What’s in a Name?

Photo Credits – Photo by Godwin Angeline Benjo on Unsplash

An original short story by Chandrika Moka.

“My baby, my choice. I will name her whatever I want to name her. I have already compromised with the priest, I will make sure her name starts with ‘Na’ but that’s it” Meghna’s mother sat in the corner sulking and rocking Meghna’s cradle.

The naming ceremony had ended. The guests had eaten, the priest had drawn out the baby’s astrological chart and all the customs had concluded. The family had three hours before the auspicious time to name the baby passed. They seemed to be at an impasse. Meghna’s mother was dead set against naming her daughter according to the long standing tradition.

She was an atheist, she had married into a family of doctors thinking they would be more practical than the rest of her society. Turned out science doesn’t always stomp out superstition.

“My dear, I understand you want to name your daughter. I also understand you consider all this as some sort of mysticism. However, this is beyond tradition, religion or superstition”, said Meghna’s great grandmother in a calm yet commanding tone, something only 90 year old women who have seen their fair share of life can manage.

She was the only woman Meghna’s mom respected enough to not argue with. This time she wasn’t going to budge. Naming her daughter would be the single decision she will have made with complete autonomy. Everyone around her seemed determined to deprive her of the chance. She didn’t want to fight the old woman so instead she said “what do you mean this is something greater than superstition?”

The old woman’s face looked tired and her bronze skin shone in the light. Her eyes were clouded by cataracts and her body had bowed down to time but in that moment, she sat straight up staring at Meghna’s mother with such clarity in her eyes, you’d easily forget she was blind. After what felt like an eternity, she slowly began to narrate the origin of this tradition.

Her own great, great grandmother Garuda had been the cause.

The story starts several decades ago, when Garuda was just a newly wedded bride. She was only sixteen and it was the first day at her in-laws house. She was already filled with anxiety and uncertainty but she needn’t have worried. Her husband was very understanding and proponent of women’s rights even back in the day. He had invited Garuda’s mother to breakfast so she wouldn’t feel so alone in a strange, new house. It were these little actions that had made Garuda fall madly in love with her husband. Nobody could tell it had been an arranged marriage. Within days, Garuda started to feel at home. She started to help with the farm and the cattle.

One bright morning, Garuda was on her way to the cowshed to feed the cattle and get some milk. She was in great spirits – she had missed her period and she was pretty sure she was pregnant. She was daydreaming, not really paying attention to where she was headed – after all it was a path she had taken every morning for the past several weeks. She suddenly stepped on something squishy and slippery – looking down, it was the tail of a cobra!

Garuda was petrified and in her fear, without really thinking, she beat the snake to death. She walked slowly down to the cowshed and went about her day in a daze. By bedtime, she had convinced herself that it was self-defense. Just because the snake hadn’t attacked her doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to. Maybe she reacted too quickly but has anyone known a King Cobra to simply slither away when its being stomped on? She didn’t share this incident with anyone. Killing a snake was supposed to be a sin – there were several superstitions associated with the killing of one. She had beat a King Cobra to death, no less – not just a garden snake, although she doubted the hierarchy of holiness among snakes.

The next day, the entire family woke up to a horde of dead ducks. All the stored water, including water meant for the ducks and cattle had turned into blood. The well in the back of their house was filled with blood. Every tap in the house dripped blood. They borrowed water from the neighbors but the moment they crossed the threshold of their property, it turned to blood. Obviously, the entire family was terrified. Nobody knew what was happening and they were in shock. Word of their blood-water spread through the village and before seven in the morning, the entire village had gathered at their house led by the Sarpanch.

Everone was sure the family had been cursed. They were concerned and wanted to help them out but they were more concerned about the curse spreading through the village. Nobody knew what they had done to deserve this and without a cause neither the priest nor the Sarpanch had any solutions. Garuda could no longer keep quiet and she told her husband what she had done. She was in tears, devastated at having brought a curse down upon her family, perhaps her entire village. Garuda’s husband told her to stay home and left his sister-in-law for support. He knew the village would never forgive Garuda and their family would be ostracized if this got out.

With difficulty, he sent the rest of the village home asking for the priest and Sarpanch to stay back. He then explained what had happened. Everyone was obviously upset and filled with terror. Garuda was a new bride and so young, so everyone decided there was no point chiding her any further. What’s done is done. But this meant the priest could help the family. First step was to calm Naga down (the snake god rumored to be living in the village’s plumbing; it was said that the Naga guarded the village in exchange for reverence.) The family wouldn’t be able to go long without water. The priest hastened and within the hour he had gathered all the offerings to calm Naga down.

Second step was to find out what the curse actually was, the extent of it and if there was any way to repent their sins. This wasn’t going to be an easy task. The priest and all the men of the house spent 6 days and 6 nights doing penance, praying to Naga and the women spent every waking moment finding all the things they could offer to Naga. At the end of the sixth night, the family had donated half of their land to the village, given away all their jewelry to the temple and cooked three meals per day for the 500 families living in the village and finally it seemed Naga was appeased – long enough to at least get some information.

The priest went into a trance. The entire family waited for what seemed like hours. Twenty minutes later, the priest was back.

As a punishment to Garuda’s unprovoked attack on one of Naga’s sons, Naga demanded either the life force of every person in the family or the life force of every first born child for centuries to come. The family was horrified. They begged and pleaded with the priest to help them out of this, to find a way to ease the punishment, to make sure nobody in their family met any untimely death. The priest was sympathetic and promised to do something about it. For the next week, the family spent every day serving the people of the village, helping in whatever way they could. Garuda was doing twice as much work – she was riddled with guilt.

