Names, in cultural contexts, are interesting monikers. Not like Tom, Dick or Harry, which are, well, just names. I like it when names mean something. There used to be a Japanese restaurant in Delhi — it’s still around I think — called Sakura. I never thought much about it, probably because I wasn’t really into Japanese food. But the other day, I was watching a Japanese serial, where the lead actress is called Sakura, and so I Googled “meaning of Sakura” and realised it means cherry blossom. How nice, I thought.
Moving away from meanings, there’s also the matter of sexism in names. Who decided — back in the day — that Jane is a woman’s name, and John is a man’s, I often wonder. It’s a mystery. I mean, why is Daniel is boy’s name, and Danielle a girl’s name: I mean, they both sound the same (yes, I know ‘elle’ means female in French but I’m talking about phonetics here).
These days, since everything is about equal rights (as it should be), there are lists and lists of gender-neutral names. But even here, other than Brooklyn or Jordan or Kerry, most of the names sound either too girlie or too mannish (see, I’ve been conditioned to be biased too). Like Jackie, it’s a gender-neutral name everyone claims, but when I hear Jackie, I think of (Bollywood actor) Jackie Shroff because the female Jackie is Jacqueline Kennedy, and, to my mind, that’s only a ‘short form’ of a woman’s name.
With Indian-sounding names, often an “a” at the end of a name decides the gender. Like Sumit is a man’s name, and Sumita is a woman’s. Or Arun is a man’s name, and Aruna its female counterpart.
Back in 2008, when I arrived in Dubai, a strange incident happened over name-calling.
“You must meet Aruna,” my Boss ordered on my second day at work (the first day, I only met the HR/admin guys), “the head of research.”
It was a bit like someone saying, meet Abhilasha or Sunita or Prema, and you turn your head, expecting to see a woman, and you see a man. You keep wondering why is HE called ‘Abhilasha’ or ‘Sunita’ or ‘Prema’, and NOT Abhilash or Sunit or Prem. That’s exactly what went through my mind when Aruna walked into the Boss’s chamber: why on earth is HE, that man, called Aruna, and not Arun?
Maybe I needed hearing aids. Or maybe this wasn’t Aruna actually — maybe this is an interloper.
“Hi,” this person thrust his paw into mine, “I’m Aruna.”
I cocked my ears and listened very carefully: there was a distinct ‘a’ after Arun, it added up to Aruna alright.
“Hello, hello,” I said. “I’m Sushmita.” Not Sushmit. I didn’t say that, of course.
I was dying to, but couldn’t ask him why he has a woman’s name. Not right then anyhow. So, I waited for a couple of hours, then walked up to him on the pretext of some research-based number crunching, and chatted with him for a few minutes. Then, I just had to pop the question: “Why do you have a girl’s name?”
Aruna, in Sanskrit, means the colour crimson, he explained hotly, his face a flush of crimson tide. Somebody in his family is a Sanskrit scholar. Therefore.
That STILL doesn’t explain why you have a girl’s name, I giggled.
He stomped off.
A couple of days later, Aruna offered to place the lunch order for a few of us from Amaravathi, an Andhra takeaway that delivers food to office. After he rattled off the wish-list, the person on the other side wanted to know who he was speaking with.
“This is Arun,” said Aruna, and hung up.
“WHAT WAS THAT?” I asked.
“Madam [yes, he had this annoying habit of addressing all women as ‘madam’], I’ve realised it’s easier to call myself Arun when I’m interacting with the service sector — especially the ones fronted by Indians. When I say Aruna, they keep asking me to repeat the name — because they can’t believe that they HADN’T been talking to a man.”
(PS: In case you were wondering what’s become of Aruna in 2022, he’s now a farmer in Mysore.)
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