What is in a name? A rose by any name...be that as it may. We all love to have a beautiful name over which we have no choice, just like we have no choice over our parents. Even before we know how to pronounce our name, we have been stamped with it. Of course, these days, people have the option of changing their names legally, if they don't like their given names. Otherwise, how will we see so many advertisements like, I, so and so, shall henceforth be known as si and si. The only thing, I don't understand is, how can he expect people to start calling him si and si overnight, when all along they were calling him as so and so. I am also told that certain communities in India change the name of the girl after marriage. I am not sure how much say she has in this process.
In the olden days, it was customary to name a child after its grand-father or grand-mother or a village deity or some great personalities, etc. It was said that this way, forefathers' names could be remembered at the time of various religious rites. Just so the still living elders should not be offended, when the child who is named after its grandma or grandpa, is called by their name, the child was usually called by a pet name. Here again, there were ingenious ways of finding a pet name. For instance, parents who lost their elder children named their child as "Pichai"(alms), as if to tell God, it is your alms to us, don't take him also away or "Kuppai" (worthless ), so that God will not consider of taking away something that is worthless. Mostly, there was a pattern followed, in all the families. The oldest was Konthai(just child in vernacular), the next was "Ambi"(younger), and then Papa(again a small child). And names like Rasa(prince) Chellam(the favourite one), Mani(precious jewel), were very popular. Similarly, girls were named: Kunja(the younger one), Ammini(just a girl), Thankam(gold), Shonnam(Gold), Rasai(princess), Ponnu(Gold), etc. When one got only daughters, the 3rd or 4th was named "Mangalam" (vote of thanks) or "Sampoornam" (finale) so that, the next would be a son or when one already had a dozen or so of kids, they were named samporrnam or Mangalam, so that there won't be any more additions to the family(no birth control devices were known then and the children are gifts of GOD).
Parents who couldn't waste their time in inventing endearing pet names for their children named them, chuppalai, ammalai, cheethalai, konthai, kunjaan , kichan etc. Some people are called Amman (uncle), athai(aunt)akka(elder sister)anna(elder brother) and so on, by the whole community.
There was a family, where the oldest son was Ambi, the next Kunjambi and the youngest chinnambi.(They couldn't think of any new names, perhaps).
When I had my first baby, my young brother who was only about 5 at that time asked me what the child's name would be. When I replied that, naturally, he would be named after his paternal grandfather, i.e Subramanian, my brother started crying aloud. In between sobs, he said "even if you name him as Subramanian, don't call him by that name or the usual pet name for Subramanian - Chuprai. Then his friends will start making fun of him by calling him, Chupramania-Apravaya. Find a nice name for him." There were always some small jingles for all the names, like the above. Ammini-kummini, echumi-pachadi for Lakshmi, Naana-koona for Narayanan, Balan-olan , Raman-kooman,etc.
Then, of course, we had the famous (?) nicknames, given by the friends and community at large, depending on the person's behaviour pattern, stature or looks. Many of these names were an honour to the conferred persons and some could be used only in the absence of the persons. Some names, though not very pleasing got stuck. People wouldn't recognise the person by his original name. There were names attached with humorous anecdotes about a person, a humorous comparison of a person's physical characteristic (an unduly tall and thin individual being referred as "arappana" or a very crafty personality as "Sakuni" , a very charitable man referred to as "Karnan", somebody who had the habit of snatching away others' belongings was called "Kakkai").We even had a "Mother Theresa", who was always helpful to others. Some of the not-so-palatable description of a person's disability is "nondi", "loose", "castor oil", etc. Some names, though not very pleasing got stuck. People wouldn't recognise the person by his original name. Though such nick names were used very often in our village, I must admit that most of the time references to people by the nick names were very seldom done to insult or offend them; rather they were used as identification. They just got stuck to them. There is an innocent humour when you hear them used in the villages. May be their practice has something to do with the humour adopted by the artists performing classical arts such as "Ottan Thullal", "Chakyar Koothu" etc which were part and parcel of the village life in the years not so long ago. The locals did not forget to honour the achievers of academic pursuits. Decorations such as "Pundit", "Dikshitar", etc were conferred and referred with respect by the entire village. By and all life was very interesting and such names served also as a means of remembering various personalities and incidents. They also gave rise to humorous literary activities.
Times changed. People had more exposure. The younger generation migrated outside the hometown and home state and they started naming the children differently. Though the practice of naming the child after grandparents continued, that name was mostly used only during religious rites. The child was given a modern name like, Pratap or Prasad or Vikram, etc. Names depicting seasons such as spring (vasantha or vasanth) or celestial stars like Ashwini, Rohini, Swathi (mostly the name of the birthstar) became more popular. Then came the "Kumar" era. Every child was named as some kumar, Ratheesh kumar, Santhosh Kumar, Prem Kumar, Ram Kumar, Krishna Kumar, Ramesh Kumar. There was a 'sh' era also. We had names ending in 'sh,' like Rajneesh, Lathish, Umesh, Ramesh, Suresh, Yogesh, Monish, etc. Among girls, it was the "Shree" endings, that became very popular, We had Vijayashree, Jayashree, Umashree, Ramashree, Divyashree, Rajashree, Lakshmishree, etc. Then came the big era of permutations and combinations. Children were named taking an alphabet or two each from the parents name. Couple who had names, Sundar and Uma would name their child as Suma. Kamala and Balan named their child as Kala or Mala, Rajan and Vasanthi named their child as Ravin. As long as it made some sense, it was ok. But which child would pardon its parents, if he or she were named Chimsi or Baiji or Vitu or Bindish or Ripu? Can you guess what would be the name of the parents of a girl by name, "Simla" or Ditu. , may be Simpson and Kamala or Divakar and Tulsi? It has become a very interesting pastime for me to read the credit columns of TV serials, these days. The names that roll out, like, Titu, Jojo, Mimi, Nano, engages me in a big guessing game of what would be the name of the parents.
People have other reasons to name their children also. I am reminded of an interview, published somewhere. A girl whose name was something like, Lisi Jayaram (whose father's name was something like Joseph or Mathew) was asked how she got a surname as Jayaram, when her father's name was Joseph or Mathew? The girl unabashedly said, "My mother wants me to become a great singer like Vani Jayaram".
And then there are children of patriotic parents who have names like, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Subash Chandra Bose, etc. The parents, for sure did not know that Gandhi and Bose were the surnames of the great leaders. (Many people in rural India still think Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi).
Of late, we have started naming the children and calling them also by names like Lakshmi, Parvati, Krishnan, etc (neo spiritualism) and the old nick names like, Ammu, Paru have also started reappearing. May be the cycle is starting all over again.