My Good Name
Having been christened Tilottama and being sent to a missionary school is like having a double whammy on you. Each time the teacher wanted to mark attendance, my little heart would start beating fast and I would want the moment to pass quickly. But each time when the pen paused in mid air above my name, the teacher’s eyebrows would be knit in concentration and consternation while she struggled yet again to pronounce my name which is a mouthful for anyone, let alone those who are not so familiar with mythological tongue twisters.
All this happened because I was born to a Bengali father, who despite being a doctor was a romantic at heart and spouted poetry and other quotable quotes while tending to his patients. Baba actually had quotations from Shakespeare, Tagore and other poets written at the back of his diaries and took great pleasure in finding an apt one for each of his many patients. His fiercely loyal and grateful patients often asked him to suggest names for their children and thus grew a generation of Bengalis who had not only been cured by him of sniffles and other ailments but had also been baptised by him.
Trouble started when my Bengali-at-heart father wanted an English education for his second daughter.
The upshot was that in class after class, my teachers, who were more comfortable with names like Marie, Rita, Richard etc., struggled with my unpronounceable lengthy name while I envied other girls who had short, sweet and extremely pronounceable names such as Sita, Gita, Rita, Anita, Nina etc. And each time someone asked me my name, I would want to hide and mumble, while the asker would raise one quizzical eyebrow after another and wonder what it was that I was saying.
It changed in the higher classes though, with teachers becoming more and more comfortable with the mouthful. But ah, the sisters, they still found it impossible…
My friends, bless them, came up with the perfect solution. They just shortened it by lopping off the double t’s, a’s and the m and replaced the o (after the l) with an i or a y, after making it l squared. For me, there was no looking back after that. Life changed and I was born in a new avatar as Tilly, Tilli or Tillie – it was so short, so sweet. “What is in a name……”, now I thought boldly and even softened towards my romantic and poetic Bengali-at heart father. Now, for the first time, I could even look everyone in the eye while being introduced and, if I ever wished to hide and whisper my name inaudibly, my friends would quip quickly and say, “She’s Tilli”, and end the introductions there. .
It wasn’t easy out of school either. Only the Bengalis would roll my name around with relish in mouths out of which only rounded syllables rolled out. After savouring the sweetness of my good name, with an appreciative“Baah baah!” they would ask if I had a pet name. For every good Bengali was expected to have not only a lengthy good name but also a short and sweet pet name. The North Indians, on the other hand, looked perplexed at having to pronounce such a difficult sound and would axe a couple of syllables while the South Indians would add an extra m and maternalise me into an amma!
By the time I reached college, my name and fame as Tilli had spread and I waltzed through my five years in college and the university wearing my name as a badge of honour. Luckily for me, now even my teachers were not unduly troubled at having to call out my longish name.
Of course there still were uncomfortable moments whenever anyone asked me the meaning of such an unusual name. I would blush before narrating the story of the celestial maiden created by the gods to distract and destroy the demons and wish for the umpteenth time that I had been blest by my father with a name that was nondescript!
When I was to get married into a pucca Punjabi family, my name came back to haunt me like Hamlet’s father’s ghost. “It’s a tradition in our family to give the daughter-in-law a new name”, my mother-in-law-to-be, who needless to say would have found names like Bunty and Bubbli more congenial, stoutly announced. “After all, even I was called Phool at home but Bauji re-named me Susheela”, she said, in a voice that said, “it’s my turn now”. “So it’s my turn now”, I thought, suitably horrified, “but in today's date and date?” My long multi syllabic name flashed before my eyes and never seemed sweeter. “Such a unique name too”, I thought indignantly.
Mercifully it was my pucca Punjabi husband-to-be who reasoned with his matriarch and came to my rescue. He saved me from having to erase my identity from all my certificates and from the face of this earth. I humbly accepted that from now on, my very Bengali name would be pronounced not in the lilting Bengali way but in a pucca pained Punjabi way of trying to grapple with an alien sound.
My pucca Punjabi mother-in-law’s mother turned out to be very sporting indeed. She embraced her favourite grandson’s choice unquestioningly and called me Tillie, much to my delight and relief. No fuss, no eyebrows. Chachiji called me Tillie right to the end of her days, as did the entire kin in that part of the country.
Now decades later, I have learnt to live with my name and discovered the pleasures of having a different and maybe even difficult name. There are not too many mouthfuls of us around which makes it easier for friends, especially those of yesteryears, to locate us.
So thereby, dear friends, hangs the tale of Tillie’s name.