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On baby names July 1, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

I have been thinking a little bit about identity lately. And there is good reason – a junior on the way. Thinking of baby names I found myself thinking for Indian boy names. And then I paused and asked myself if this is simply the natural thing to do since both parents are of Indian origin and upbringing. Or is this something that is worth a second thought. What if we both love a name that happens to not be an obviously Indian name (eg: Simon) ? What is the universe of names under consideration?

I have been asked if I am proud to be an Indian. My answer was – “By the usual connotations of the word ‘proud’, No. I believe that one’s place of birth and parental heritage is not an achievement one can take credit for or derive one’s self-esteem from. Am I ashamed of being one ? No, and again, for the same reason. I would not like to be at an advantage/disadvantage based on the country of my birth. I am aware that it happens all the time, but it is less than ideal.

So what then do I feel about being an Indian? I spent the first 23 years of my life in India. I am culturally an Indian for a large part – it is where I grow up, and that is where most of my family and many of my friends are. That is where I went to school. I understand India and Indians better than I understand any other people. Indian food and music is the single first choice whenever such a choice is to be made.

I think India is an extremely interesting country – large, diverse, a lot of history and perhaps as much potential. I had some great growing up years there in a generally stable political and economically promising circumstances. I ended up learning 4 languages effortlessly just being there. I also grew up in a multi-cultural environment – born into a religious majority but a linguistic minority with a mother tongue that is spoken by fewer than 5 million, that has no native script or any rich literature to speak of. Saying I don’t feel bad about it is an understatement. It is impossible to establish causality about these things but I wonder if this makes it easy to accept diversity – these are facts of life that make life interesting. I think about moving to India more than I think of moving to any other single country.

Well, so what gives? What is it that I don’t feel about India that those who might expect me to be proud feel ?

A recognition of the accident of birth. Much of the above would have been true of country X if I were born and grew up there. Sure, I can imagine X excludes several places, certainly say Afghanistan/Somalia in 1992, or Iraq in 1987. I understand it could have been worse and given the many countries that have seen strife trapping many generations in gloom, this is not to be overlooked. For the moment though, I am keeping these considerations aside. Everything I like and appreciate about India, I would do even if I knew India as intimately as I do but in a capacity other than that of having grown up there. And so much would be true of any other country. India is as special as any other country.

I do not feel compelled to defend India and its greatness. If anything, it exists in spite of me. To elaborate:

– When I talk of India as being home to an ancient civilization, I do not say that with any pride. It is a historical fact and one that is as much true of many others – Sumeria, China, Egypt come to mind. I will not feel bad for myself if one day somehow, however improbable but for the sake of argument, it were proven to be a hoax!

– I may not agree with the historical Indian consensus on many issues, including Kashmir – I think Pakistan had, as of 1947, a stronger moral claim on Kashmir than India did. I might recognize however, on strategic and pragmatic grounds that it is not possible to redraw borders now.

– I do not condemn colonialism on the grounds of what it did to my country any more than what it did elsewhere. Arguably many countries had it worse.

– I will never defend/accept anything merely because that is the Indian (or some community within India) way/culture. I might concede that local problems often require local solutions (not because they are Indian solutions)

– I happened to be born a Hindu, which I think is neither anything to be proud or ashamed of. I have, since age 13, been an unrelenting, non-believing agnostic. I recognize that Hinduism is different from other major religions in its origin and among few that do not appear to have the history of proselytization by the sword (although caste-based discrimination mitigates that somewhat) but that does not make me feel better about myself (what has it got to do with me again ?). I do however, think Mahabharata is awesome story!

– Unlike food and music, I hold no special love for Indian dances/popular movies/literature/modern architecture. Partly unfamiliarity/ignorance, partly just taste.

In other words, my feelings and loyalty towards (not sure is the right word but anyway) India are probably similar to my feelings about some of the schools I went to or places I have lived (in India and US) – they emerge from familiarity and personal associations (makes me selfish? maybe). And to each her own, so everyone should be entitled to their own similar affiliations. I like these places and I have a strong stake in their success because of the familiarity, roots and pleasant memories, but I see no pride/honor to be defended and nothing to attach my self-esteem to. In fact, I feel that more often than not my professional and intellectual identity supersede the cultural counterpart. More on that another day.

Why then I am thinking about it now and why am I feeling so strongly as to write about it. Perhaps events such as these – the arrival of a baby – cast a different light on some issues. Perhaps the heritage counts for a lot even if it is a choice that is made for you.




1. hpsarathy - July 2, 2013

Heritage counts. So does the legacy of breaking away from tradition. The more I think of what to name our baby, the more I think of what kind of person I want him to be and how his name should be associated more with his future than his past. It is then good to know that you are leaning towards heritage more than I am, and hopefully by some random chance, we will agree on one name for him. đŸ™‚

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