What’s in a name, the English bard had mused centuries ago, and answered his own rhetorical question by saying that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Really?

At this moment, sitting restless in the dark compartment, Margarita thought that perhaps the poet – albeit a great one – had forgotten that it would not remain a rose if it were called a jasmine, though smelled as rose. Even so with a man and woman! If our actions defined our character, if we are what we do, the name would be inconsequential, a mere tag designed to set each of us apart in a roomful of people at a giant cocktail party. What would the label of whisky on a bottle of rum convey to a fresh drinker? To the one who had imbibed a few? Would it not depend on their prevailing states of mind? Drink up and think again! Margarita chuckled at her own conceit.

From the story The Smuggler by Ben Antao in his collection The Concubine and selected stories, 2014.

A girl was born to Renato Bernardo Guadalupe Fernandes and Serolina Theresa Coutinho e Fernandes. That was me. I was christened Ermelinda after my paternal grandmother, as was the norm in those days. My mother, who had irreverently named at least four babies (on her side of the family) before this, had to remain content with this not-so-mouthful of a name (considering my parents’ names), bowing to her husband’s and my father’s wishes. She had her own way, as all wives do, of course, and at home I was always called Linda, even by my father. So thus began my life’s journey with this name. In recent times, I have come to thank the Almighty and my great-grand parents, who named their daughter Ermelinda and not Apple or North or, God forbid, Taimur!

As a toddler, I was smart. There’s a cassette recording of my mother teaching me “Myself” and rhymes and numbers. And excellent subvert that she is, she teaches me, on tape “My name is Linda Fernandes.” And I, all of two, and full of myself, contradict her and correct her saying, “You should not say ‘My name is Linda Fernandes’, you should say ‘My name is Ermelinda Fernandes’.” That’s how sharp I was. I say “was” because, sadly, three years later, at school, when the barrage of mispronunciations hit me, I buckled. And how.

This then is the tale of my woes over my name. It’s been the bane of my entire school life. Teachers habitually mispronounced it. Students only followed suit. Some nuns actually called me Esmeralda. Some Spanish fantasy of theirs, I guess. After some time I also accepted the mispronunciations, so much so that I played along, agreeing with them that the “r” in my name was silent, and meekly submitting to be called “Emlinda” or “Emelinda”.

This name miscalling hit the zenith when Siamwala teacher (now I don’t know if I’ve spelled her name right), our Biology teacher who loved me to bits (for what I never figured out), in Class 9A, while explaining Animal Kingdom and its Classification, suddenly decided to mention me lovingly alongside the Porifera and Arthropoda and Annelida and uttered my name thus: Emelindina.

That was my “Earth, swallow me now” moment. I remember the class going pindrop and then, as genteel as a girls’ school would have it, the girls burst into a roar of laughter! I went pink or red, who knows? But I was so mortified! The teacher must have sensed something was wrong because she hurried on with the lesson. I don’t know if anyone teased me about this. My reputation did not allow for people to come and poke fun at me.

As for my name, it became bearable slowly and surely as the years went by. By the time I was attending my post graduation classes, many teachers called me by my full name (though a few did prefer Linda) and still do. They were the ones to instill belief in me vis-à-vis my name. One of them said to me when I requested her to call me “Linda”, “Why? You have a beautiful name. You should be called by it.” This was difficult to digest then but it was, in the long run, truly liberating.

Ermelinda Makkimane, 2020

Credit: Markus Spiske via Pixabay.

I was named for my father: John Casimiro Maximian Nazareth. My father disliked the “Casimiro” and dropped it. Hence he was known by his other two names, often abbreviated to “JM”. These are initials I like, particularly as they belong to a distinguished South African writer, John Maxwell Coetzee. They also belong to a notable Kenyan, JM Kariuki. I, myself, belong to both these nations, South Africa and Kenya, not to mention Goa, from where my ancestors hail.

