What's in a name? Imprinting National Character

Kh. Ibomcha *

What's in a name? Imprinting National Character

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
(Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The above lines from the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare had unwittingly sparked a lot of debate and deliberations which have even affected my circle of close friends for quite some time now. We discussed on the conventions of naming a person or a place and the necessary conditions under which the name stands for something that it is supposed to represent bringing out the essential characteristics of what was being represented. It had been a daunting task to actually think through the whole range of debates because many prominent linguistic theoreticians had already contributed immensely rich discussions of the same topic. There is a general tendency to agree that the relationship between a name (representation) of a person (what is being represented) does not have a natural relationship with each other and the relationship is based on pure arbitrariness.

For instance a person's name Chaoba does not necessarily tell the natural characteristics of the same person. Chaoba (big/elder) can be a name of a small and thin person which not necessarily conveys the ultimate natural characteristics of the same person. However, quite distinct from this debate is the question of how names and naming conventions reflect the national character of persons/people. Or in other words, can naming conventions actually imprint the social, economic and cultural moorings of the people or nation that has had undergone numerous cultural and political changes irrespective of whether the names convey or signify the essential characteristics of the people. Or can the people of a particular geo-political region creatively use to convey the message of cultural and political difference or even dissent and disapproval of certain historical stages which they consider was an epoch of political and religious misdeeds.

What we can now say that Kanglei tradition has undergone numerous changes throughout its political and socio-religious history. These changes also had a remarkable impact on how we changed the way we name ourselves. This is specifically even more 'true' for the Meiteis of the Manipur valley. For instance in the post-Pamheiba era of Vaishnavite Hindu adventurism, a typical Meitei name would place the Yumnak (surname) as prefix followed by Singh, Sharma and Devi as suffix, not necessarily to convey the caste of the person represented but as useful and practical tool to distinguish gender. Example: Ningthoujam Krishna Singh/Gurumayum Sanajaoba Sharma for males and Ningthoujam Radha Devi/Gurumayum Ibetombi Devi for females.

It may be mentioned here that for all practical reasons, the use of Singh in Meitei names have been used not necessarily to convey the caste of the person for there are a number of persons in Manipur who have been clubbed into the category of Scheduled Caste and yet use Singh which is conventionally a caste indicator in mainstream Indian society. Perhaps, the only practical indicator of caste in Meitei naming convention is Sharma which succinctly signify that the name of a person with this suffix belongs to the Brahmin or the top Hindu caste hierarchy.

Kanglei historians have indicated that in the Meitei naming convention which excludes the Brahmins or other ethnic groups the Yumnak of the person is placed before the individual's name in more or less the same way like the Chinese.

However, the changes we have seen in naming conventions between the beginning of Hinduization and contemporary times in Kangleipak also saw the emergence of another new convention. Take for instance: Krishna Ningthoujam/Sanajaoba Gurumayum for males and Radha Ningthoujam/Ibetombi Gurumayum for females doing away with either the gender or caste indicators.

Some have even gone to the extent of adding on gender or clan indicators to the same name. Example: Ningthoujam Krishna Mangang /Ningthoujam Radha Chanu for both males and females.

The first naming convention mentioned above was a social impact of a religious mass forced conversion through an imperial order under the influence of a palace plotter named Shanti Das.

When realization dawned that along with religious subordination came the completion of political subordination in 1949, much changes were not seen in the naming conventions. However, by the 1980s, with the so called revival movements of numerous Meitei eenat/socio-cultural groups, we could see the beginning of a new trend in the naming conventions as mentioned earlier where the name comes first followed by the yumnak.

This change, as mentioned earlier could be attributed to two things: First is the resentment of using a caste indicator like Singh which did not actually belong to at least the idea of Kanglei nationhood and far away representing the social structure of the Salai Taret.

Thus began the conscious or unconscious removal of Singh from names of persons, more specifically, the youth and the trend continues till date. There is also another explanation to this trend. Observers say that many of those who have removed Singh from their names eventually end up with names like Robindro Sanasam or Tara Khuraijam. This perhaps has also been propelled by imitation of the western and even Aryanized trend of having names first followed by surname.

However, the Meitei naming convention conveys a lot more than what we can perceive. For instance, instead of western or Indian trend of using Mr. and Mrs or Shri and Shrimati, the naming convention of Meitei woman goes like this:

Moirangthem Ningol Loitangnganbi before getting married and when she gets married to a man belonging to Khumanthem family, it would be Khumanthem Ongbi Loitangnganbi. Recently, we have also come across some Metei married woman putting their husband's surname as last name starting another new trend.

