The Burden of Names

Story of a Name

As part of the requirements for a course that I service, I once assigned my students to write essays on their names. I got more than what I bargained for. The breadth of the names and what they mean; the depth of descriptions of varied naming privileges and ceremonies gave me a window to the richness of differences and the strength of togetherness in this part of the world. My students taught me, nudged me into looking again at my own name, through their personal stories – that range from the funny through the mundane to those with palpable pathos – behind their names.

The name is Aribam Uttam Sharma. Aribam is my family name. It points to the origin of the family, the lineage. Literally, it could mean the “old” or the “ancient” family. It is just one of many names that every Meitei family has to have. They identify through indication of the family trade, perhaps an incident that concerns the family, some unique history, in short they identify the family. Without this name, I cannot claim to be a Meitei. This name identifies me as a Meitei. Many times it has been spelled as Anirban evoking a reminiscence of the concept of Freudian slips.

My father named my brother Gautam. It was a quiet revolution. To name one’s son Gautam after someone who challenged the authority of the Vedas in a zealous newly converted Hindu society was a revolution. There are no “Gautam” of my brother’s generation that I know of in my community. That it was a revolution 1 could be gauged by what followed my father hanging a painting of a scene from the life of Gautam Buddha. When my father hung it prominently under the entrance of the household, he was told to take it down by one of his relatives. “As long as it is hung there I would not cross that threshold”, he was told in no uncertain terms.

The name Sharma is a name that addresses the Hindus that came, proselytize, settled and became part of the Meitei community. They adopted Meitei names, culture and way of life.2 In the conversion they sought they themselves became converts. The name Sharma does not fit with the face that I have. This oddity sometimes causes inconveniences. To do away with the inconveniences some of us have dropped these names for some time now. What are the inconveniences? There are too many questions asked – which I take as a betrayal of suspicion. There could be other forms of inconveniences too, which I shall not mention here. But I give here one instance of questioning the relation between the name and the face. In the library of the institution that I am attached to, recently, when I went to return some books, the person across the counter asked me, “Did you borrow this card from someone else?” I know by now where that question comes from.

Without this Name

Why do I carry the burden of my names? Why do I hold on to this name? The answer I believe could come from the following articulation made by Moisan3 in connection with Juliet’s entreaty to Romeo to severe his name from himself in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

As Catherine Belsey has remarked, though Juliet attempts to separate Romeo
himself from the names of Romeo and Montague, even as ‘a rose / By other name
would smell as sweet’ (2.2.43-4), the severance cannot be complete.5 Or as Jacques
Derrida puts it, in probing the tragic paradox in Juliet’s invocation of Romeo’s name,
‘Romeo would not be what he is, a stranger to this name, without this name.’

Somewhere inside of me seems to hold on to this interpretation of Shakespeare’s work that there is a tragedy in denying ourselves of our names. Or as Derrida would in variance with Juliet, I would not be I without this name.

If I were to deny any of my names then perhaps Sharma would be the first one to deny. When Hinduism was embraced as the state religion in Manipur, caste came into the picture but with a strange Meiteiness that imprints anything imported. The four varnas became just two – the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmins got the name Sharma and the Kshatriyas the name Singh. It is very hard to find any Meitei with the name Singh in my generation.

Should I deny myself of the name Sharma? Can I? I have asked this question urgently. To erase this name, I feel, would be to erase a part of me. It would be the negation of a history prior to me. Would that be right? It could be said that if something is a bad memory, if something is tied with things that should not have been then this erasure is permitted and commended. What would be the significance of this erasure of my name? It could be symbolic of the acceptance, the acquiescence of guilt. Even if I accept that I carry guilt and concede to erase would I be allowed to erase the history that burdens this name? Those who target this name would not let this name be forgotten. So, the question of erasure of the name does not after all arise.

The Shock of being Hated

There is a burden that my name carries. Those who carry the name Sharma, in Meitei community, introduced, sowed the seeds of Hinduism in its many forms in the valley. This has been the source of discontent that, with the coming of those named Sharma, the traditional religion and forms of life were obliterated. There is un-discountable truth in the discontent. But that truth is not the whole truth. The valley, and now, the hill have the ready explanation that the conflict between the valley and the hill has a genesis in the varnasrama dharma which came with Hinduism.4 There are many problems with this idea because easy and ready evidences are available against the tenability of such a claim.