I was christened Jeanne Maxine Mary Nazareth. My parents decided that they would adopt the French spelling in order to avoid confusion with the French male name Jean. This tells you a lot about my parents, both lawyers, who guarded against all possibilities, eventualities and likely – and unlikely – hoods and acted accordingly. They were happy, meanwhile, with the English pronunciation “Jean”, inevitable in a British colony, as we were then.

My name was, and is, frequently misspelled. There are those Anglophones who spell as well as pronounce it “Jean”, deliberately, I feel, in unspoken protest against its French pretensions. Others read it as “Jeane” or “Joanne” and pronounce it accordingly. I am even called (in writing) “Yvonne”. My mother, I suspect, would have preferred to call me by a more Indian sounding name, such as Gina or Nalini.

I remember wondering as a child what it would have been like to be either of these girls. I never felt that I quite lived up to the French “Jeanne”; I was more of a plain Jane, a “Jean” if truth be told. It was only in later life, after I came to live in South Africa, with its Afrikaans speaking population and varied pronunciations, that the “Jean” and “Jeanne” began to co-exist more comfortably and I was a happier person as a result.

Jeanne Hromnik, 2020

Do the names that our parents bestow on us and we are helpless, at least initially, to resist really matter? Doubtless, they impinge on one’s self image and, thereby, on one’s confidence and sense of self. They even affect perceptions of you by others, but I do not believe my life would have been very different had I been called Nalini or Gina or Joan or Jane.

In this I am backed by Dr Sendhil Mullaintahan (how’s that for a name?) and Freakonomics, the film version of the best seller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. According to Dr Mullainathan, “If there’s any name that can guarantee success, there’s none that we found.” Nevertheless, research that he conducted in Boston and Chicago, based on 5,000 resumes, showed that an applicant with a Black name was 33% less likely to get an interview than one with a White name and that an applicant with a White name was subject to a 10-week waiting period as opposed to the 15 weeks a Black-named applicant was likely to wait before receiving a response.

Interviewees in the film unhesitatingly identified Black names – Nalik, Nahim, Tasha, Shahim, Shamika, Jamal, etc – and White names, such as Todd, Emily, Brendon, Megan, Becky, Sam, Chester and two I particularly like, Abner and Harper. My favourite name for all time, however, is Barack Obama Jones – there’s an optimistic name for you, whatever the odds for success.

Harvard Professor Roland Fryer was asked by the film makers whether there was a name that would guarantee you would not become either a screw-up or a success. His answer? A resounding “No”. In the case of a baby mistakenly named Temptress instead of Tempest, who lived up to her name, he said that the important factor was not her name but where she led her tempestuous life – in other words, in the kind of situation where a parent would name her child Temptress.

When they are not making mistakes, however, why do parents choose a particular name? Dr Mullainathan reduced the answer to a simple “Because they like it!” An answer that is true in essence but does not take sufficient count, I feel, of the imperatives of survival in the jungle out there.

Jeanne Hromnik, 2022

I was named Anahita by my mother at birth which my father insisted be changed when I was starting school. This was in 1997 in Jaipur, Rajasthan. I am told that he didn’t want his daughter to have a Parsi name. I don’t think he had anything against the community. I am assuming that the insistence came from a place of his using our names to mask the fact that we did not fit in the cultural milieu that was 1990s Rajasthan.

I really didn’t care much and becoming Shivranjana from Anahita did not weigh in on my head at the time for there were other things to bother about for my 5-year-old self, I guess.

As an adult, however, the importance of an individual’s name started coming to the fore for me as I learnt that I had a knack for remembering the name of every single person I interacted with, which I now learn, in a world where apathy can manifest in the shape of people misspelling/forgetting/not bothering to learn your name, was a display of empathy.

For me, my name has always been Shivranjana and from being indifferent to it, to being tired of repeating it whenever I was meeting someone for the first time (and secretly wanting to disappear because, rhetorically, how difficult was my name?!), to going through a phase of people automatically shortening my name to Shivi and hating it every bit, to finally now being assertive that I be addressed by my full name or not at all, unless I give the consent that you give to your friends and people who you love to call you by shorter names or names of endearment. Thankfully, I have people who respect that and do the “hardwork” of learning to say my name, which again I don’t think is that hard.

