Jul 1, 2011

What’s your secret name?

I have never given much thought to the tradition of naming children in my community, but recently, a couple of conversations put our strange practices into perspective. The first conversation was with Mala Prasai, my neighbor who recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Coincidentally, I visited them on the eleventh day of the baby’s birth, the day when the baby’s naming ceremony would be normally held in Nepal.

“So did you decide on the name yet?” I asked Mala bhauju.

“Yes, her name is Riddhima” she replied. “Normally in Nepal we may not decide on the baby’s name until the baby is much older. Sometimes we decide on the name only when the baby starts going to school. But here it is different, at the hospital they told us that they would require the baby’s name immediately after it was born, so we had to choose the name beforehand.” And the registration was not the only concern. Mala bhauju further informed me that in the hospital, the baby’s crib is decorated according to its sex, pink blankets and accessories for girls, and blue for boys. So, in consideration of everyone else, the baby’s name and sex should be well known even before the birth.

Later the topic of baby names crept up again in conversation with two American friends, Melissa and Teal. The conversation started innocently enough with Melissa asking me what my name meant. “Sewa means to serve someone charitably” I told her. Phew! What a complicated explanation! Melissa’s own name had a very simple and sweet meaning. “Melissa means a honey-bee” she told me. And her middle name, Joy, needed no clarification (only inspired envy in my heart, wish I had such a cheerful name!) Teal informed us that her name meant a color, a shade of blue.

“So how do you go about choosing the baby’s name in Nepal?” Melissa asked me. “Here we choose the baby’s name from a book of names. Do you have a book of baby names as well?”

“First of all the baby’s zodiac is decided according to the moment of its birth, and you name the baby according to the zodiac. Different letters are assigned to different zodiacs, so your name has to start from one of those predefined letters assigned to your zodiac.” I told her. “The parents give their children some other name once they are older and a formal name is required.” I had never realized that nwaran ko nam could be so complicated.

“So you use the baby’s first name for the first few years and the middle name when the baby gets older?” Teal asked me. Uh-oh, this was murky waters.

“No, the first name decided from zodiac is actually never formally used, it is only for religious purposes, only your family knows this name.” I tried to explain.

“So is it like a nickname that your family calls you by?” Melissa asked me again.

“No, nobody uses that name. These names are really old fashioned usually and parents like to give their children modern names later. Their second name that the parents register for school is the one that is formally used.” I tried again. ”The first name is a kind of a secret name actually, that you normally don’t tell people.” There, that was interesting and mysterious!

“Oh, I didn’t know all this” said Teal.

“Me neither, so do you have a secret name?” Melissa asked me.

“No, my parents liked the name that was given at the baby naming ceremony so they didn’t give me a different name, though my sister has one....”

“What do you mean given? Don’t you get to choose the name?” Melissa was curious again.

“No, this first name is chosen by the priest and later if the parents want they can change it” I told her.

“Oh it’s like Jewish people” Teal piped up. She informed us that if Jewish people were religious, they could get a holy person to name their child, and they could end up with old fashioned names. Well, that was some new information, and it was interesting to know that other ethnic groups had similar culture to our own. This conversation made me realize how strange our practices might seem from an outsider’s point of view. It also made me look at my own culture more closely, and try to understand the reasons and meaning of our practices. I had never realized that a practice that we take for granted could be so confusing once I tried to explain it!


~ bhoowan ~ said...

I really thought about my name - Bhuwan. Isn't it the Earth?

Prakash said...


Subodh said...

Very good writing, very interesting subject matter. You have nailed this story down pretty well. You have great promise!

sewa said...

thank u prakash sir and subodh! It is great to get comments from good writers!!!
Bhuwa, i think your name means some kind of heavenly worlds, I think there are fourteen bhuwans...

sewa said...

my bhena gave me a comment that I found to be most educational:

I read 'what's your secret name' and found it really interesting.... Most interesting part is, all of your answers started with "Nooo"....
Every answers that starts with 'No' always takes the listener to level zero.......coz they have to discard all, what they might have been thinking....... it's quite obvious that they become confused after every 'Nooo' ........ he he he
And I think.... the place where they were most confused is........“No, my parents liked the name that was given at the baby naming ceremony so they didn’t give me a different name, though my sister has one....”........ coz you were replying them to the contrary of what you said just before that....... "...........kind of a secret name actually, that you normally don’t tell people.” .........
He he he....... I was smiling alone while reading....... Keep it up.....

Melissa said...

Sewa this was very good! I'm glad you wrote about it!! See you soon =)

Yug zee Tah said...

I love the article. And the comments too, especially Anil bhena's.



sewa said...

thank u for revealing your secret name bhesu :)

Yug zee Tah said...


yea i like it even better than my 'real' name lol.

Anonymous said...

Before my kids were born, I Googled for names that I liked best. So when my neighbor asked me "how" I named them--or rather what priest I called in a foreign country--I said, I used a supremely knowledgeable priest who not only knows thousands of names to choose from but who also allows me to choose the best one. Yes, I used the Internet to find a beautiful name three years ago, and another beautiful name last year. My children may want different names than we gave them, and I will help them do so if I get the chance. I have nothing to do with the priest--no complaint, no love. I wish my parents were not bound by a letter and a nonsensical belief to give me a better name than the one that they didn't even decide to replace with an easier on paper. Just my two cents.

sewa said...

thank u anonymous, the internet is a wonderful source indeed, one that i use frequently to find out meanings of names! You dislike your name so much that you refuse to reveal it?

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