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(The TamBrahm series is a series of satirical posts on the customs and traditions which are a part of the TamBrahm community. This post is Part 12 of the TamBrahm series. If you haven't read any of the earlier 11 posts in this series, I am posting the link to Part 11, which has the link to Part 10 and so on. Part 11 of the TamBrahm series was about the Kaapu and Thottil ceremonies (Protection and Cradle ceremonies) of a newborn baby. The link to Part 11 can be found here.)
We left the previous post on a pretty high note – what with a boisterous Macadamia screaming her head off at the Thottil (cradle) ceremony.
Well, us TamBrahms simply love to have ceremonies for anything and everything. I personally think it is some sort of standing agreement between the TamBrahm families and the family priest because most of the ceremonies that involve priests in India now, are nothing but sponsorship elements for the priest community. What better reason to keep having one ceremony after another, other than a newborn baby in the house.
After the Kaapu and Thottil ceremonies are done and over with, TamBrahm families usually have the baby’s naming ceremony on the 11th day after birth. Until then, the baby (in the olden days) does not officially have a name. In the olden days, there have been many birth certificates issued with the words “Not Mentioned” or “Not Available” against the name column. No, that is not the baby’s name. That is just a stand-in of sorts until the official naming ceremony is done and over with. Thank God for that though else there would be hordes of TamBrahms with names like Not Mentioned Ramachandran or Not Available Seetharaman or Do Not Know Venkatiswaran and N.A Saraswati and the like.
In the days of yore, deciding on a name for the baby was no decision at all. It was all planned out and ready even before the baby made its appearance into this world. The firstborn son would be named after his paternal grandfather and the first born daughter after the paternal grandmother. If there was a second born son or a second born daughter, they were named after the maternal grandfather and grandmother. I guess no one really gave it a thought as to the kind of trouble the kids would face at school later on. While there would be other kids with short names, there would be the TamBrahm kids with names long enough to keep the teachers going into a tizzy because every TamBrahm name is nothing short of a tongue twister in itself. While girls would sport names like Anandhabhairavi Venkatakrishnan, Tripurasundari Ramasundaram and Meenambal Jambunathan (to name a few), the boys would not be far behind with names like Venkatasubramanian Panchapakeshan or Janakiraman Vaidyanathan or Kothandaraman Sambasadashivam. I’ve always been of the opinion that TamBrahm names should be allowed in spelling bee contests. That would give things a whole new spin with these TamBrahm names stretching like freeways in the Land of Oz.
Like I said before, preparations for the naming ceremony start well in advance – read the day before or a few days before the actual ceremony. Since the newborn baby and the new mom take up residence in the baby’s maternal grandparents’ home for a few weeks after delivery, the naming ceremony usually takes place at the maternal grandparents’ home. The grandparents and immediate relatives (read about half a dozen chitappas, chittis, mamas, mamis, athais and what have you – virtually the whole family, that is) would be busy procuring items on the list given to them by the priest.
As with all TamBrahm ceremonies, the naming ceremony too is conducted in the mornings. The priest would arrive with his entourage – a whole succession of pot-bellied, unshaven men. Some sight, eh ? That too, early in the morning. Now all these priests would be clad in dhotis which, at one point of time, a few years back, were white in color. After many washes, each one’s dhoti would be a different shade, ranging from off white to yellow and spots of red (thanks to the turmeric and kumkum – what were you thinking) to off white with streaks of brown (how that happens I know not and am not sure I want to, either). This whole entourage would then sit around cross legged and start calling for random items for the said ceremony. Some of the items that they call for would not have been on the original shopping list given by the head priest and there would be a mad rush among the people at home, to procure that particular item. This is a rite of passage, per se, in any given TamBrahm function. The priests, in the meantime, would request the people in the house for drinks. Milk based ones, people. Not what you’re thinking. But that’s complex enough. There needs to be a specialized priest barista in every household because if one priest asks for kaapi (coffee), the other priest will ask for tea and the third one might well ask for Bournvita and the fourth for Horlicks. There will also be variations to the coffee, tea or whatever else is on offer – with regard to the milk or the sugar or some such. I remember one such priest who once came home for some function and asked for coffee with cow’s milk. I really can’t remember whether anyone actually went looking for a cow. Thank the lord he did not ask for goat’s milk, sheep’s milk or better still, camel milk. If they are that particular, they should carry their own animals around, to be milked at their convenience.
