What’s in a “Daak Naam”? A Bengali’s Eternal Walk of Shame

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What’s in a “Daak Naam”? A Bengali’s Eternal Walk of Shame

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

Y

ears ago, when my aunt delivered a boy after a succession of four daughters, it was a cause for immense celebration for my grandmother – as if Durga Pujo had arrived early. Content that she had a grandson to carry forward the family name, she made a grand proclamation. She summoned my parents, multiple aunts and uncles and instructed them to commence on the pursuit of bestowing the most princely bhalo naam (“good name”) for our family’s newest member.

My family members had just about a week before my grandmother would get them to congregate again for the naming ceremony. By contrast, my name and those of my sisters were zeroed in on within minutes.

As my parents, aunts and uncles scrambled to be the first one to stake a claim to the baby’s name and consulted elders for their opinion, my sisters joked that given his dramatic stately arrival, it’d be apt to just name him “Raja”. Naturally, our suggestion remained unwelcome, and a week later, so did hundreds of suggestions from each of my relatives.

At the end of an anxious three-hour gathering, a consensus was at last reached. With my grandmother’s blessings, my brother was christened “Rounak” after the priest deduced that he was destined to bring fame to our family. In her teary emotional stupor, my grandmother couldn’t stop herself from indulging in a display of typically Bangaliana affection – in a split second, Rounak had also received the personalised nickname, Potlu.

In that moment, the damage to my poor brother’s ego was already done. Everyone present in the room collectively synced their memories to wilfully forget his “good name” and intertwined his identity permanently with the dudly “daak naam”, Potlu.

Shakespeare would never have come up with “What’s in a name?” had he known some Bongs.

Just like Bollywood has Vivek Agnihotri and Yash Chopra has Uday Chopra, Bengalis have their daak naams: It’s a part of your identity that you didn’t ask for, and one that you can’t shake off. It’s essentially a walk of shame that never seems to end.

Don’t be mistaken; a Bengali daak naam is not your usual pet name. In the rest of the country, nicknames have a purpose. They exist to make the process of addressing someone with a long name easier and in most cases, are used exclusively by one’s family and friends. Typical nicknames also don’t assume priority over a person’s official name and are allowed to be sexy or aspirational, like a Tia or an Aahan.

In Bengal, on the other hand, daak naams bear the weight of defining someone’s personality. Even today, RD Burman is widely known by his daak naam Pancham Da and Sandip Ray is greeted as Babu Da. These are harmless, compared to Kolkata’s biggest superstar Prosenjit. He might have a string of blockbusters to his credit, but at the end of the day, he’s still Bumba Da for Bengal’s heaving masses. I’m just glad former president Pranab Mukherjee, an 82-year-old man’s nickname “Poltu” remains in the shadows.

The number of daak naams a Bengali has, is directly proportional to the number of relatives they can boast of. They come with the baggage of totally unnecessary mind games, where the maternal side’s relatives stick to one variant that directly competes in popularity with the daak naam backed by the paternal side. It’s an episode out of the passive-aggressive Khatron Ke Khiladi… except, it never ends.

But, the most important fact to remember about a daak naam is that it isn’t really one if it doesn’t have the power to embarrass you. It comes from a good place really: Parents attempt to dip it in love, affection, and unbridled creativity, even if they end up with a daak naam as shameful as Ishant Sharma’s IPL auctioning history. In fact, one can tell how much someone is loved by their families depending on how humiliating their daak naam is. Our parents utilised their cringe value the same way their parents must have done, naming a three-month-old daughter Buri (old woman) or a grown man Ghotlu.

Just like Bollywood has Vivek Agnihotri and Yash Chopra has Uday Chopra, Bengalis have their daak naams.

Even then, it would have been okay if the knowledge of this torturous daak naam was only limited to our families. Unfortunately, daak naams are like public property, misused by neighbours, enemies, and the neighbourhood doodhwala. As a result, your good name becomes a footnote in history; in fact, it’s not uncommon to forget it yourself.

The fact that there’s also no explanation for these glorious nicknames makes the affair all the more frustrating. I mean, what in the world can justify a Nikhil Ganguli (Kal Penn in The Namesake) becoming “Gogol”,  a 6’2’’ woman being called “Chutki”, a gym buff labelled “Puchu”, or a fiercely opinionated activist being addressed as “Tushtushi”?

Ten years ago, when the aunt I despised completely ruined my prospective love life by loudly yelling “Mampi” in an annoying fashion in front of my crush, I’d consoled myself by remembering that I would leave behind the torture of the daak naam once I grew older. Except, I was as wrong about that future as RGV was about RGV Ki Aag. The shadow of the daak naam never leaves any Bengali’s side, the same way Amit Shah is never parted from his bff Modi ji.

Naturally, most of my days are now coloured by my ability to dodge queries from my colleagues, friends, and strangers  who display their inquisitive streak the moment they learn you’re Bengali and ask the dreaded question: “What’s your daak naam?” At this point, I’m willing to fake phone calls, small talk, and even jaundice just to avoid answering that question. It’s brought grown men and women to their knees in the past. In fact, the next time a bhodrolok tries indulging in his favourite hobby of obhimaan with you, just ask him his daak naam and watch his ego melt away.

Eighteen years later, my now teenage brother has resigned himself to a lifetime of being called Potlu. Ironically, it’s my grandmother who had made a saas-bahu episode out of naming him back in the day, who vehemently insists that everyone address him by his horrific daak naam. It’s led me to one realisation though: Shakespeare would never have come up with “What’s in a name?” had he known some Bongs.

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