Opinion & Analysis

Indians love name calling

What's in a name? Why might you have "dual names"? New Voice Shriya Bhagwat looks at the Indian phenomenon of giving people affectionate nicknames as a second name. 

Author Shriya Bhagwat makes the case for name calling | Photo: Supplied

It is little wonder that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is called Jassi, Jass (both common Punjabi names) or Cindy-Aunty by Indians in New Zealand. Those unversed in the culture of nomenclature might shift uncomfortably. It may even warrant a side-eye.

Stripped of context, this name-calling can seem patronising, or sexist, or even downright misogynistic, especially when some monikers land with excessive focus on appearance. When hecklers take this a step further, there’s a risk of losing sight of the important issues the person in power is actually talking about—to our own detriment.

How myopic. How cruel. How ill-mannered. 

However, there is a case to be made for name-calling.

Names have special meanings amongst Indians. Go to any Indian gathering and there will be aunties and uncles galore. They don’t need to be related to us to be afforded the title; using the term aunty or uncle simply allows us to relate to them in a meaningful way.

The tradition of pet names isn’t new, but India is vast and within its different regions the tradition takes different forms. In my Marathi family, folk would half joke that if a new arrival were offered anything more than a two-syllable name, it was almost certain they would never get called by it. It would be shortened. My own younger brother Pradyumna (go ahead, try saying it) is always just Prad to everyone.

The custom has its roots in the joint family set-up with several generations and siblings and their families all living together.

“Suffixes, prefixes or just plain ‘call names’ itself can be a mark of respect, affection or identification of the person within the larger family context,” says Prashant Belwalkar, himself familiar with joint family living but now at a distance from it having lived in New Zealand for many years. He is still called Prashant-dada when he wears his hat as the  President, MigHT-I, an organisation he helms to promote Indian arts and events.

Anyone from Bengal or of Bengali heritage will likely have a daak naam (the name used at home) and bhalo naam (an official name).

Prefixes and suffixes keep the name-calling tradition interesting; the emotive and filial didi (elder sister in Hindi and some other Indian languages) or akka (again, older sister in Southern Indian languages) can make relating easier for everyone.

Get Indians to reminisce of the many names they have been called in their lives and they’re sure to give you insight into the fullness, the complexity of their life, community and relationships.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed the various pet names given to me by friends and family alike, all varying depending on which part of India they came from,” says singer Amrita Bhende. Fortunately for her, most of the names she has been called through her life bring back great memories.

“My fellow Maharashtrians normally refer to me as Amruta but have been blessed with multiple variations including Amtu, Amty, Amy, Ami, Amu, Ams, Amareeta and the inevitable (and less loved) Bhindi bhaaji (okra vegetable), Bhindi bazaar (a place in Mumbai), Bhindi (okra), Bhends and so many more than I can't even remember. I haven't loved them all but without question each of them sparks a memory.”

No one is spared, not even kings—royal prefixes, like Chattrapati or Samrat for kings, and the equivalent terms for queens. Historical figures who came later couldn’t escape the tradition either.

So Subhash Chandra Bose becomes Bose Babu, and MK Gandhi gets Mahatma (meaning great soul). More recently, Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji has been called Mamata didi. For those without official markers of status but who warrant respect regardless, at the very least get anointed with a ‘ji’ after their name pegs a person’s status swiftly.

Auckland musician Ben Fernandez has certainly done his job of making his son’s experience of growing up memorable as far as names goes.

“My wife and I have a number of pet names, such as Puntu, Pingu, Joshio, etc for our son Joshua and he responds to all of them. In fact it is  something that we took for granted until one day Joshua's class teacher told me that she noticed that I call him by different names and wanted to know if he had many 'Indian' names besides Joshua. I told her these were his pet names and it was a common practice in the Indian community and that Joshua had a pet name for me too. The confused look on her face was priceless,” he recalls with a laugh.

In some circles, being  known by one’s last name or initials is a shorthand indicating their level of influence. Hindi cinema stalwarts are examples: Shah Rukh Khan goes by SRK and Priyanka Chopra is PC, for example.

It’s hard enough to get non-Indians to pronounce Indian names correctly. So, if anything, the tradition of name-calling, when those names are selected and used appropriately, is worthy of preserving. It is a way in, a way forward. An opportunity to form closer relationships,  not just with our friends, or our potential friends, but also as a means of connecting to larger issues, through history-makers, influencers, and storytellers.

- Asia Media Centre