We need to establish that proper names are an integral part of systems we have been treating as codes: as means of fixing significations by transposing them into terms of other significations. Would this be true if it were true, as logicians and some linguists have maintained that proper names are, in Mell’s phrase, ‘meaningless’ in signification?
Rahman begins by observing how people in Pakistan believe that the personality of a person is reflected by the name they have. Also the construction of identities starts with names as they are a part of the belief systems in which they occur. Since relationships are a part of the system in which we live, names play an important role as constructors and signifiers of one’s identity within a relationship. The role of identity has been tied up with one’s name and Rahman shows the relationship between the two throughout the book.
He begins by showing the three language systems in Pakistan in which naming is influenced by the process of modernity: (a) Names in English, associated with one’s Anglicized self, (b) Arabic, associated with the construction of the Islamic self and (c) Indigenous languages ( Pashto/ Sindhi and Balochi/Brahvi ) associated with the construction of ethnic identity. Rahman points out that there have been no major studies when it comes to Muslim names in the South Asian context; he quotes a few essays that carry mention and analysis of Muslim names but there are no dedicated works to be found on this subject. The idea of this book is to describe Pakistani Muslim naming practices in order to understand identity construction and the way power operates in Pakistani society. Rahman in his introduction talks about the methodology that has been used to approach this study; the surveys that have been undertaken in an extensive manner as well as the different classes/regions and people that have been covered in order to understand the onomastic practices in Pakistan.
The book shows how one’s first name goes on to establish one’s popularity and social desirability and how that is correlated with one’s first name. Most of the names in Pakistan are Arabic and out of the 199 people that were surveyed for this book, only 124 knew the correct meaning of their names which goes on to establish a fact that people, even if they do not understand the language want to understand the meaning of their names. Rahman goes further to say that Arabic is taught without trying to explain the meaning of the
words and then is tied up with religion. Annemarie Schimmel mentions in her works how there is a general desire to give Islamic names to children in Pakistan, even if one does not have adequate knowledge of the language or the theological niceties that are associated with it.
The shift to religion is further emphasized when Rahman quotes an anecdote—‘A man asked another his name. Upon being told he killed him.’
Through this, Rahman looks at the days of Partition and how a name could either save a person or end that person’s life. Saadat Hasan Manto through his writings has depicted how names are looked upon as carriers of communal identity. Pakistani names have become more Islamized now than they were in the initial years of Pakistan. Data suggests that names in the 1990s have more Islamic components that those in the 1950s. But Rahman points out that more than the Islamization of names (post Zia ul Haq era) there is a continuous trend of discarding old and religious names that used to be given to people and the reason behind it has been the ‘ashrafization’—seeking of gentlemanly status amongst Muslims; people have become more literate and urbanized and that has its impact on the names that are now being given to children. Still, there remains in the background one’s religion that continues to maintain its hold on the names that are given. Rahman does not overlook the problematic relationship that the Muslims have with the western perception/stereotypes regarding them. Post 9/11, the increase in Islamophobia as well as in the 1990s, has resulted in many Muslims taking up names or giving names to their children that are more and more Islamic—not because religion demands it but as a defence mechanism against the growing antagonism against them. This troubling feature has been discussed by Rahman and is mentioned frequently in the book as names are affected by the social and political changes that one grows up with. Names are not only anti-western or trying to portray a radical Islamic identity but have been used to combat Shia assertiveness and a desire to create a Sunni state in Pakistan. The danger names could pose has been mentioned in the following passage by a Sunni Baloch journalist who said, ‘I should not be simply murdered for my parents’ short-sightedness for not foreseeing that 30 years later this name could get their child killed.’
From religion, the focus shifts to class differences and how that affects the naming process. Dominant classes of Pakistan exercise power through what may be called the ‘onomastic politics’—which Rahman explains as using prestigious components in their names in order to assert their high status. Rise in social status is correlated with the assumption of more and more sonorous titles to one’s names. Urdu literature provides many examples and one of them is from Bano Qudsia’s short story ‘Shanakht’ where a boy’s name is degraded to a pejorative nickname but assumes a respectful form when he becomes a famous poet in England. The treatment of his name in childhood is described as follows: ‘He was so inferior, so devoid of value or status that nobody bothered about the correct form of his name. “Bat”, “pumpkin”, “vegetable” were all titles of affection for him.’
From here Rahman proceeds to look at the nicknames as part of the ‘onomastic politics’ at the level of one’s social circle. Nicknames can be given as a form of endearment and can also be given to denigrate a person. It boils down to power politics where those who are socially powerful are in a position to give names which can marginalize or honour an individual. From naming based on religious lines, to looking at power politics in play when nicknames are given—Rahman moves to the process of no naming. This finds a place amongst women especially married women who are addressed as someone’s wife or someone’s mother but their own names are never taken. The patriarchal hold on names when it comes to women cannot be stronger than this where a woman’s name is changed by her in laws after marriage to suit their comfort level. On the other hand, naming conventions also turn into indicators of hierarchy where elders are never addressed by their names but by titles like uncle or auntie. The belief that goes with addressing someone by name is that by doing so, one is indicating equality with or superiority over that person.
Rahman gives the reader an interesting insight into why people change their names and he begins by showing as an example Jinnah who changed his name in order to discard a regional identity (Gujarati) and adopt a modern one. An extract from Jaswant Singh’s observations on Jinnah: ‘There was also a transition in the way that Jinnah had not just changed his name but also kept altering the spelling of his name: It travelled from being Mohomedalli Jennahbhai to a jettisoning of “Jennabhai” and adopting “Jinnah”; then on to Mahomed Ali Jinnah and still later adopting an additional “m” to Mohamed, leading
finally to the version of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.’
One changes one’s name to achieve a certain desiderated identity or to conceal a problematic identity. Prince Salim changed his name to Jahangir and his son Khurram became Shahjahan. If one looks at pen names in poetry (takhallus) then Ghalib’s real name Mirza Asadullah Khan is never used as the pen name became so popular. Film stars have their names changed so that their assimilation into the film industry is an easy one and acceptable to the audiences. We have already covered how names are changed to protect one from physical dangers. Rahman talks about pseudonyms that are used because of social opprobrium attached to giving one’s real name in public. Women had to use fictitious male names in order to be heard. Rahman touches upon the name changing practices amongst Hijras who change their names on being initiated into the community. Field study done by the author shows that they do not reveal their male names to strangers; the fear that names can carry has been depicted here—‘One may hypothesize that the listeners have a map of the world which carries a power grid and that is where the name fits in.’ What this book goes to show is that the act of naming is not an innocent one but carries with it a range of power relations and how in this grid of power relations, names play an important role in maintaining one’s hold in the grid as well as on oneself.
Naming is a language game as the concept is used by Wittgenstein who said, ‘And there is a language game of inventing a name for something and hence saying, “This is…” and then using the new name. Thus, for example, children give names to their dolls and then talk about them and to them.’
Semeen Ali is a doctoral student with the Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi.