LIVING in different parts of India is educative. It tells you the country’s mosaic, its people and culture. The rich tapestry can puzzle people with its socio-cultural variants, while memes can suffuse the collective unconscious.
Today, oddly, I remain in midair, just where I always was — someone’s something: father’s son, mother’s son, sisters’ younger brother, brother’s brother, and after marriage father-mother-in-law’s son-in/out-law and all brothers-sisters-in-laws’ brother-in-law expanded in nuanced Odia language – sala, bheneie, nanandai, dewar. Over time, I became the children’s ageing father come to pick them up from the club/swimming pool/tennis court.
On my first posting, I ran into people who my father had taught in college. I quickly became ‘Sir’s son’. This was perfectly fine as a startup. As much as I was touched by their affection for my father, I didn’t quite like my name not muttered to remember me by! But I took it in my stride. Whenever I ran into them they didn’t know (didn’t care to!) my name — and were too polite to ask. My bearded mug was all they remembered. I wasn’t amused.
As years went by, and my bristling egotistic self encountered a flurry of such nonchalance, it set me thinking. In the offices I worked, I was identified with the post I held. Not just on files, but in social interactions, where the only concession granted wasn’t to my name but my surname! This was odd for one entirely home-bred and home-spun, where in Odisha’s little sanctuary with plenty of Mohantys ambushing, I was invariably referred to by my name — as identity differentiator!
I fancied marriage and wife would improve matters. They didn’t. On the distaff side, it was always the old girl’s house. The old girl made no effort to correct it — happy basking in the sonority of her own name chanted times without number. My side of the family too derived a malicious delight in pricking my self-importance and subordinating my uneasy vanity to the old girl’s. No saas-bahu duelling — so that was curtains for my hubris.
But the real ego-cruncher was to come later. Two decades into matrimony, I step into Poona Club for a walk to repair my supine spine when Prakash and I get talking. An old lady sidles up, folding her little frame into a chair. ‘Meet Mr Shukla,’ Prakash says, caracoling to either side, ‘She’s Mrs Dolly Irani.’
Dolly pipes up apologetically: ‘Sorry, I didn’t get your name. You’re Mr Shu...Shukla!’
‘Yes, Mr Shukla,’ Prakash adds with inimitable sangfroid. ‘I mean Mr Sudhansu Shukla. You’ve met his wife Shukla, Chanda’s friend.’
My ego haemorrhaged the umpteenth time, my face chafed. The old girl had yet done me in — this time her name conflating with the putative North Indian surname!
Alas, the name my parents gave me still lies in limbo.
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