A tale of two names - Naseem and Natasha
I believe in Naseem. However long and dark the night may be, the fresh breeze of morning heals.
The interesting thing about my name is that I named myself. I was Neeru as a little girl and I was perfectly fine with it. I don’t remember noticing it or judging it in any way.
Then I appeared for my first school interview in the room of the nuns who were in charge of Loreto Convent School in Ranchi and they liked the child they met. They were impressed with Neeru for some reason. It may have been because I could read and write a little and answer questions that were asked in English. Maybe I was just chubby and cute looking.
Or maybe they just judged the name and wanted to suggest something more formal. It was their opinion that Neeru was too plain a name for a child like me.
“Neeru is not a good enough name for a sweet child like her. What are your brothers called?” one of them asked me.
“Nitish and Manish,” I said.
“You can be Natasha or Manisha,” one of the Sisters said.
I already knew a Manisha in our neighbourhood. I did not want to have a common name or be one of two Manishas in my school bus. “I’ll be Natasha,” I said.
Just like that I became Natasha that day.
I remember what I felt. I felt pride. I was flattered. I felt seen. I was happy to come out of there with a flashy new name. Children feel special within them. Having that feeling validated is a gift.
Typing this as an adult, I now see other dynamics playing out in that room. What was going on between the adults? The school authorities who were all-powerful at that moment and my parents who were nervous about the outcome of the admission interview. Did they give my parents enough time to think about changing their child’s name? Did my father agree too easily? How much did it matter to them?
Would I allow anyone to change my child’s name... or even suggest it?
Our youngest daughter is named Naseem. When my husband and I shared with friends and family that Naseem was top of our list of names for our new baby, we heard a lot of discouraging comments. “Mami, how can you choose such an old-fashioned name for your child,” my niece said. “She will grow up and hate you for this.”
Our friend, Raza, sent us a long list of fashionable new names that included words like Anya, Afza, Alma, Amaira, Aisha and so on. Another friend from Amroha tried to convince me in this way. “Every family has an elderly aunt called Naseem phuphi or Naseem khala. This is not a name for babies.”
I was flummoxed. The elderly aunts must have been babies when they were named Naseem, I thought to myself. I didn’t have a context to understand what our well-wishers were trying to explain to us.
“Ab pata chal jayega,” Sanjeev, my husband’s childhood friend from Jaunpur put it bluntly. “Now it will be obvious from her name that she is a Muslim.”
The unspoken was finally articulated. In a world rife with islamophobia and discrimination against selective identities, we were being encouraged to choose a neutral name for our child. Not something that labelled her instantly and made a dent on the other privileges of her birth.
It was time for me to remind myself what the name meant to me. Naseem means the fresh breeze of the morning. It means that however long and dark the night may be, the fresh breeze of morning heals.
In 1996, as a young media person, I had watched a film called Naseem, directed by Saeed Akhtar Mirza at a festival of national award-winning films.
Well-known for the TV serial, Nukkad and films like Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Mirza had been awarded Best Director and Best Screenplay for Naseem. I went back alone the next day and watched a second show of Naseem. I came out with hope, with a roadmap for how to deal with despair and loss.
Starring Kaifi Azmi as an ageing grandfather and Mayuri Kango as his 16-year-old school-going grandchild, Naseem looks at the growing communal fissures in Indian society that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the subsequent riots in Bombay. The delicate relationship between a man whose sense of belonging has survived the violence and horrors of the partition of India and a schoolgirl who is bewildered by renewed assaults on life as she knows it, serves to showcase how the human spirit survives and eventually thrives even in the most trying of times.
In 2008, I read Saeed Mirza’s memoir, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother.
Our daughter was born in the same year. I was reminded of the film that had felt transformative for me at a time when I was grappling with the dissonance of how my country and society was changing.
The name, Naseem, represents my relationship with my country. With the multiple identities I have been born into and have chosen for myself. I will not be party to the diminishing of our self and identity. I will believe in Naseem.
(This was first published in The Tribune)
What a beautiful, beautiful read, Natasha! Thank you for sharing this :)
A name with true meaning, not just one in a herd of rootless identities. 🙏