A ROSE BY ANOTHER NAME: ON NAMES AND NICKNAMES
By Dr. I. J. Singh
By Dr. I. J. Singh
This is a semi-serious commentary on how Sikhs name their children. One might ask, what is so complicated about naming a baby? You made it; you can give it any handle you wish. A book on Sikh names is available and contains translations of their meanings. You can download a listing of pages of Sikh names from the Internet. Many bookstores carry books that list thousands upon thousands of names, ranking them according to their popularity. (But these are not necessarily Sikh names.) The little brat can even change his or her name later! Select the trendiest, most fashionable name, just as you pick designer jeans by the label and its popularity.
First, I’ll make a brief foray into this area from a different perspective, and then I’ll progress to the meaning and metaphor in the Sikh tradition of arriving at names. The discussion is somewhat tongue in cheek, but it is not without serious purpose. It might even arouse some hostility and some passion in some readers, though introspection would be more useful.
I was in India not so long ago and noticed that army personnel, police officers, immigration and customs officers and even airport security personnel all wore badges that identified them. Almost all the nameplates were in Hindi, the national language of India. Very useful indeed.
Badges worn by Sikhs caught my eye and prompted me to write this essay. All Sikh males carry “Singh” as part of their name, often as the last name but sometimes as the middle one. It was interesting to me that whenever this name was used as a last name, the name on the Hindi nameplate appeared as “Sinh.” Why was the “g” left out, I asked? Why leave out a whole consonant in a proper name? People I questioned looked askance at me. Was I stupid? The answer was simple, I was told. Didn’t I know that, literally translated, both Singh and Sinh mean “lion”? Therefore, Sinh was the literal translation and rendering of Singh from Punjabi into Hindi.
I met not one single Hindu, even worse, not a single Sikh, in India who found this practice questionable. Then why am I irked?
Names are specific. One translates names of inanimate objects, even common nouns, but one does not translate proper nouns, nor should one. Many names, first or last, have specific meanings in their language. Names are rendered phonetically in a new language or script, never translated.
An example or two should suffice to illustrate the absurdity of translating names. I am reminded of a former Indian cricket player in the 1960s whose last name was “Contractor.” I do not recall anyone translating it into “Thekedar” when referring to him in Hindi. I never heard a cricket commentator declaiming, “Thekedar at bat facing Freddie Truman, perhaps the fastest bowler in the world. Thekedar takes a swipe, misses completely.” (Perhaps it should be Thekedar facing Sachapurush!) Behind the wickets, of course, could be Robin Cook — would he be “Sri Chirya Bavarchi” in Hindi? “Meet my friend Mr. Contractor,” one might say to an English-speaking person, but to a Hindi-speaking friend, “Let me introduce Sri Thekedar.”
I see Singh translated into Sinh only in India. No other last or first name derived from any religion or from any of the many Indian languages is subjected to such treatment, as far as I know. I wonder why?
I don’t remember Mehar Ali being labeled “Compassionate Ali,” however kind he may be. Bhagwan Singh is referred to in Hindi as “Bhagwan Sinh,” not as “God Sinh.” “Presenting Mr. God Lion,” in English. Imagine the pop idol Daler Mehndi as “Brave Henna” with his rocking bhangra beat. Can you imagine the troubles for immigration services, universities and banks around the world if they started translating proper nouns?
Am I being unrealistic or illogical in looking for a certain consistency from Indian society and government? But why blame the Indian government alone? India has been independent for over 50 years, and this policy of translating names has been in effect for more than one generation. I haven’t met any Sikhs who took exception.
A proper noun, when written in a new language, is best rendered phonetically so that readers can pronounce it as accurately and precisely as the new script will allow. That seems to me eminently logical, sensible and self-evident.
Is this practice of translating Singh into Sinh born out of ignorance or general cultural insensitivity, or are there some sinister overtones to it? I leave that analysis to abler commentators and analysts.
If it is nothing else, the practice remains a lovely way to create multiple personalities.