Interestingly, while I was in Bangalore, most people assumed I was Tamil because of my name. Later, when I moved to Goa, most people would not be happy with me just offering my name Shivranjana since the last name is something that would help them understand where I come from. This used to be a source of irritation for me because I did not like the human tendency to box people under labels without getting to know the individual since knowing where someone may come from automatically can trigger implicit biases about whatever one may know about said culture. Now, I don’t care much and happily share my story irrespective of whether someone just wants to label me in their head or wants to connect and know my story.

Shivranjana Rathore, 2020

In Goa, the four most popular ‘forenames’, according to Wikipedia, are Maria, Laxmi, Jose and Santosh, in that order. A subtle shift has occurred, meanwhile, among male Christian names. Where there was once a Vincent or a Victor in combination with a Portuguese surname like Fernandes or Vaz or Albuquerque or Dias there now is a Ved or a Vivek or an Arjun or Narendra. I have not encountered the same among females, for example a Laxmi Pinto or an Indira Paes, except where the pairing of a female Christian first name with an Indian surname occurs through marriage.

Meanwhile, it appears that there is a strong move in Goa in the contrary direction towards acquiring a “Goan” name, often, though not always, a Christian name and Portuguese surname. Hence Alice Rodrigues (from Mehrunissa Charangan) and Jimmy Lobo (from Mohan Karunakaran) and Raja Damian Almeida (from Raja Benkappa Chalwadi), but also Rekha Bicaro Naique Raicar (from Rekhar Ghanti) and Ramchandra Birappa Mayekar (from Ramchandra Birappa Hirukade).

According to a recent Times of India article, “the rising trend of non-Goans acquiring names and surnames of Goans has forced the government to amend the Goa Change of Name and Surname Act, 1990”. The name of the Law Minister cited in this connection is, happily, Nilesh Cabral, a neat combination that may have helped to open doors to him or, at any rate, smoothen his path in Goa and elsewhere on the sub continent.

Jeanne Hromnik, 2022

In 1957 I was working in the accounts department of the Bombay Port Trust at Ballard Pier. Also working in our office was a musician named Maurice Concessio, a chubby East Indian in his thirties.

One day he told me he was bringing out a newsletter for a club of his called Have a Heart Club. When he asked me to write a column, I said “I don’t know anything about music.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I have a book about music. All you have to do is read each chapter and write a paraphrase.”

The book featured elements of music. My first paraphrase was on Melody, about 200 words. He read it and said it was fine. “I want to give you a byline. What’s your full name? Write it on this paper.” I wrote Benedito Martinho Herculano Antao and explained that I went by the name Herculano.

He thought for a while and suggested that I use Ben, short from Benedito. I knew the English equivalent for Herculano was Hercules but instinctively recoiled from saying it, seeing how I was a skinny 21-year-old, going on 22.

Maurice was pleased with his choice. “From now on the whole world will know you as Ben Antao,” he said.

In 1960, I found myself writing on sports for the Goan Tribune, a Goa Liberation fortnightly edited by Lambert Mascarenhas. Here, I got a byline on everything I wrote and I began to experiment how my name would look in different fonts, like Cooper, Helvetica, New Times Roman, an exercise in vanity on my part.

In 1963, I came to Goa to work for the Navhind Times and received a byline for feature articles I did. In 1965, I worked for The Indian Express as a general reporter and also got bylines for a front page news story and a travel piece. Reporters in India did not receive bylines then.

In 1966, I worked for the Denver Post, USA, where every story and column I wrote received a byline. I came to Toronto in 1967 and wrote for a daily and for weekly newspapers, with bylines. By this time, every reporter in North America was given a byline.

In 1984, I visited Mumbai and met Maurice in his condo in Bandra. He beamed with delight when I told him that his prediction came true, that the whole world now knew me as Ben Antao.

Goa Writers is a diverse online group of writers with a Goa connection, many of whom reside in Goa and meet at irregular intervals.