January 06, 2005

Nonsense by any other name

Some years ago, I went searching for a man in a small town in Maharashtra. He went by the name of Manjur Lafangya Shinde.

"Lafangya", as you Indians will have gathered, comes from "lafanga", meaning "good-for-nothing". This man's father was called that. Which is not so much a comment on him as a giveaway of what kind of men these are: Pardhis, one of our denotified, or once-"criminal", tribes. People looked at with scorn and suspicion all over our country.

You are most welcome to read more about them, and about my search for Lafangya's son Manjur, and about what happened when I went asking for him, in my book Branded By Law.

But today, near a railway crossing south of Cuddalore, that encounter with a strange name came back to mind.

We meet a young couple who lives with their three kids and his father in a hut that stands by itself, overlooking fields of freshly planted paddy. While the tidal wave did not overwhelm them, it still took away their nets and boat, which they used to fish with on the nearby river Uppannar. Yet nobody has stopped to offer them any aid; like the Irulas I mentioned before, they don't figure on Government lists of the affected.

What's your name, we ask the father. Before he can reply, the son says: Manangatti. If you know your Tamil, that means "clump of mud", but is more usually used to mean nonsense. Or used as an insult.

The father quickly said his real name, "Jagannathan". But we understand. The name he is best known by, even by his son, is a scornful epithet.

What does it do to you to be known as "good-for-nothing", or "nonsense", all your life? Even by your son?


Shobha said...

Hehehee! Mannangatti and a name! I would have cracked up there only! :)

Neela said...

its as sad as being called "little" or "pinky" or "dimple' all your life (and by your kids and the neighbours kids - just think of what Pinky Mama feels when he is thus addressed) I would wager. but i do agree if you are calling a "good for nothing" and you live in such insecurity, such a name might have damaging effects on your self-esteem. however, i don't know if the son called him that with any intent. sometimes nicknames just stick.

atracus said...

In lots of villages and even cities in India there was/is a tradition to give very unflattering names to newly-born babies. These unflattering monikers would be either the real monikers, or one used predominantly to address the child as it grows.
The reason for this was/is superstition - it is believed that if a child has a name that is obviously worthless, then he/she will not attract attention of evil entities, or that this will prevent the evil eye - prevents "nazar lagna", in hindi). (and thus spare all truck drivers the trouble of painting "buri nazar waley tera muh kala" on their trucks, too, I guess)
This is especially done if the mother has had a history of abortions or if her previous babies have not survived.
This is why you have names like "Dagdu" (stone), "kalu" (blackie) which even belong to very wealthy people (a la the famous "Dagdu-seth").
I do not know what effect it has on the psyche of the kid - but conferring of 'worthless' monikers is not always done to run down the poor kid in India. There is a non-personal and tradition-based logic (no matter how much founded in superstition) to it, which actually seeks to protect the child.
Frankly, even indic sacred lore has people being named in weird ways - the most famous philosopher - Ashta-vakra, was addressed after his deformity, and Krishna was outright called dark.

On a tangent, I think if freud or Jung had existed in Mahabharatan times, they'd probably have pointed out that the Mahabharata actually happened because Krishna had been traumatised about all the fairer chaps calling him blackie all his life and he only wanted to get back at them.
Or, maybe Robin Hood robbed people cause he was given a name that sounded like with he was Robbin' somebody.
Or, that Clinton took a fancy to women because his last name sounded like something that belonged to those women.
On the other hand, all the chaps with great names like Charles Sobhraj, Buffalo Bill, or John Wilkes Boothe, seem not to have been turned into great guys in spite of their having great names at all.

wise donkey said...

whats in a name?? a lot.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 'atracus' (see comments above) completely. What he explains is the reason for such names, especially in TN. I hope Dilip does not intepret these names as a social curse.

Of course, lot of other things that he talks abt are social curses. Some might even call this set of belief of naming as 'superstitions'. But then even the top scientists of the West had 'beliefs', like Einstien.

When a person 'seems' higher up when compared to us, we will call it 'belief' and when something we dont believe is believed by poor ppl, we snub that as 'superstition'.