Growing up in America, I never liked my name much. Padmini Parthasarathy was not an easy name to have. I’ve heard every variation: Pad-meeny. Pad-mini, Paahd-meeny. Every introduction made me anxious. I would hang my head low and mumble it at first. I learned to skirt the issue by making jokes. On the first day of school, teachers would take role, confidently reading the other names on the roster. Pauses and furrowed brows meant they had finally reached me. Before they read it, I’d raise my hand and say, “That’s me!” laughing. “It’s the really long one.” An inescapable word, your name. I experimented with different pronunciations and landed on Paahd-mini by the time I was 18. Sort of right, sort of Anglicized. No foreign phonemes to struggle with. I’d also usually spell it for good measure and let people extrapolate their own pronunciation.
Coming to Chennai has temporarily relieved me of the burden of my name. I’m free to introduce myself confidently, without eating my words. And I’m beginning to feel that Padmini is a rather beautiful name after all. It is another name for Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Laxmi sits on a lotus flower, a vision of beauty and ferocity in Hindu mythology. In my opinion, she’s the baddest bitch1 religion has ever seen. According to the myths, she sent her husband Vishnu (incidentally, Lord of the Universe) to the doghouse because he let an angry disciple kick him in the stomach and dishonor his grace. Because of this, they have separate areas in most temples.
My legal name is Padmini Parthasarathy. However, in Tamil Nadu, the concept of the surname doesn’t exist. My real Tamil name is Chanthokya Parthasarathy Padmini—C.P. Padmini for short. Parthasarathy is my father’s given name, the rough equivalent of a first name. His Tamil name is C.S. Parthasarathy. The S in his name is short for Sampath, his father’s given name. When women marry, they take their husband’s given name as their new initial. My mother, R. Sudha, became C.P. Sudha. Because of this system, it is difficult to identify extended family by name. There is no name-based relation between my grandfather and me. It only seems natural here for it to be this way. Family is pervasive. I have met at least fifty relatives since I’ve been here. Even if people are unrelated, it is custom to treat them like family. This is even reflected in Tamil, the local language. Young people refer to their elders as mama (uncle), mami (auntie) anna (big brother) or akka (big sister).
Parthasarathy is a description of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Partha is another name for Arjuna, one of the brave five Pandavas who fought the Kurukshetra war against their hundred cousins, the Kauravas, in the Mahabharata2. Sarathy means charioteer. In the epic, Krishna was Arjuna’s charioteer, Vishnu’s incarnate sent down to earth to remind Arjuna of his duty, or dharma. In a moment of weakness, Arjuna expresses qualms about warring with his cousins to Krishna. Krishna reminds Arjuna that he must fight for righteousness. This conversation comprises the Bhagavad Gita. The Mahabharata and the Kurukshetra war are commonly seen as an allegory for the moral struggle.
I had known these things before coming to Chennai. However, I had never gotten a suitable explanation for Chanthokya. Sometimes a family will include the name of its village in its childrens’ names, so I figured that Chanthokya might be the name of our family village. Names represent the beginnings of things to me, so I decided to ask my grandfather about this first.
I sat in thatha’s3 small living room, tinged blue with fluorescent light. The ceiling fan whirred loudly, punctuating his animated explanation. Thatha is a slight man with bushy grey eyebrows and a stately nose. He sat in his plastic chair, thrilled that I was interested to hear what he had to say. He spoke to me in a high, reedy whirl of Tamil and English. “Chanthokya is the essence of Samaveda, as I could gather from my older brother,” he said. Samaveda, as he explained, is one of the four ancient vedas, or books, of Hinduism. Chanthokya is a central concept in Samaveda, which is the chosen veda of my father’s family line. According to the Chanthokya Upanishad, all power, purity and wholeness rests in the atman, or the soul.
“It looks nice to have a surname like that, like Chanthokya which is one of the four Vedas,” paati4 chimed in. “It’s a credit and pride for the family to have it like that.”
1. It has been brought to my attention that some people (the over 30 set) might be offended by this/are afraid that the Shiv Sena will come after me for using… saltier language. I’ll kindly draw your attention here. Trust young’ns to turn two negative words into a term of endearment.
2. One of the two great Hindu epics compiled around 400 BCE by the sage Vyasa. It details the Kurukshetra war, fought between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. As the story goes, the Pandava King Yudhistra was conned into a rigged game of dice by the Kaurava king (his cousin) and subsequently lost his kingdom.