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What is in a Person's Name? A Lot I Say.



I notice that I subconsciously favor with a sense of surprise and a tinge of love,  those that call me by name, with phonetic accuracy. The first time I noticed it was, when after the passing of my father, I heard my name called by my newly acquired teacher of Kerala tantra, Brhmashree Eashvaran Namputhiri of Vedira mana. Later in the US, in Sonoma County , I cherished the sound when first my German friend Lia called my name so perfectly. Somehow the German ear has no trouble in picking up the accents in Indian names.  Most of the time I get so many versions of my name. Commonly it ends up being Va-saanti, when it should be Vaa-sun ti. The accent being on the first vowel. The t being more like th.  In the US I have had to shorten my name to Vaasi, an Arabic word meaning all embracing.  South Indians other than Keralites call me Vasanti, with no accents, a common name for girls in some parts of India. Vasanti means one who resides or dwells. Well that is certainly not my name either. Folks in Punjab pronounce it as Basanti, those from Bengal pronounce the name as Baw-shawn- ti, which I do not mind as V and S are rarely pronounced as such in their language. At least the latter maintain the most important accent on the first vowel. Besides Bengaali is a sweet language to the ear. In Sanskrit, from where this name originates, it is written as  वासन्ती  and in Greek it may be written thus Βάσανθή, the Β to be pronounced as V. 


Speaking of names. In the Far East and Middle East, much thought is given before a child is named.  Often there is a period after the child is born when the naming ceremony takes place. In some communities in Kerala, the baby is placed on the lap of the child’s maternal uncle and the father will whisper into its ear the name, three times. Among the 16 rites of passage in India, called Sumskaaraas, the naming ceremony is called Naamakaranam.  Names have meanings and significance. In Iceland last names always carry the father's name with the suffix son, son of, or daughter of, dóttir and may also have a longer last name that includes names of both father and mother.  Turkish male names have the suffix oğlu meaning son of, just as Armenian last names ending in ian meaning the same. Germans used to carry both the married last name and their maiden last name. The Spanish too, seem to carry surnames from both maternal and paternal sides. Often as in the West, in India, father's first name may be given to the son and to the grandson, but not necessarily called by that name.  Last names in India may point to the profession that the family has been involved for generations. Mithaiwala is one where making of desserts were their forte, Johari means jeweller, Trivedi means knowledge, practice and teaching of three Vedas.


In the South of India, it used to be that the first name always indicated the village of origin, then the given name and finally the caste name. The full name has three words. This presented a huge problem in India when the British system of education and schooling was introduced and continues to be even to this day. Children who enter schools had to conform to a pattern corresponding to the British system. I wonder what we have lost in the process of this change. We no longer give homage to the village where our origins are from, instead it is totally wiped from even our memories.  How sad !


So then what does my name mean? In Sanskrit it means the flower that ushers Spring. Specifically it is a type of jasmine, highly odoriferous and yellow in colour. Botanically speaking it is Jasminum odoratissimum.  In the great epic poem Geet Govindam of Shri Jayadeva, 12th century poet from Odissa, Spring begins with the line "Vasantey  vaasanti kusuma sukumaarairavayavai"". Beyond this there is a personal story associated with this name. The story goes that when my mother Thankamani, was carrying me, she exhibited an excessive passion for jasmines. She wore it in her hair, placed it under her pillow and even between her clothes in her cabinet. My father Guru Gopinath was convinced that it was going to be a girl and hence when I was born as was the custom, my father gave this name to me. I was told that Sardar K. M. Pannikar, a famous multi-talented statesman, diplomat and novelist, graduate of Oxford, composed a poem on my name after seeing me, when I was rather young. It was in my mother tongue Malayalam and in it is a line roughly translated as  " Oh, is  it the  fragrance of the Vaasanti flower ?" A great author from Kerala, Dr. Roscott Krishna Pilla would often remark to me the beauty behind the name that I have been given.  There is one non Keralite friend of mine, Rashmi, who seems to have discovered the beauty behind this name.  It is there when she utters it perhaps even unknown to her. It is all a question of attitude. I figure if my friend Jenny, who is of British descent can call me by name correctly and my videographer American friend, Seth can too, then I do not see why it is so hard for so many friends of mine to do the same ?


In visiting stores or restaurants operated by Chinese or Vietnamese folks I always ask them what their real name is. I stubbornly refuse to associate an English name with that face and culture. This is yet another aspect of my love, respect and admiration for the beauty of varied cultures.  It would help if folks of non- English origin could write their names phonetically and assist in pronunciation. No need to Anglicizing names, to match with totally shedding off, of their native clothes while permanently adopting foreign costumes. By the way think how much electricity could be saved in that tropical country of India, if only her office going men gave up their three -piece suits, women gave up their jeans and wore Indian clothes instead. 


The moment you call someone by their original heritage indicating name, notice the radiance that issues from their countenance.  So my appeal to you, folks from both East and the West, start paying attention to names. Abstain from wanting names to conform to your culture. Make that extra effort to correctly pronounce the name given to one,  with so much love and attention by those,  that brought that person into existence. A name is generally intended to stay with the individual for the rest of his or her life. In doing so your mouth and brain will receive an invigorating jolt of hitherto unknown joy and reward, not to be missed. There may be very interesting stories behind the giving of a particular name. Guaranteed that you will be a recipient of unspoken favor and love when you give them an opportunity to share that with you. 


Petaluma, September 29 2018.

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