The Name of the Game: What’s in a name?

Ninety Percent of Bangladeshis I know, have long Arabic names; Arjumand Hasina Banu, Syed Iskendar Ahmed or even better, Abu Mohammed Muzaffar Shahbaz Rahman Khan.

That’s not all folks!

 These long, phonetically challenging names are typically followed by intriguing Bangla names: “Potol” (a green, cucumber like vegetable), or “Bulu” (has no connection to X rated movies) or “Lobon” (salt).

Why is there always the need to hyphenate ourselves with these additional names? It’s not that our names are abbreviated from a simple Christine/Christopher to Chris. It crosses many boundaries of sensibility.

My first name is Saber (a person with patience) followed by Zain (handsome) and finally a surname of Mahmood: one of the hundred names of God.

This connotes that my parents, in their delusional (maybe heavily dosed anesthetics stage), expected/dreamed of their newborn son be a patient, handsome and a Godly character.

I am certain, if you ask Wasima she will attribute that I am all that and maybe a bit more!

But after such a long name, they followed up with another name (only to be used in family circles): “Shoikoth” which transliterates to “Sea Shore”. Since we lived in the port city of Chittagong at the time of my birth, they thought somehow, I needed another name to connect me to my natural surroundings. I am just glad not to be born in Chapai Nobab Gonj or Bheramara!

At least, this nick name is better than most of the Bangla names I hear like “Jhontu”, “Liton” or “Poltu” or something that in most cases don’t have any meaning whatsoever. Imagine being sixty years old and being called Babu (small boy) or Baby, both common names for children in Bangladesh. I have a distant cousin whose nickname is Bhaiyah (which means brother). Imagine your parents addressing you as their brother every day. There has to be some recrimination for such a crime.

However, in Bangladesh, if you are a successful politician or a thug (sometimes those differences do blur), nick names seem to carry a lot of their brand. Wherever you go, you hear about “Lalu or Nannu Bhai” or “Dulu Miah”. They protect their personal “brand” like Coke or Nike protects their image. I noticed recently that even western educated children of some of these folks are now adding their father’s colloquial nickname to their formal names.

At least I am grateful that my parents didn’t get too creative in Arabic. I had an Indonesian friend named “Fuqwe”; I cannot imagine going through the US high school system with such a name! Sometimes I watch the US broadcasters struggling to pronounce the name of the current military chief of Pakistan (Ash-faque Kiyani); next time, watch a wry smile develop at the corner of their lips.

There was an Indonesian friend in college who had only one name: Effendy. The University Of Missouri college admissions folks just wouldn’t accept it. So, his transcript came with a repeat: Effendy Effendy.

There are lots of Eastern folklore (or possibly hyperbole) about how ones name influences their personality. If so, why would children be named Meghla (cloudy)? This may actually have some application in the West since you can easily understand the personalities of President Nixon or Vice President Cheney from their first name “Dick”. The CEO of AlliedSignal was named Larry Bossidy.

Why do Bangladeshis have this sense of duality or should I say, multiplicity? This appears to be a relatively unique phenomenon in Bangladesh. I have not noticed such a prevalence of Nicknaming amongst our friends from India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka.

There are some schools of thought about the Ganga-Brahmaputra deltaic region being originally populated by simple Bangla speaking folks. However, as the Mughals invaded or Sufis peacefully converted us to Islam, we were straddled with our Bangalee personality and the new-found Muslim identity.

Someone asked me once, if I am Bangalee first or Muslim first.

Without going into beliefs and a religious affiliations discussion, it’s like asking whether my right eye is more important than my left eye. Which eye do I turn on first, when I wake up in the morning?

Overlap that with my new found “third” eye, I am also an American. It’s no longer a duality….it’s multiplicity. Then comes all my other identities: son, husband, father, grandson, friend, co-worker, engineer….

If you keep adding on identities of my multiple, parallel worlds, no wonder it’s confounding on my multiple value-sets. I want to have Pinot Noir with my Biriyani; I want to say my muslim prayers with my shorts on, or use American descriptive “chillin” when I listen to Robindro Shongeet during my afternoon siesta.

I am convinced that it started on the day that my parents decided to give me these multiple, complicated names.

Nowadays, my favorite title is Baba or even better, when it is drizzled with a little honey and someone just calls me Baba Shona.


3 thoughts on “The Name of the Game: What’s in a name?

  1. Very interesting post. Although I would like to ask if this multiple names only apply to Muslim Banglas. I have met Christian Banglas and they have a main Christian name usually originating from the bible or from England 🙂 then followed by their Bangla nickname that denotes a quality, like beautiful, or a thing like a mountain.

    1. You are right; christians in Bangladesh sometimes do have a second name. Again, could be the conflict of our Bangalee identity with the christian identity!

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