“Bhombol….” Shouts a middle aged Bengali lady at the retreating back of her twenty something son. The young man walks away without responding. Then the father yells “Bhombol..” scolding him for ignoring his mother when she was calling him. The young man comes back sullenly and gives his mother a patient hearing after which he whispers fiercely into her ear to refrain from calling out to him publicly using his pet name!Sounds familiar? How many of us have faced the embarrassment of having a childhood “pet” name following us into our youth, middle age and sometimes even our old age?
I remember an incident when my daughter was about three years old. We were in Trivandrum , visiting my husband’s grand uncle. This old gentleman – the youngest in his family was called lovingly by his older brothers and sisters as “Baby” . The brothers and sisters grew up and so did he but the name stuck! He was known by the following generations as “Baby Appachen” ( Baby Grandfather). When we reached his house, the three year old announced loudly that she wanted to meet the “Baby”. The octogenarian replied saying that he was the Baby. She refused to believe him because he was an “old man” and therefore could not be a “Baby”. He in turn tried to tell her that he was once like her a – a baby and that was how the name came about. I don’t know if it convinced her but she probably thought that the old man was pulling her leg because she could not imagine some one so old being ever a baby!My daughter herself has a pet name with which she used to introduce herself proudly when she was a little girl. Ofcourse, we are no longer allowed to use that -especially around her friends. We have to constantly remind my father about this rule because of his failing memory!
But I find this tradition of pet names very interesting. I mean it is one thing to shorten a long name like Priyadarshini to Priya or Manoharan to Mano for ease of use but to actually use some other name –something that usually means something silly or does not mean anything at all is beyond me! I think it is probably unique to us in India. Infact each region has its own special group of such names.Bengalis are definitely the monarchs of this pet name culture. They give their children beautiful flowery names from history and mythology. This name called “Bhalo naam” or “Good name” is rarely used anywhere except probably at school. Most of the time the children are called by their “Dak naam” or “calling name”. An entire book can be compiled on Bengali “Dak naams’. They are gender desegregated too. Some common female pet names “Mamoni”, “ Tinky”, “ Rinky”, “ Rinku” “ Mithoo” while male ones include “Babla”, “Khokhon” “Bhombol” “Boomba” “ Tutu” “Pintu” etc !
Malayalis have their own list. But the interesting thing about Malayalis ( particularly the Christians) is that these can sometimes also be formal names. I had a friend in primary school called “Jijo” . His brother was called “Sojjo” . This was how their names were entered in the school register! Some of these names can also be unisex but generally the suffix can be safely used to predict the gender. For e.g Shiji would be a girl while Shijo a boy! There is also the habit of adding “Mol” to pet names of girls. “Mol” is an affectionate way of addressing a little girl but it gets tagged on to your pet name or sometimes your regular name if you are Mallu. How many “ Mini Mols” or “ Suja Mols” do you know of ? I know of five- 3 MMs and 2 SMs!Tam Brahms are not so complicated. They restrict the pet name business to a few common ones “ Ambi” is usually a boy. Unfortunately “Ambi” can also be used to denote a very nerdy kind of fellow who likes to remain tied to his mother’s apron strings! Viji or Raji are common female pet names but they are usually short forms for Vijaya , Vijaylakshmi, Rajashree or Rajalakshmi. “Paapa’ I understand was a hot favorite at one time ( I am sure there are many “Paapa patis” or grandmothers in many Tam Brahm families)
Girls who answer to names like “Pappi” “Paapayi” and boys answering to “Babu” would be from Andhra. “Babu” is actually a sort of common noun to address a little boy ( like “Mol” or “Mon” in Malayalam). “Bujji” is a unisex pet name-both boys and girls answer to it in many part of Andhra!And then there are the Punjabi pet names which are probably the most interesting! “ Sweety” “ Pinky” “Guddu” , “ Gulu” are just some examples from that vast list! Unlike the Bongs, the Punjus ( except may be the Sikhs) don’t really invest much effort on creating a flowery sounding “Good name” for the external world. Sometimes these little names also function as that “proper” names. So it may be rather surprising to find someone with a grand name like “ Tejinder Singh” or “ Amanpreet Kaur” actually being called “Gullu” or “Neelu” –seems like a sort of come down in life doesn’t it?
As parents we use a lot of endearments with our babies and these unfortunately stick around right through their lives. How many of us have used our knowledge of a friend’s pet name as black mail during college? The fear of their pet name becoming common knowledge within the campus would probably be a young girl or boy’s worst night mare- I sometimes think that boys dread this more than girls. Maybe it is because girls are more understanding about these things.
But I can understand the difficulty that we as elders have in remembering this. I guess this comes from our associations with the person as a child. We probably do not realize that the person has grown up and outgrown his/her childish name. So next time before you decide to yell “ Tinku” at your twenty year old cousin brother remember he may be the college hero or your little niece “Babli” may actually be “Sush” ( short for Sushmita?) in her class. I know I should also follow this strictly and remember not to call a recently married young man ( my cousin ) “Chikki" - particularly in front of his wife !