Many times, name is the last thing we recognize and remember some people with. Just how many names can one remember? So, we identify certain characteristics in people that stand out and give them nick names.
There lived a fat lady in my neighbourhood called ‘moti’. No, that wasn’t her name but that’s what everyone used to call her. Everyone knew her and referred her by that name. No one meant to mock her or embarrass her. It’s just that her extraordinary body size stood out more than anything else; and hence everyone called her ‘moti’. This name for her had become so acceptable everywhere that it was never meant to be a derogatory comment or an attempt to humiliate her. It’s just how everyone in the neighbourhood knew her. So, this is how some of the conversations would go. “Moti ke ghar aaj mehmaan aaye hai.” “Moti ki aaj upparwali se ladai hui.” “Moti ki car Guptaji ki car se takra gayi.” Even her son’s car is referred to as moti ki car. Yesterday, one neighbour informed another, “Moti aunty ke death ho gayi, unke ghar abhi ambulance aayi hai”. No one meant any harm or any disrespect. No one just knew her name… not her first name… not her last name. Her family was referred to as moti’s family. So there never was a need to know the family’s last name.
This thought has been bothering me since then. A person lost her life… a person who lived in our neighborhood for almost 20 years… we knew her by a lot of her characteristics and nuances that we observed from a distance… we knew her by a lot of gossips and stories we heard here and there… personally most of us didn’t know her very well… but I felt kind of odd that we lived about 20 years in the next building without even knowing her name.
Since the thought lingered in my mind for long, it brought my attention to a lot of such nick names all around the neighbourhood that were created simply for the sake of convenience. ‘Madrasi’ is another popular name which is used for everyone in a south Indian family living in the block… we don’t even know if they are from Tamil Nadu or Kerala or which part of south India… they are just referred to as ‘madrasis’. And it didn’t really lead to any bias against them because of their origins… no one mistreated them or disrespected them… ‘madrasi’ is just a name by which they are known.
Then there are some known by their profession or shops… ‘beauty parlour wali aunty’… ‘reliance wale uncle’… ‘doctorni’ etc. Yeah, there is a doctor in the next building who is referred to as ‘doctorni’ in daily conversations. Most others get their names from their kids like ‘neha ki mummy’ or ‘pappu ke papa’. Some lucky ones get called by their surnames… Guptaji or Sharmaji.
What really bothered me was the thought that some of these people might find names on the basis of their race or unique body features quite offensive. These names are just meant to be used for identification. One can argue that they have a real ‘name’ for that purpose. But most people prefer to remember the nick names. No one really uses these names in front of them. No one says, “aayiye motiji… aapka swagat hai… chai lenge ya coffee” or “namaste madrasi uncle… kaise hai aap”. Everyone uses these names to refer to them on their back. Somewhere we all know and understand that these names can be offensive to them. And we still use it. But we also believe and hope that we are not mean or rude people. We just use these names as reference and over the past 20 yars they have become comfortable on our tongue.
Mind plays weird games with us. It creates the concepts of pride and embarrassment. And it creates different levels of tolerance for an individual. Some people might find fat jokes or race jokes offensive while some others might find them funny. Often I have seen sardars making santa banta jokes themselves and laughing harder than others. ‘Madrasi’ might find it offensive to be called that, ‘moti’ might accept it as her nick name. They can continue to get offended by these names or be indifferent. The community will keep calling them names, for no other purpose but convenience.
But every once in a while, I think we can let go of our convenience and not call names which might be offensive, or at least not call names to the ones who are more sensitive to the concept of embarrassment. And I guess every once in a while these people should also realize that these names aren’t meant to hurt or offend.