Opinion Columnists 25 Dec 2021 Shreya Sen-Handley | ...
Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning 'Memoirs of My Body', short story collection 'Strange', and new travelogue 'Handle With Care', and a columnist and playwright. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.

Shreya Sen-Handley | Steve, Chom-chom, other name games people play

Published Dec 26, 2021, 3:08 am IST
Updated Dec 26, 2021, 10:31 am IST
At birth we’re given hopeful names by our generally well-intentioned parents, with which we develop a love-hate relationship as we grow
So, what does 2022, the Year of the Tiger, promise?
 So, what does 2022, the Year of the Tiger, promise?

“What’s in a name?” asked The Bard, and we all obligingly agreed that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. But don’t our names define, inspire, and circumscribe us?

At birth we’re given hopeful names by our generally well-intentioned parents, with which we develop a love-hate relationship as we grow. As one of the first markers of identity, it is inextricably entwined with our sense of self, but depending on how convoluted, unusual, old-fashioned, challenging, or nonsensical are our monikers, we might feel constrained by it, or burdened with the weight of expectations. My father, named Prithwiraj, or ‘king of the world’, always thought it an unfair ask!

 

If you’re Bengali like me, you’ll have a preposterous pet name to boot: Babla, Minky, Gugloo, or Tinky-Winky (that one’s a Teletubby, but close enough)! Certainly far too many of us are saddled with the suffix ‘poo’, and resultant tummy troubles!

I’ve been apportioned more names than I can even remember, and are still known by at least three. The name I was born with: Shreyasi, then my pet name, a distortion of ‘Rimjhim’, because my cousins couldn’t pronounce it, and Shreya: more my name now than any other.

 

But I was neither born with it, nor chose it for myself: it was bequeathed to me at my first workplace, a television company in Delhi, where, never having encountered an appellation like Shreyasi, they decided it must be ‘Shreya C’, because our exec producer, another Bengali, went by the name of Ray C.

All Bengalis, they’d clearly concluded, must have a mysterious ‘C’ in their names.

C for Calcutta, chanachur, or chingri! And though I entertained the idea of renaming myself Shreya Chom-chom Sen, I plumped for persuading them to drop the randomly inserted letter instead. I welcomed my new name Shreya however, as one that would never fox anybody. But then I moved to Britain…
Over my twenty years here, I’ve been called many things, including Sharon, Sherry, Cherie, Paki, Luv, Duck, Mowgli, and She-Ra, with the last my favourite, because who doesn’t want to be a skimpily- clad superhero?

 

Every South Asian in Britain has been called Paki at least once. British-Asian cricketer Azeem Rafiq recently dished the dirt on English cricket’s time-honoured tradition of xenophobic name-calling, and amongst the revelations that touched raw nerves was that Chetteshwar Pujara had been persistently called Steve by his county cricket teammates. Even though he was distinctly uncomfortable with it. Steve is a nifty name that means crown in Greek. It also happens to be my husband’s. But if it isn’t your name and you don’t want it, then to insist on calling you by it is harassment.

 

We also learnt from Rafiq’s testimony that English batsman Gary Ballance referred to all his brown teammates as ‘Kevin’, thinking them too unimportant to bother to learn their names. To rub it in further, his cricketing mate Alex Hales then christened his new, black dog ‘Kevin’. How obliquely British to go to all that trouble, when he could’ve just called them ‘kutta’ to their faces!

But give a dog a bad name and they’re still our friends; which cannot be said for every critter we’ve domesticated! The microscopic Coronavirus with the massive impact has been the name on everyone’s mind (lips, nose, hands) for the last two years. Ever-changing in its contagion quotient, reach, and deadliness, this mighty mite’s global reign of terror shows no signs of abating. Each new variant is not only more dangerous but more ominously named.

 

For the longest time Donald Trump called Covid’s first incarnation the Chinese Virus, leading to attacks on East Asian immigrants. Springing from Kent in England, the second variant was swiftly renamed Beta (apt that its name is also a nod to our role in spawning this horror!). Delta, scything through India soon after, and arriving in the west, was initially called the Indian variant, but sounding so much like a courier or a takeaway, it was crying out for a more formidable name.

So now we have Omicron, as sinister as it sounds, coming out of Africa and overwhelming the world, with a speed and stealth unmatched amongst contagions, and a lethality that might yet devastate. These Greek classical terms for Covid avatars had seemed almost reassuring till now; as if by giving them familiar names, we’d figured them out. Consequently, we let our guard down. But Omicron sounds more like a vengeful Greek god or sci-fi supervillain; intent on wiping out the human race, like the virus itself. A name to strike terror in our hearts and rightly remind us that this eviscerating pandemic is far from over.

 

Names do carry weight and have significance. Directly or otherwise, they influence the course of those attached to them, and conversely, how the world approaches their bearers. Which makes me think, on the cusp of the coming year, that we must name it wisely. 2021 was the Chinese Year of the Ox, and look how it’s bulldozed us!

So, what does 2022, the Year of the Tiger, promise? A year as red in tooth and claw as the last two?

Or burning brightly with hope of redemption? Why not christen it just what we’ve called it, repeatedly to each other, these last few weeks? Happy New Year. And then, help it live up to its comfortingly familiar and hearteningly hopeful name?

 

Happy new year. To you and you and you. Let this be the name for 2022.

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