Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Who Else Am I Not? Part One-"What's not in a name?"

There is a saying that if we wish to understand life, the answer to just three questions can reveal all:

1. Who am I?
2. Where have I come from?
3. Where am I going to?

In today’s time, when the nation with its demands for separate statehoods simultaneously splits itself along hitherto non-existent seams, while appearing to be united and secular, I often find myself plagued by the first question.

If you know me by name, I appear to be a female Hindu Kayasth. Yet, my mind cringes at the thought of all the stereo types that most people imagine when they hear my name or meet me for the first time.

Being born to a UP man and a Haryanvi woman, raised in different states in the North East of India, living for the past 25 years in the west and south of India, loving Hindustani Classical music as well as Western Classical and Carnatic, I find that I’m at the same time part of all groups, and also a part of none.

Similarities and differences are two sides of the same coin. So, I thought, in order to find out who I am, let me first discover who I am not.....

Here is the first post in a series towards that end.....
 "What's not in a name?"

There was something funny about my name.

The teacher ran through a list of names like ‘Karma Choden’, Deki Wangmo’, ‘Sonam Tsering’, ‘Charmaine Jones’, and similar other names. Then , a pause, and very carefully, as though trying out a new tongue twister, ‘Smita ************.’

This was my first day at school at *****************, Kalimpong, a boarding school that also allowed day scholars, in the year 1969 or was it 1970?

I forget which, but that trivia is insignificant.

What’s significant is that I felt different that day, and I didn’t want to be different.

Being too young to know that one can take all one’s grouses to God, without fear of reprimand or a shouting at, I went home and cornered my mother. Why on Earth did I have such a funny name? I wanted it changed at once!

How should I do it? Should I tell all our neighbours, friends, my younger brother, my father’s friends, or would she and my father do it. Why was I named by them? Shouldn’t I have some say in what I would like to be called for the rest of my life?

I wanted it to be Sonam Caroline Wangmo.

That way it would be better than all the others.

I raved and ranted, to no avail. She just gave me an exasperated look that turned into a dismissive one, and carried on shelling peas. Even at that age, I could sense that I shouldn’t try my luck too far, as she would take just one second to decide whether she could pause long enough in the rapid disembowelment of the peas to give me a whack on my behind.

I returned to school the next day, determined to tell my new classmates my chosen name.

Once there, however, I soon forgot all about it, as we all found a surprise waiting for us in our desks. Each one of us had been gifted an old, empty little metal tin by our teacher, to keep any odds and ends that we liked.

Each tin was different, mine had been an old tea container (in those days, tea mostly came in metal tins), red, with a black pagoda on the top and also on all the sides. Some of the others got old tea tins as well, while some got biscuit tins, and a few got toffee tins.

Mine was one of the prettiest, and soon everyone knew my name in the class, as they tried hard to get me to part with my tin. I realised that it didn’t matter if I was Miss Unpronounceable for them as long as I held on to that tin, so I guarded it zealously.

Three beautiful years in one of the prettiest school properties later, it was time for my father to move. The orders were for him to move to an unheard of tongue twister of a place, Mukokchung, in Nagaland.

With packed boxes painted black, that displayed the neatly stencilled name of my father, where we were boarding the train (New Jalpaiguri) and where we were going to (Mariani-in Assam, the last point the train would take us to), we all headed for Nagaland. Little did I know that the comfort I had arrived at after three years of being ‘Smita *****************’ would be short lived.

To be continued.....


  1. I couldnt have remembered such details after so many years and then to put down those thoughts on paper is remakable - you have a knack for writing well. keep it up it makes very interesting reading

  2. I must say it was an intresting read. Very few of us dwell in introspecting our identity, let alone our days gone by. Finding an answer and remembering your childhood so clearly does speak volumes on the clarity of your thoughts. Do keep up, waiting eargly for the next installmant.

  3. Thank you Ramesh, that was very inspiring. I don't know if I've found the answer yet, but many more pieces of the jigsaw do seem to have fallen in place!
    I feel responsible now for getting the next post out in time (the sequel to this one is already up), so I promise to be back, soon....

  4. Very nice post, Smita. A woman's identity is lost or blurred after marriage. It shouldn't be.

    I love Kalimpong. Your post brought back nice memories of my 1974 visit when my dad was posted nearby in Gangtok.

    May I suggest a different and smaller font for your blog. IMHO it will give a better aspect to your posts.

  5. Is it by law that the woman has to take the surname of her husband?well- if it is so then lets amend it making it optional- if she desires to keep her name so be it.the hubby's name can always be written as "w/o".why should the woman loose her identity after marriage?

  6. Hello Ashwin, Glad to see you on Thought Spring!

    It did feel strange to have a name change as an adult for a couple of years after marriage.

    Kalimpong was paradise in those days! Did you ever get a chance to revisit?

    We used to drive up to Gangtok pretty often!

    Was your father in the Army too?

    Thanks for your suggestion. I'll change it right away

  7. Nice. I like the way you write. Who am I? Hmmmm... Im thinking. :-)

  8. Thanks Anand:-) out, it could take a lifetime!