Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's in a Name, Really?

Nothing much, or maybe quite something. Totally relative and definitely not to be joked about. But then, how would the average Indian, especially the amazing breed called "Bangali" go about their daily fare without poking fun at the names of their brethren? My grandfather had first fashioned his surname into "Bonnerjee". My father readily adapted it, and I was obliged to follow. I am extremely ashamed to accept now that this surname has been a cause of trauma for me over the years. Why? Because the average Bangali thought it was funny that the mundane 'Banerjee' should be spelt with an 'o', forgetting their history lessons, that the first president of the Indian National Congress himself wrote it with an 'o'. Anyway, I was 3, in kindergarten, when the pin-pointing began. And if your first name is something as grand as 'Samraghni', you have to know that you'll be subject to ridicule for the rest of your life. Of course I didn't tell my parents. Of course I always bore it all; patiently telling them that yes it's spelt with an 'o'; it's the same as Banerjee; I don't know why I write it this way; my father and my grandfather before him wrote it with an 'o'; and I swear I haven't made a spelling mistake. As I grew up, I would inform people lightly about the historical figure, but of course I was labelled as precocious.

Days rolled on. I think it was during my late teens that I first started telling people that my surname is 'Banerjee', reserving the 'o' only for official documents. Yes, it hurt. Bonnerjee was my identity, and when you change the name you've grown up in, you become the Namenlosen - the nameless. But I was tired of endless questions and pinpointing. And then came the final blow. I'd gone to the university to receive my MA Part II admit card which were being distributed two days before the exams on a half an hour notice. The queue was winding, the weather very hot and humid, and the temper was already rising. When my turn came, the man at the counter glanced at the admit card he was supposed to hand me, let out a smirk and said, "E ki, Bonnerjee? Hahahaha." Then he lifted the piece of paper, held it over his head, turned round in his chair, and addressed all his colleagues, loudly and in a tone of extreme mockery, "Bonnerjee! Ei bhai, dyakh, Bonnerjee! Jibone kokhono shunini baba, Bonnerjee!" All those government employees who come to office at noon and are always clueless when it comes to matters of work, looked at the sheet of paper, then at me, and laughed loudly. Well, bad for them, I wasn't 4 anymore. I said, loudly and clearly, with my voice ringing down the corridor, "Ota title. Banerjee r e variant. University te boshe achen aar W. C. Bonnerjee r naam shonen ni, eta apnader e murkhota promaan kore. Congress er first president chilen.Jaihok apnader she shob bole toh aar kono labh nei, shomoy noshto. Chi-chi jotto shob murkher dol. Ei College st theke beriye aro ektu uttore jaan. Dekhben ekta asto Raasta ache onaar naame." So saying, I snatched it from his hand, glared at all of them, and marched outside. My Maa tried to pacify me over the phone, saying that that could hamper with my results if not anything else(I had once pointed out to a teacher in class that she was wrong when she'd quoted Burns' "My love is like a red red rose" and tried to pass it off as Yeats. YEATS! I was well, duly penalised, come exams.). I told Maa enough was, well, enough. It was time I stood up against it. It's just a surname, and if you cannot respect the memory of the person who tried to make it famous, at least respect the person who still bears it.

Nevertheless, even after that, when people asked me my name, I spelled it with an 'a', until I finally asked myself, why? If people ask, I'll clarify; if I don't feel like, I won't; if they wonder, let them wonder; if they find it funny, well, I've been a source of some comic relief in their pathetic lives. I had been reading about a woman, my spiritual ancestor, and that was when I understood that I need not be ashamed of myself just because people are too ignorant. There's no need for me to resort to Womesh Babu's brilliance with politics, or Kanan Babu's brilliance with the way he wielded words (my grandfather, who was the editor of the Indian banking Journal among other things, and from whom I learnt the word 'juxtaposed' when 11, since he'd used it in a preface to a new edition in the 50s) every time some random stranger poked fun at my surname. People are what people do, not what their names are spelled as. She made me finally realise that I'm proud of my name, fricking proud. Both the first and the last name. And there's no reason to change it or modify it. I am Bonnerjee, with an 'o', and nothing can make me Banerjee with an 'a'. I just won't feel at home with that one.

And the woman who made me realise that is called Janaki Agnes Penelope Majumdar Bonnerjee. :)   


  1. Am joyful to know you graduated :)

  2. Till today, I have to explain to people that my name is not "Sayani, Shayani, Shayoni" etc etc, it's Shiny .. I have to explain that it was my dad's choice not mine. I guess the fact that it's not a typical bangali meyer naam, is what bothers them. I don't care , really. But your ordeal has been tougher than mine. Nice post. Nothing short of mindless useless chatter can be expected from the officials at the university, their only purpose in life being, torturing students. You gave it back to them, and how ! :)

  3. 1. I seriously congratulate you on making your real identity public, for that's who you are.
    2. I'm so proud that you told those smug lousy men that they are uneducated and ignorant.
    3. To take your and Shiny's experience a little further, I am Sinha. Not from Bihar, not from any other part of India. I am Bangali, from Purba Banga, and yet I am a Sinhs. Period.

  4. Shiny and Simantini - Thank you. I know exactly how both of you feel. That day was the limit for me. I had never ever been so vocally rude in public, especially to a stranger before. I still find it difficult. But those ignorant b******s set the ignition to the fuel that had been piling up for so long. It takes courage to stand up for something one's believes in. After I yelled that day and walked out, there was pin-drop silence. Of course everyone was too stunned to speak (or even believe what'd happened).
    That was still sometime ago. I decided to update everything to the "real" spelling today because I suddenly realised (while standing at the long queue at the exchange to pay the telephone bill) that it's high time to be exactly who you've always been. With a big, round 'o'. :)