A short account for the evolution of Meitei naming conventions goes like this: Before the seven principalities were united and formed an amalgamated Kangleinized kingdom, the salais chas used their clan name first name followed by the given name. Khuman principality, for example, used their clan name, Khuman, as their first name which is followed by given/individual name. So we find names like Khuman Kwakpa, Moirangningthou Punsiba, Khuman Khamba etc.

There also are instances of names preceded by the name of their places/village of origin with a common format: place name/village name, given name. Predominantly such names were given to prominent figures of the particular generation, so we come across names like Langol Lukhoi, Moirang Lalhaba etc. Later on, Meeteis used to identify themselves with their sakei/sagei as Asangbam Laiba where Asangbam is his sakei/sagei and Laiba is the individual name. After Loyumba's Loyumbashilyen (the division of labour), seven clans were identified with Yumnak (family name/surname) which is given based on occupational background.

Meitei also used their names along with the occupation they profess: Angomcha Samjetsabam Sanatomba where Angomcha is clan name, Samjetjasabam is his occupation (yumnak) and Sanatomba is his personal name. In due course of time, clan name was removed and the name became only Samjetsabam Sanatomba.

Here, it is worth noting certain Mongoloid Asian tradition. For instance Korean name comprises of a family name followed by a given name: Chang Chu-chu, Han Ch'eol-kyun and Kang Chi-seong are typical Korean names where chang, Han, Andkang are family names in which they belonged to, whereas Chu-Chu, Ch'eol-kyun and Che-seong are individual names. In China, a Chinese called Wei and belonging to the Zhang family is named as "Zhang Wei" but not "Wei Zhang".

Japanese common people have one family name and one given name with no mid-name but for the Japanese imperial family they bear no surname. In their convention too, family name stands before the given name. Vietnamese names generally consist of three parts: a family name, a middle name and a given name, used in that order. Nguyen Tan Dung is the current Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen stands his family name, Tan is his middle name, and Dung is his given name.

In formal norm and form, he is referred to by his given name ("Mr. Dung"), not by his family name ("Mr. Nguyen"). Cambodian names usually consist of two units, a family name, written first, and then a given name. The two are sometimes upturned but it is not their traditional convention but the result of adopting a westernized convention.

Coming back to Kanglei naming convention, one thing is clear that however arbitrary the usage and norms are, there is a clear cut contextual link to our history covering different phases like sovereign monarchical state(33 AD-1891), colonial dispensation (1891-1947) and dependent subordinate state (1949-till date).

Along the way, our naming conventions have also unwittingly reflected the stages of cultural triumphs, gradual subjugation, political realization and assertion. If there has been a seemingly revivalist tendency in Meitei naming convention, it cannot be termed as revivalism in the strict sense of the term. For revivalism is impossible both in terms of time and space.

What has been often called conservation and preservation in today's context is not about retaining the supposedly pristine glorious phases of history. It has a lot to do with a new age political assertion and of course resisting the overarching one sided dominance in all spheres of politics, economy and culture.

The uniqueness to the Kanglei culture can be maintained keeping in mind the epochal series of oppression, subjugation and occupation. Today, if a Meitei man chooses to change his name from Asangbam Lalit Singh to Asangbam Laiba (Meitei traditional convention) or Laiba Asangbam (periodic usage), the choice has a lot more than just following conventions but also about rejection, acceptance and dissent of the new generation.

However, a conscious application of one's mind over what looks like a simple innocuous social practice adopted along the way would point to the fact that it has always been more than profitable to adopt a choice which does not completely obliterate certain core values of Meitei naming convention as practiced by our forefathers. Hence, there is a need to also realize that to add power to our sense of rejecting the contemporary socio-political realities; we also need to pick the ideal convention.

When I say aryanisation, I do not mean the physical and anthropological components of the concept. What I am referring to is the political oppression and subjugation associated with the process of putting racial supremacy against humanely accepted democratic norms.

Here I do not mean mogoloid counter argument against aryanisation to eliminate the later. What I am proposing is the best given option to deal with the cultural deprivation and dominance of colonial rule to protect our national identity.

In other words, overwhelmed by western (Eurocentric and Indocentric) naming convention, knowingly or unknowingly, has a straight thrust to further the progression of aryanization which, with an innocuous exterior signification, will lead us (Kanglei nation) to an senseless adoption imposed culture. Non-realization of these would lead us to a state of being a corpse and ultimate extinction of what we as a nation stand for. This is where there is an urgent need to give life to the politics of naming conventions thereby making one and all understand there is a lot behind "what's in a name".

* Kh. Ibomcha wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was posted on March 02, 2013

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