What’s in a name?
By: Khemendra Kumar
The eclipse lasted for an hour before rainstorms, thunder, and lightning struck in unison as never seen before. Many villagers thought that someone had infuriated Indra, the God of Weather. In anger, it seemed he had unleashed the vajra, the lightning thunderbolt. Black clouds engulfed Bulileka, a small farming village in Labasa. Rain poured, lightning pierced through the dark clouds, and a strong gale whirled for three consecutive days. The wind howled dolefully like a dog. Day and night merged into one. When Urata River broke its bank, when the sacred baka tree near the bus shelter fell flat, when Kandasami’s breeder bull was struck dead by lightning, the villagers bowed before their gods. The next day, the ordeal subdued.
I arrived in the dark hours of that dreadful third night. Nani, my maternal grandmother, a well-known midwife, embraced my arrival into this world. She had gifted hands. Humans and animals alike in Labasa witnessed her skills in delivering triplet calves from a distressed mother cow. It was close to a miracle. Mr. Pilchard, the owner of the mother cow, in disbelief, uttered, “Holy cow.”
This one utterance made the mother cow holy and Nani a newfound power. She started foretelling everything about birth. Glancing at Mother’s protruding stomach, Nani shook her head in dismay. “This one no easy go, I tell you, thirdborn always stubborn like Trishanku, troublesome from birth,” she pronounced.
The local gynecologist echoed the same. She warned Mother of a difficult delivery, possibly twins. And it happened Nani was more right than the local gynecologist. I was no easy go. Mother and I struggled for almost two days. Right after my birth, Mother fainted. Nani waited in vain for the second one before declaring I was the only one.
“Eh, what twins, twins her big bum,” Nani retorted the local gynecologist’s assumption.
So my birthday is on 10th February 1975, time of birth–around midnight, an apt hour for a mischief maker. What little is remembered is that Mother lost consciousness soon after my arrival. At one point during the delivery, Nani thought Mother would not survive, but she did … somehow. When Mother gained consciousness, Nani laid me in her arms. Faintly, Mother cuddled me. After a few moments, she looked enquiringly at Nani. Nani nodded her timely approval. This meant all my body parts were there, functional—a normal baby. Then Nani said curtly, “Thora baki tumme khay lis raha,” [He nearly killed you].
Being prophetic, Nani warned Mother, “Teen ticket, maha bhikat!” [The third is the odd one out]
Hearing that, Mother lost consciousness yet again. In her state of unconsciousness, she enjoyed her motherhood of naming her newborn. Names floated in her dream: names such as Ravi, Amit, and Jiten. Each name carried the charms of Bollywood cinema. Mother took the avatar of Nirupa Roy, an iconic Indian actress who essayed the role of a doting mother in the 1970s. Like Shabri choosing the biggest, ripest, tastiest, and sweetest Indian jujube for Lord Rama, Mother picked names for me. Outside the realms of the real world, Mother was bereft of Nani’s ploy. To stamp her mark on my life, named me–Changu. When Mother gained consciousness, Nani proudly announced my name. She said aloud, “This thirdborn’s name is Changu!”
Mother despondently unveiled the flannel cloth and held my tiny fingers in her motherly hands. Buried in them, appended to the left thumb, was my sixth finger, cute like a pink jellybean, soft and boneless. It wobbled when I moved my hand.
Mother’s dream shattered. She could only whimper with a curved smile, “Changu.”
Much later, Mother recalls ‘the sixth finger’ as cute. She loved fiddling with it. That ‘sixth finger’ was the reason for my name; I had an extra digit that set me apart from the rest. A great deal of debate occurred in village circles to ascertain the value of the extra digit: one or less than one. One village elder released a verbal statement. “All fingers are equal, but some are more equal, while others are less equal.” Suddenly the paradoxical statement gave birth to a debate. Thank God, it took all attention away from my finger.
So here begins my story. I’m told that on the sixth day, miraculously, the sixth finger got detached. Mother was hysterical at first; later, quite ecstatic.