Now, I’ll look at how urbanized, sophisticated, educated Sikhs from India (and abroad) give nicknames to their children. They all have the traditional Sikh names, Singh (for boys) and Kaur (for girls), and a first name stemming from Indian culture and languages. Then the parents saddle their children with a nickname, something like Bunty, Billa, Baboo, Daboo, Pixie, Pinky, Princie, Timmy, Lucky, Happy, Bitsy, Tipsy, Bubbly, Pinto, Sheena and Sheetu. Many of them sound like monickers for pets, and some are. (With too many Bubblys does one get Tipsy?)
There is a tendency to pick nicknames from Western slang or abbreviations of Christian names. I don’t know if this practice is a vestigial one from the British dominance of Indian society for over two centuries or if it stems from our hyperactive movie industry. (Punjab suffered under the British for only one century instead of two as much of the rest of India did.) But the use of such nicknames is incongruous in Indian society because often they have absolutely no connection with the given Indian name of the poor child. I find such nicknames demeaning, if not meaningless.
I remember a scion of a princely family of India dubbed William. This name was totally unrelated phonetically to his given name and was not much shorter than it. Look around you in Sikh society. How many Bobbys, Billys, Harrys, Daves, Herbs, Seans (Shawns), and Vickys do you know? Then look at their given names — Joginder, Gurbaksh, Bhupinder, Surinder and so on. By what stretch of the imagination are these nicknames derived?
If a Jaswinder, Jaswant or Jasjit metamorphosed into Jas or Jazz, I could understand. A Harbans or Harbajhan may conveniently become Herb. If a Trilochan was dubbed Terry, I could see, but Tinku? A nickname should have at least some semblance of a relationship to the given name, perhaps be a shorter version of it. Mercifully, there are no Plumpys and Stinkys, or at least I haven’t heard of any.
Readers might recall that many of the immigrants who came from Eastern Europe were ignorant of the English language when they landed in North America. And the immigration officers who could not pronounce or spell the first or last names of immigrants often truncated or otherwise Anglicized them. I had a friend whom we all knew for years as Bruce Silverstein. At his marriage, we discovered that his name was really Ishmael Bruce Silverstein. The Ishmael in his name had remained hidden and unused all these years. Even formally, he had become I. Bruce Silverstein. For centuries, Marrano Jews — Christianized Jews of medieval Spain — adopted Christian or Anglicized names outside the home.
When societies and languages interact, mixed names appear. Often the root of a name is long lost or forgotten, but it is not difficult to discern. Remember Sonny Ramadhin, the legendary West Indian cricketer of the 1950s. His cultural, religious roots are obvious in his name. The current president of Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Socialist Republic, is Nursultan Nazarbayev; the foreign minister is Kasymzhomart Tokayev. There is no mistaking the mixing of Islamic with Eastern-European cultural and religious traditions. I have less trouble with a Robert Singh than with a Gurbhagat Sinh or Robert or Gary Sinh.
I am sure Sikh readers or their friends and relatives who are beyond 50 years of age remember when even at home a Sikh’s given name was used — with Singh or Kaur attached if he or she was being scolded. Now when a name is called it is hard to tell whether it is a Sikh or non-Sikh who is being summoned, indeed, whether it is a boy, girl or dog.
What does early Sikh tradition have to say about naming children?
A child is a gift from God that embodies many of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of its parents and families. The birth of a human is our opportunity to discover God by serving humanity. The generations past have made this imperfect world that is given to us, that is placed in our care. What tracks in the sands of time will define us? What memorials will be our contribution to the world? What will be our legacy? The debt we inherit from a bygone generation we pay to our children who, in turn, will pay theirs. A child, therefore, is no ordinary thing. It carries us into eternity. The naming of a child becomes a serious, almost sacred, mission for a family and society. God and Guru are invoked, history is remembered, the community is a witness.
When I look at how Sikh tradition recommends that we name our children, I find that nowhere else is there such a perfect blending of the mystery of God and the free will of man. The past is inherent in a child, and the child carries us into the future. In a child, the past, the present and the future merge flawlessly and effortlessly. It is this awareness that gives meaning and purpose to the act of naming a child in the Sikh tradition.