Nobody knew how, but the priest had managed to placate Naga. Their punishment had been significantly decreased. All they had to do was name every first born child of the family after him, ensuring that nobody ever forgot and continually revered Naga for generations to come.

Meghna’s mother was about to interrupt but stopped when she caught the look on the old woman’s face. She continued in a somber voice, “I know this story isn’t going to change your mind. After all, this was decades ago. No one from that time is alive to confirm and we also live in a time where curses are considered nothing but hogwash. You are not the first person to question this tradition and you won’t be the last. So listen to the stories of the women that came before you.”

Meena was a strong, independent woman. She held a Master’s in Chemistry – an immense achievement for women of the time. She was against dowry and hadn’t been able to get married until she was twenty-nine – she was pretty much considered an old maid. As a woman of science, Meena refused to name her child after Naga. The day of the naming ceremony, Meena and her husband woke up to find their baby had turned green. They rushed to the doctor, a family friend. After hours of tests, the doctor could find no explanation. Nothing else seemed to be wrong with the baby and the doctor told them they could take the baby home but they should keep an eye on it. The naming ceremony had to be done, not just because the auspicious time was running out but also because they couldn’t take the baby to the hospital without a name. Meena started to choose a name but before she could say it out loud, the baby started vomiting frogs – live frogs just jumped out of the baby’s mouth. They started as small, tiny frogs but slowly started to grow in size. Soon, the frogs would be big enough to choke the baby. Everyone around Meena was telling her this was because she was defying Naga. Meena figured what’s in a name? This wasn’t the time to be stubborn. If it means saving her baby’s life, she would have named him anything. The moment she spoke the words – “His name will be Apalala”, the baby stopped vomiting frogs and turned back into its beautiful wheat color.

All Meghna’s mother could think was had the old woman read Chamber of Secrets? Maybe she simply replaced slugs with frogs. She wasn’t convinced.

Anantha had a falling out with his family. He had had a very traumatic childhood and he was finally starting to heal. What he wanted the most was to cut all ties with his family and to erase his past. He decided the best way to do so was to legally change his name. He had already blocked all of his family on all social media platforms and had been ignoring all their calls. The day he decided to change his name, however, he received fifty five calls from his grandmother in just two hours. Whatever his parents had done to him, Anantha still had a soft spot for his grandmother. She had shielded him from their abuse until they had sent her away. He called her back while trying to find some hydrocortisone cream. His arm looked swollen, he seemed to be having an allergic reaction to something. His grandmother was in a panic. She knew he was going to change his name – he hadn’t told anyone yet, not even his boyfriend. She started going off about the story he had heard a million times already – the curse, the consequences. He didn’t have any patience for this right now. The itch on his arm had spread to the rest of his body and it was starting to become unbearable. He lied to his grandmother just to get her off his back and hung up. He called his boyfriend to take him to a doctor. Several tests later, there still was no explanation. The doctors had done every allergy test, tested samples of every bodily fluid, taken MRIs, looked for tumors, prescribed steroids and yet nothing seemed to help with the itching. Anantha had started to look like a carrot, turning red from all the scratching. His boyfriend suggested Anantha talk to his grandmother – maybe there was something in Ayurveda he could try. All Anantha’s grandmother had to say was that the itching was a punishment from Naga. She was very understanding and she suggested if he really wanted to change his name, he could change it to another version of Anantha – but that would defeat the purpose, it wouldn’t let him forget. Anantha could not escape his past, he could not erase his history and he couldn’t forget his roots. He needed to heal, learn to deal with the trauma head on and stop trying to run away. He decided, at least for now, maybe changing his name wasn’t the best idea and like magic, his skin turned back into its beautiful ebony.

Meghna’s mother was annoyed – how could a family of doctors not see the symptoms for what it was? Clearly an allergic reaction to some unknown substance. It was just a coincidence. She wasn’t convinced.

The old woman went on to tell Meghna’s mother the story of the baby whose belly button was surrounded by boils only to be cured by naming him Adishesha. The story of the baby that went blind for three days because her adoptive parents didn’t want to follow the tradition of her birth family, until she was named Sesha. At this point, the old woman said something that finally convinced Meghna’s mother –

“All these stories may be superstition, may be coincidences and may be blind faith. The common theme in the stories, however, is that none of the parents wanted to risk the life of their child all because of a name. What is in a name? What are you going to lose by bowing down to this tradition – you may think you are losing your autonomy  but what you are forgetting is, she is your daughter. You have the right to raise her how you want, to love her how you want and care for her all in your own ways. When people say you get wiser with age, what they mean is we learn to recognize battles worth fighting. Learning to lay down the sword is just as important as picking one up. Traditions don’t have to squash your independence. There are several traditions that are only meant to oppress women. I will stand by you when you fight for your daughter’s right to life, liberty and happiness. The naming of your child, however, is not a tradition worth defying. I will leave you to think about it, my child.”

Meghna’s mother could not argue with what the old woman was saying. It wasn’t something she agreed with but at the same time, she was right. Why risk the health of her baby in the off chance that there was some truth, some curse or some magic – all for a name?

Th priest was called and he wrote the name of the baby in rice before adding it to the astrological chart and birth records – Naga Meghana.

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