By Nisha Susan
Here is a scene from Season 7 of the TV show Gilmore Girls. Rory Gilmore’s best friend Lane has just found out she’s pregnant. They’re both just 21 and Lane is freaking out.
Rory: And, already, you are way ahead of a lot of people as far as parenting skills go. Like, Britney? Britney Spears does not know which end of a baby goes up. And Courtney Love? She’s no June Cleaver.
Lane: Yeah. I bet I could be a better mother than Courtney Love.
Rory: My sock drawer could be a better mother than Courtney Love. But yes! Of course you would be. And Michael Jackson? You know not to name a child ‘Blanket’.
Lane: I do know that. Do not name your baby after an inanimate object.
Lane: I wonder if Blanket ever met Tom and Katie’s baby, Pillow?
Rory: Yeah, that would be a perfect playmate.
Lane: When it’s naptime they’d be totally set.
Lane: Oh, Pilot Inspektor Lee!
Totally unique baby names are almost mandatory for celebrities, like the mysterious Instagram teams that seem to follow them around while they exercise (particularly when they do headstands) and when they holiday (particularly on the beach).
The job of the celebrity is to go publicly where the rest of us find hard to go. Sometimes literally, and in swimsuits. But often, metaphorically. To love without marriage, to marry several times, to get divorced, to adopt as a single parent, to adopt internationally, to marry across race and religion. To demonstrate the shape of a public marriage where the woman is the high-powered intellectual. To give us searing envy with new sari blouse styles, of course, but also to trigger conversations about depression, sexual harassment, domestic violence, gender bias, addiction, PDA, unconscious failure and conscious uncoupling.
A few months ago, when we published a story about movie star Amala Paul’s in-laws forbidding her to work, our site almost crashed with its popularity. There it was – the simple, unadorned story of a highly successful young woman being told by her in-laws and husband (who worked in the same industry) that she couldn’t anymore. And there were the pictures of her happily working, even with divorce hanging over her head. Thousands of women who read the piece, I suspect, thought to themselves, “That’s my life.”
This is the job of the celebrity. While their fame will open them up to acid scrutiny, every other privilege in their life can protect them from the consequences the rest of us may face.
To read about America in the 1930s and 1940s where Jews regularly changed their names, to read about Dalits and Adivasis in contemporary India regularly changing their names, will give you a good sense of how much of the average person’s life depends on their name ‘passing’.
A Malayali Christian family I know quarreled some years ago because the younger generation wanted to name their baby ‘Nathan’, and the older generation thought it sounded too much like ‘Methan’, the Malayalam word for Muslim. I grew up alongside more than one Christian Salim, and even had an uncle called Modi, but what are the chances now?
For Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan to cheerfully give their newborn son a resonant, traditional name of Turkish origin – in the midst of wall-to-wall Islamophobia – is their pleasure and privilege. In the realm of celebrity-parenting, Kareena and Saif seem to have begun as they mean to go on. To name your child Taimur or AbRam or Blue Ivy or Shivaji? It is a signal from the parents: One day, son, all this craziness will be yours.
Whatever little Taimur’s parents felt seeing their child’s name frothing and fuming on Twitter, it gave me minor tickles. The kind of tickles I get during dull dinner parties because people get worked up when I tell them that I’ve read Kareena Kapoor is Christian, or that Tamil is not derived from Sanskrit. It’s the same tickles I got one afternoon in a Delhi household, the day before Diwali. A young Jain woman spent 10 minutes explaining the meaning of the Hebrew name she’d given her infant daughter. (How Hebrew, in the department of baby names, has taken on the same bland, posh feels of hummus, quinoa and Ayurvedic spas, I’d like someone to tell me.) Soon after, there broke out an argument in the all-female gathering about the number of lamps that are lit on Chhoti Diwali among Digambars and Shwetambars.
What about in your family, Hebrew-baby-mommy asked me. I’m Christian, I said. What, she asked again, unable to hear somehow. I’m Christian, I said. What, she said again. She’s CHRISTIAN, said my sister-in-law. After that, the Mother of Israel didn’t speak to me for the rest of the evening, or else I’d have told her about the Hebrew origins of my middle name and surname.
This week I spoke to Aishwarya Rajinikanth Dhanush who has written a slim memoir dedicated to all the celebrity children who made it to adulthood with their sanity intact. Born to Rajinikanth, married to Dhanush, she wrestles with these two facts, determined to combine gritted teeth with grace. Just as my general knowledge includes the factoid that Beyonce’s baby is Blue Ivy, my mother’s once included the factoid that Rakhi’s daughter’s nickname was Bosky. However, no such detail of Aishwarya’s life has been public knowledge. She tells stories about her parents keeping her and her sister so hidden from the public that rumors were thick that they had severe disabilities. But it gave them a normal life for many, many years, she said.
I thought of her last night when I was at the wedding of a couple of regular people. Also attending the wedding was the young son of a south Indian film megastar. He is expected to enter the business soon. We all played it cool but looked at him, of course, in quick sideways glances. There he was, hanging about at his relative’s wedding doing regular-people, shaadi-type things. His last name may have held him back, but his first name was not getting in his way yet.
Meanwhile, 2017 is likely to see more than a handful of Indian babies named Taimur. They will likely need the steely nature that their name means.
Co-published with Firstpost.