‘Itwaria’, were no longer passed on to children. Many persons would adopt a shortened version of the name, or an English name altogether, to evade the bullying during a school recess.
Many reading these words would have deliberately abandoned their rich Indian name for a Christian name to get a promotion or a job at the bank. Such direct atrocities may no longer be prevalent, but disturbingly continue to permeate our mindset in subtle forms.
It is not only personal names that have taken on an offensive double meaning. Day-to-day Hindi and Bhojpuri words suffered the same fate. My generation was perhaps the last to refer to our maternal grandmothers as ‘nani’. My mother has made it clear her grandchildren are not to refer to her with the same, as the word ‘nani’ now has a perverse meaning in the modern Trinidadian language.
The disadvantage of one name, one’s language and one’s heritage became a subtle tool, still used today to cut the Trinidadian of East Indian heritage from the resplendence of the ancient past.
Names of Indian heritage carry rich meanings beyond perverted pronunciations of the English language. You cannot apply English spellings and pronunciations to the name, even if you think it sounds funny in the English language (a reflection of a person’s mental perversion or immaturity). A name such as ‘Dikshit’ originates from the word ‘Diksha’, which refers to initiation on a spiritual path.
In the traditions of Sanatana Dharma (for even the word Hindu is an English adaptation), the name given to a child is not whimsical. In days gone, parents named their children after consultation with the pundit, who consulted the ‘patra’ for the astrological significance of the date and time. This may be the same or different from the ‘raasi’ or ‘rashi’ name.
One’s name is not merely a label, but provides a religious and cultural identity and a destiny. For example, my parents gave me the name ‘Vedavid’. The same name, deemed unsuitable by that reporter in 2005 for public life, means, ‘the one who knows the Vedas (which are the supreme knowledge that Man strives to aspire for)’. There is no day I do not feel the humbling responsibility that I am to strive for this ideal, as distant as I may be. It adds value to my journey, and when the day comes, I will be proud to give similar names of profound significance to my progeny.
As we celebrate Indian Heritage Month, I encourage Trinidad and Tobago to wash away the post-colonial after-taste. Do not feel ashamed of your cultural identity, which extends beyond the Middle Passage to the bosom of Mother Africa, Mother India, Mother China, Mother Arabia, and so on.
Perhaps if we ditch the shame and gift our children names of real value and benchmarks, our society would progress positively.