All in a name

Painting: Marjorie Sarnat

By Nishi Pulugurtha

I came into this world after midnight and was named after the time of my birth – the name Nishi is Sanskrit for night. Amma always said that Appagaru named me thus. He always wanted a name not more than two syllables for his first born. I have often been told that I have a name that does not give off my South Indian/ Telugu identity. I have had various reactions to my name – there is a spooky reference in the Bengali psyche to my name. There is something called a ‘nishi daak’ that can be heard by some people at night, a dark, eerie call that makes the hearer wander out of the house at night on hearing this ‘daak’ or call. Hari Pulugurtha was surely unaware of it when he named me thus, though he had been living in Calcutta for some years by then. Even if he was aware it would not have altered his decision.

There is one story that revolved around my name that my father loved telling me. He was close to Rani Mahalonobis, the wife of the statistician Prashanta Chandra Mahalonobis, who was then living alone at Amrapali in the Indian Statistical Institute. Appagaru always spoke about her with great respect and affection and said that it was a wonderful experience talking to her. He said that she liked talking to young, enthusiastic minds at the Institute and was a great talker. When she found out that Hari Pulugurtha had just had a daughter, she called him, congratulated him and asked him if he had thought of a name. By then I already had a name. When she was told of it, she disapproved of it and told her that he needed to change it. It was not a good name for a girl. She had a suggestion for a name for the baby; she said that I should be named ‘Ranjana’. Appagaru had no intention of changing the name. Nishi it was and would remain. I wonder if things would have been different if I would have been named Ranjana.

Three and half years later when my sister was born in the summer heat of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, her name had already been decided upon. It was to be Usha. No, she was not born early morning; instead she decided to make her appearance late in the evening, one scorching summer day. So, that was how we were named Nishi and Usha. Easy names, just two syllables, as my dad would always say. Easy for the baby when it was time for her to start school and easy for others too.

When I was about five months, my parents moved into a new place. Although the building was still under construction, my parents moved in as the ground floor was ready. Nishir Ma was how Amma was called by Pishima (aunt) who lived upstairs. When we were growing up my sister objected to it. But that was how things were. Baidyanath Da’s school bus that we travelled in to school was a wonderful social space for us. We had great fun, fights, quarrels, picnics and feasts in the bus. I remember most of my seniors and my peers referring to the two of us as Nishi-Ushi. As we moved off to study at different schools after our class ten, this pairing of our names slowly stopped. Years later, when thanks to social media, I reconnected with seniors from school, I heard that familiar call, Nishi-Ushi.

Growing up in Calcutta, speaking Bengali fluently was but natural to me. I am told that I speak it better than most native speakers. My first name does not give away my identity. It is when I tell my full name that people look at me in surprise and then ask, “South Indian?” So, they begin saying my name Nishi and then falter. I have heard so many variations of Pulugurtha: some stop after a few attempts, saying it is difficult to pronounce it; some go ahead and say it all wrong; there are some who do say it alright. Pulugurtha is the name of the village to which my ancestors belonged to. I have never been there; I hope to do someday. It is my inti peruinti in Telugu is house/home and peru is name. Usually used as an initial by most Telugu people, Appagaru changed his name when he began working in Bhubaneshwar.  His name was P. Srihari Rao but he got it changed to Hari Pulugurtha. I still recall my grandmother addressing him as Srihari; she did not approve of his name change at all.

When he started to speak, my nephew began calling me by what was my email id – nishipulu. They were abroad then, and we often had virtual conversations mostly on Yahoo messenger. That was years before other chat platforms became very common. He still addresses me as Nishipulu. His parents too address me in the same way. I recently heard the little one in the neighbour’s house being taught by her mother to address me as Nishipulu Dida. I smiled when I heard it.

I have often been asked if I had a nickname. Bengalis have a lot of nicknames – some funny, some weird – and they remain even when one grows up. I did not have a nickname. My sister did have one, but as she grew up, my parents stopped calling her by her nickname. No one else other than the four of us ever knew of her nickname. My parents had another way of addressing us and that way was necessitated by the need to teach us our mother tongue, Telugu. So, I was referred to as Akka (Telugu for elder sister) and my sister was called Chelli (Telugu for younger sister). Unfortunately, none of us called each other akka or chelli. I always called her by her name and she called me in the Bengali way, Nishi di. My parents, in particular my dad, once in a while referred to us as akka and as chelli. That stopped some years ago. Amma does not speak nowadays; she has forgotten to speak. She has a nickname though; the eldest in a family of six, her nickname is Baby. In spite of all the ravages that Alzheimer’s disease has brought, she still responds to that nickname.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

One thought

  1. Your life scripts are so well conveyed. It is like talking to a near and dear one face to face. Thank you for your gifts of the written word influenced by nostalgia and memories Ma’am.

    Also, I wish for Didama’s( your mother) good health.

    Liked by 1 person

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