The Amusing Amchigele (Our own) Art of Naming People
I write this piece with malice towards none and love for all. It’s about how some of our Konkani people got their names, and the Amchigele art of choosing some intriguing ones. What’s in a name, you ask? Then perhaps you don’t know about this village in South Karnataka, where there were so many Rams that a wise old woman wrote a song to identify each one of them. It went thus: Gal gal matey halaiyta Vithal Kamatilo Ramu, which loosely translated would mean, ‘Shake shake shakes his head, Vithal Kamat’s Ram’. So on it went, with each Ram’s characteristic forming the lyrics. I am told there were about a hundred Rams. (I regret I don’t know the whole song).
If you are born in a Konkani family, as I was, you would be familiar with the way people are identified by their native place. My maternal grandfather was Kotekar Krishna Kamath, Kotekar being the name of his native place. You would have people refer to friends and relatives with the name of their native place preceding it, as if without it, they would lose their identity. So it wouldn’t be a Narasimha who would be visiting you. It would be a Bolar Narashimu, or a Tirthale Vithalu or a Panvel Pandu, the last syllable of all short names inevitably transformed into a ‘u’, pronounced ‘oo’. So, Kiran became Kiranu, Navin – Navinu, Shyam – Shyamu, Nitin –Nitinu. Get the drift? Abhishek and Shantanu were spared – the former had too many syllables to be tampered with, and Shantanu had managed the ‘oo’ for itself. The youngsters, of course, have dropped these forms of identification, but some with the surname Mallya, have begun to write the name of their native place before their names in capital letters to clarify that they have nothing to do with the hometown of a certain (sur)namesake dorko (Konkani man), who has fled the scene.
I remember a friend deciding against naming her son Kuber, despite the prospect of raising the God of Wealth himself in her home and being the beneficiary of whatever bounty the name brought with it, just because she didn’t want to anger his divine counterpart, when her earthly relatives would address her son as Kubera or Kuberu. She chose what she thought was a safe Venkatesh. She didn’t know then that Konkani tongues are prone to changing the ‘oo’ into a wider ‘aa’, quite glibly. She fumed when Venkatesh responded to Venkatshhaaaaa, happily, unaware that his carefully chosen name had failed to safeguard itself from being altered.
If I had thought that it was only the native place that preceded Konkani names, I couldn’t have been more off the mark. I chanced upon an interesting honorific when my cousin got engaged to a Vag Shenoy. Now, Vag or Wagh or Waghu, means tiger in Konkani. The gentleman (who is my beloved bhavaji (brother in law) now) I was introduced to was a quiet, peace-loving person, who spoke softly, and who, I knew, wouldn’t hurt a microbe, leave alone roar or display any of the ferocious characteristics of the predator. I knew for sure that he hadn’t killed a tiger (not even in self-defence) or tamed or fought with one. So how did the honorific Vag get attached to his name?
Lore has it that when bhavaji’s great-grandfather, Sarvottam, was a toddler, he was carried away by a tiger. Horrified, the child’s mother raised an alarm, and villagers chased the tiger and blocked its way, as it was about to enter the jungle. They went down on their knees, joined their hands reverentially and pleaded with the tiger to let go of the terrified, wailing baby. ‘We promise,’ they said, ‘we will take your name as our own, and generations will know of you, the benevolent one, who spared our child.’ Appeased and moved by their entreaties, the tiger let go of the surprisingly unharmed baby, and the honorific Vag got attached to the Shenoys’ names. To this day, the descendants of the rescued Shenoy baby are referred to as ‘Vagatanchi’ or ‘those from the house of the Vags’. My nephews, not impressed by the tiger-human pact, apologised to the entire tiger clan, nevertheless, when they decided to drop the honorific from their names; they do their bit quietly for the ‘Save the Tiger’ project, now that the feared one is the endangered species. We have indeed come a long way.
It’s not just the tigers who have been honoured thus. Insects, objects, human flaws and failings, and even rags have been chosen as appropriate honorifics for the purpose of convenient identification, often to the chagrin of those thus decorated. I have heard of a Bhanshire (kitchen rag) Narasimhu (the half-man–half-lion god seems to be quite a favourite), probably because he dressed shabbily, a Belta Wamanu (a man who wore suspenders) to distinguish him from a Paala-moola (roots-and-shoots) Wamanu (a gentleman who propagated naturopathy, always carried a bag full of herbs, and gave a demo of their efficacy to whoever cared to listen), a Jalaar (mosquito) Mangeshu (who probably belonged to a place swarming with blood-sucking insects of the anopheles variety), a Paaykhilo (latrine) Madhu, who would never have suspected that in the pre-Swachch Bharat days, his pioneering initiative to build a toilet inside his house would earn him such notoriety, a Kuste Sanjivu, the wrestler who created quite a dangal in his hometown, and a Pishvi (bag) Sanjeevi, who never ventured out of her house without a cloth bag dangling on her arm.
Then there were those who were a trifle insensitively, but certainly with no intention to hurt, referred to by their conspicuous physical characteristics or their habits or traits. So, there was a tambiya bodacho (a man whose head was shaped like a round drinking vessel made of copper or other metals), a sokni (lizard) mhantaro (old man), a thin seventy-year-old man with a penchant for fitting into the narrowest of spaces, a Totli Tilottama, who lisped, a Rulaavu (semolina) Mhaav (elder aunt), who relished upma and ate it every day. That’s not all. If you are the kind who gets up in the middle of a meal to visit the loo, an elder might reprimand you for being a ‘Manjula’, the lady whose this very habit got her name to become a form of reproach.
Do I have an honorific too? Yes, I do, and not a very flattering one at that. I am Bob Archu. No, I’m not a Marley fan but I earned this name for being a bit of a yeller. Ironically, ‘Bob Marlee’ in Konkani means ‘Shouted’. Here I am, shouting out loud, reiterating that this name-calling is always done without an iota of spite. In fact, over the years, I have come to know that these honorifics, however weird and seemingly offensive, are in fact, terms of endearment.
What’s in your name, may I ask?
– Some names have been changed to protect identities