Appropriate to an unexcelled gift — a child — first a prayer of thanksgiving is offered. Next, the Guru Granth is opened at random. The first hymn on the left-hand page is then read. If the hymn started on the previous page, it is read from its beginning there. The first letter of the hymn is noted. There is no magical reason why it is the left-hand page; the tradition merely recognizes that we write from left to right. There is an idea behind the ritual. It is to let go of our ego and will and recognize the necessity and beauty in surrender to the will of God. We could easily be tempted to select a favorite hymn with a beginning letter to which we are partial. In essence, the traditional act says: “Thy will be done and let my child’s name (and life) be guided by the Holy Spirit as this child begins a new life.”
What comes next also has as much meaning to a Sikh. This sense of surrender to the will of God must drive the prayerful and vigorous efforts of man; the two must remain inseparably enmeshed. Therefore, the parents, relatives and friends now make up a suitable name based on the letter given to them by the Guru Granth. The selection of the letter unites the child to the will of God, from whom all things flow. Our construction of a name from that letter merges the child with our hopes, dreams and aspirations. You will not have failed to notice that often the first name is selected to be phonetically pleasing or to represent qualities that we hope the child will have — attributes of heroic dimensions, saintly virtues, memorable beauty, qualities of the heart and mind or familial continuity and lineage, and so on.
A third important part to naming a child is the addition of Kaur or “princess” for every girl and Singh or “lion” for every boy. This addendum to the name links the child to its heritage and needs some elaboration; its use is not consistent among present-day Sikhs. I have met bright, idealistic, articulate young Sikh women who were visibly upset by this apparent gender difference in naming a child. Did the Guru think that only men could be lions? Were the women weaker and so labeled princesses? Were the women not good enough or strong enough to be considered lions? But I wonder, couldn’t a man take umbrage that he wasn’t thought graceful? Was a man only a beast even though a king of the jungle, whereas a woman was like royalty, graceful and born to rule?
Perhaps both views are incomplete, and hence immature. History tells us that there have been many heroic women and cowardly men among Sikhs, as among others. The Gurus were creating an egalitarian society, liberating women from their bondage of centuries. If men and women are like the two sides of a true coin, which complement each other, then how could one side can be better than the other? There is nothing derogatory in being either a princess or a lion for each is the best in its own category.
A song popular with many young Sikhs goes, “Many speak of courage, speaking cannot give it.” Further along the song continues: “One does not become royal by birth but only if one’s home is Anandpur Sahib.” The reference is to the initiation into the Khalsa at which one acknowledges Anandpur as the spiritual home of a Sikh, for that is where Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa over 300 years ago. In other words, if a Sikh has the courage of a lion and the grace of royal stock, it is by following the Sikh spiritual way and not by distinctions of family, gender or birth. Becoming a Sikh free in spirit, resolute in action is the essence of Singh or Kaur.
Historically, most Sikh first names are gender neutral, and based on them one cannot tell one sex from the other. It is only Singh or Kaur that sets the two sexes apart. The increasing use of gender-specific first names among Sikhs is a relatively recent phenomenon; this trend undoubtedly is indicative of the predominantly non-Sikh cultural milieu in which we live. (Even in India Sikhs are only about 2 percent of the billion.) The roles that men and women play as responsible, ethical individuals in life are not defined by Sikh names but are determined by the individual’s own circumstances.
India is a caste-based society and a person’s last name often reveals his or her caste. In Hindu society, which is the dominant society in India, one’s caste reveals one’s place in society. Traditionally, caste determined where one lived and what profession one could follow. For example, those from the lowest caste may not enter certain Hindu temples. None but a male Brahmin may perform Hindu holy rites. Although some of the strictures of caste are loosening, it still remains an important determinant of whom one may marry. Hindu doctrine allows very little vertical intercaste flexibility or mobility. By rejecting the appellation and addendum of caste identification to the name, the Sikh emphasizes equality of all people. In Sikhism, one becomes high or low not by birth, caste, family, status or wealth but by righteous living in which the spiritual self and the life of action are inseparably merged, much as water and milk become one when mixed. I say this in full recognition of the fact that many Sikhs use caste names and, to a lesser or greater extent, pay some mind to their caste origins.
With people it isn’t quite “A rose by any other name …,” as Shakespeare said. A name is important but not just as a tag, handle or monicker; a name goes to the fundamentals of one’s identity and integrity. To name a child in the Sikh tradition is to declare, “Here is a child of God, given unto a family’s love and care, a maker of destinies of peoples and nations.”