That the Sharmas of Manipur have become enmeshed to the point of indistinction with the Meitei community, or at least the natural conviction in my self-identification as a Meitei is the ground for the shock that I underwent: ‘The shock of being hated’. The venom that I experienced recently in social media5 left me searching for a word, a phrase; an explanation. The search came soon enough in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace6. A story set in South Africa about a professor named David Lurie, disgraced subsequent to an affair with one of his students, comes to stay with his daughter who is trying to run a farm. The professor witnesses his daughter gang-raped – a crime borne of pre-mediation and vengeance– and her becoming pregnant. He realizes ‘the shock of being hated’. But he cannot understand, nor accepts his daughter’s self-crucifixion to cleanse the sin of her forefathers.

Coetzee accepts that injustice has been done by his fore-fathers. In his now adopted country Australia, white Christian Missionaries forcefully took aboriginal children from their family and community to be raised in a more civilized manner.7 It is now realized how gross an injustice was done. But one could also say that it was done with good intention. But we know that good intention cannot stand on its own. There was a movement in turn of the new millennia when the guilt- ridden whites supported vociferously the demand for an apology, not just an acknowledgment, for what happened in Australia known as the ‘Stolen Generation’. I remember the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard, in a televised interview saying that he would never apologize on behalf of the people who committed the mentioned crime. Now, I know better why he did not. That insight has come through Coetzee. Coetzee accepts the inhumanity of what has been done by the colonial white of whom he is descendant. He inherits some things from them – among which is the position that he was born into.

The position that he was born into brings with it the privileges that he enjoys. If he is told that with the privileges he has to bear the burden of his fore-fathers’ crime; he has to bear the guilt and atone, beg, apologize for the sins done by his fore-fathers then he replies with an emphatic no. He pleads to his daughter to leave the farm that she is trying to maintain. To start a life anew somewhere, other than her cursed farm. His daughter refuses. But what Coetzee has to say is said in Lurie’s pleading. If you have to strip him of the privileges, he is ready but he does not allow that to be made a ransom to exact an apology. It is neither logical nor ethically right to apologize for something that you have not done or assented to. This is Coetzee’s point.

A Past beyond One’s Self

The end of living and prospering together, I believe, will be impeded by the move to make the other guilty, this practice of witch-hunting. The demand for an apology; if not a demand per se, then the gambit to make one feel guilty of one’s past; a past beyond one’s self, has to stop. This is a relief that has to be carved if we are to go towards conflict resolution as a means towards living together in this place, which some of us call home. Because either the person or persons from whom the apology is being exacted has to either go and make an exit from the scene or has to stay as an abject object, a repository of abuses, taunts and injustice for injustices that was not done by him or her. Either way is the bankruptcy of the spirit of living together.

  1. It has to be noted that there are many occurrences of the name in the Upanishads for example the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad.
  2. See Devi (2013)
  3. From page 51, Moisan, T. (2003). Recent Developments in Criticism and Production. In W. Shakespeare, & G. B. Evans (Ed.), Romeo and Juliet: Updated Version (pp. 49-62). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. I refer to such conclusions as follows,
    The consequence of burning the Meitei Puyas was that Hinduism became the state religion. It was an assault on secularism and democracy where multi ethnic race, language, and religion existed for ages. Inequality among the Meitei Society and with other communities became a part of life. The practice of caste is often ignored, when it controls almost every aspect of life. The Meiteis are barred from entry into Hindu temples. Intermarriage among Brahmins and Meiteis are not allowed. Brahmins are defiled when Meiteis touch them. Brahmins do not eat food cooked by Meiteis. These are just some of the symptoms of caste practices among the Meitei society after the event of the Puya Meithaba. The gap between the valley and hills widened to the point that it has led to socio-political mayhem in the state.  Madhuchandra. (2013, April 9). Brahmanism in Manipur : A Perspective on Social Stigma . Retrieved March 12, 2017, from E-Pao: Now the World Knows: http://www.e-pao.net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src=news_section.opinions.Opinion_on_Racial_Discrimination.Brahmanism_in_Manipur_A_Perspective_on_Social_Stigma_Part_2
  5. There was a surge in the intensity and volume of the venom during the Hill-Valley conflict witnessed recently.
  6. Coetzee, J.M. (2000). Disgrace. London: Vintage.
  7. A good place to start reading about the Stolen Generation could be the Australian Government Webpage, Sorry Day and the Stolen Generation. (2015, May 20). Retrieved March 25, 2017, from Australian Government: http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/sorry-day-stolen-generations