“Changu ke ungri gayab hoye ge!” She yelled for help as if a thief had stolen a prized possession.
It was pretty early, but everyone found their way to her bed in a jiffy. In his usual maddening rush, Grandpa rubbed his eyes incessantly, Grandma kept pulling her hair, Mother looked everywhere in vain, and Father forgot to shut his mouth. Nani kept glaring at my elder brother–Budh Ram; he stood frozen and terrified. Like hungry ants towards sugar cubes, neighbours scamped inside our little house, and everything turned into chaos. Immediately a search party was set up; the hunt for the absent finger was in motion. Frantic fingers searched the shelves, under the bed, in the bathtub, between the bedsheets, inside the pillowcases, on the dressing drawer, even inside the school bag–everywhere anyone could think of!
Exhausted and confused, the search was put to rest. In all this commotion, Grandpa reached out to my little palm and held it in his hulkish palm. It is then he finally declared with gusto, “Buggerit, he is no more Changu!”
With only one declaration, I became normal.
Later that evening, while sweeping the floor, my uprooted finger was found near the bathroom: lifeless. All sorts of logical, magical, and conspiracy theories were discussed before Nani organised a burial of my deceased finger along with my umbilical cord. Mother, till now, suspects Budh Ram (who spent quite some time flicking the missing limb) of accidental uprooting. Losing my finger meant the loss of my name. Being the midwife, Nani got a second chance to imagine a second name. Nani thought hard and long; Mother prayed hard and long to avert another odd name for me.
At last, Nani spoke. Mother cupped her ears! This time, she named me Mangaru–the Tuesday born. Mother was speechless. Pearl-like tears rolled down her cheeks. But what could she do? Her destiny was to give birth, not to name. Naming required Crusoe-like power that was beyond the ambit of her existence. She gulped a round ball of saliva down her throat without fainting.
My second initiation done, I eased into the family life, entertaining old, young, and all. My family was the usual dysfunctional family that found immense joy in trivial achievements. I was well looked after and I grew fat and fast. Krishna-like, I moved from hand to hand and house to house. Throughout the day, Mother would dress me in different baby suits. Sometimes I dolled up and other times, they left me in nappies.
Grandpa kept staring into my eyes and dared not to carry me around. Grandma sang folklore, clapped hands, whistled, and tickled me. I cried a lot when in Nani’s firm hands. She mercilessly bathed me in cold water. With rough hands, Nani rubbed coconut oil all over my baby body and pulled each limb lightly. She clicked my fingers and put her mouth on my tummy and blew it loud–as if farting. She uttered something into my ears and shaped my flat nose. Soon I was a month old. Nani left us to ply her trade elsewhere.
Two days after her departure, a big hullabaloo started. It was Aunt Skiti Lum’s arrival from her vacation. Skiti, an English teacher at All Saints Secondary School, lived in a small cozy-built house next to ours. She addressed my grandfather, ‘Bappa’ [father] and was warmly welcomed. As soon as she arrived, she rushed to our place and happily picked up the new bundle of joy. That was the first time I saw her. Skiti was of Chinese lineage and her fairer skin and eyebrows set her apart. She cooed and cuddled my small body. Holding me up, she said, “Danny boy, oh Danny boy.” I felt ticklish when wafted, smiled, and cackled each time she said, “Danny boy.” And in a flash, turning to my grandfather, she declared, “Bappa, I will call him Danny.” If anything my family members held back, it was settled there and then. They disliked the names given by Nani and Skiti somehow changed my name for the third time in one month. From then onwards, Danny became my name. All were happy and I gurgled because what’s there in a name? Someone can change it again!
Khemendra Kamal Kumar is from Bulileka, Labasa. He lives in Lautoka and works as a lecturer at the Fiji National University. His interest lies in literacy, children’s literature, and English literature. He has published journal articles and written poems, short stories, and children’s books in English and Fiji-Hindi. Currently, he is working on his second collection of short stories.