While all this is happening in the living room, the new mom would usually be hustled into bath and out of it. Hustled because she would invariably be groggy eyed, if baby has been particularly helpful the night before in keeping her awake and here would be a whole posse of relatives asking her if she wants a yellow sari with a red border or a blue sari with a pink border and such questions which would positively sound so inane at that point in the new mom’s life, where all she wants and needs right then is a good couple of hours sleep. During Macadamia’s naming ceremony, I remember feeling so groggy and sleepy (and yes, little Macadamia had been tremendously helpful the night before) that had I been sitting down, I probably would have gone right off to sleep sitting in front of a whole load of guests, with the priests hollering mantras and chants like there was no tomorrow. I anyway had a rather stoned look on my face and in all probability, I’d have given the term “out cold” a whole new meaning.
After some initial prayers and mantra chanting, the father is handed a big brass plate (bigger the plate the better for the father – I’ll explain why later) and asked to place it on his lap. There is a lot of raw rice spread out on this plate and usually, the ladies in the house, at that given moment, behave as though inspiration just struck them. They start to play this weird game that looks and sounds like the Chinese Whispers that I play with the kids at school. One mami or one of the grandmothers standing right next to the father will start it off by behaving like Archimedes did in the bathtub when he discovered the Theory of Displacement. The body language of the lady in question would scream “Eureka” and she would hustle and bustle and whisper something to the lady next to her. No – before you start wondering, let me clarify that she behaves like an Archimedes in a Kancheevaram sari and the blingy blings. She does not (thank the lord) take her clothes off and run around shouting “Eureka”. That lady would suddenly look all wise and sprout a halo around her head and say something to the lady standing next to her and so it would go, until it reached the last lady in the chain. The last lady in the chain would rush off into the other room as though Mt.Vesuvius was about to erupt in all its glory any second and would rush back with a piece of cloth. This piece of cloth invariably will follow the same line of progression along the mamis, but the other way around until it ends in the hands of the lady that started the game of Chinese Whispers. She would then, rather ceremoniously, spread this piece of cloth onto the brass plate which, by now, would be resting rather precariously in the lap of the newly minted father.
The head priest will then ask the father to take the newborn baby from whoever is holding the bundle (of joy or noise or peace – depends on the situation at that point of time) and ask him to place the baby on the brass plate. Ah ha ! Now begins the fun !!
Many new fathers who are not used to holding their newborn baby do have a lot of fun at this juncture in the ceremony. Not only does he try to look as though he has virtually grown up holding a newborn baby (huh ??!!) but he also has to balance that large brass plate on his lap without toppling the whole thing over. Babies are babies and they do what they naturally do when they are newborns – they squirm, they wiggle, they flail and if it is indeed the dad’s lucky day, apart from all those, they also choose that very time to display their awesome lung power. Talk about getting a newborn baby to lie on a brass plate and balancing the whole thing. Are you asking yourself if it is difficult ? Get an octopus and try to stuff it into a wire mesh bag – the body, the arms the whole octopus, without any part of the octopus sticking out of the bag. Balancing a flailing, crying, red in the face newborn baby on a brass plate is just about as difficult or easy I guess and if that little octopus is all angry at the world for having disturbed its peaceful state of slumber or if hunger is all that’s on its mind right then, a huge “good luck” with an equally wide smile towards the father, would be just the thing to do.
If you think the balancing act ends with somehow fitting the baby on top of that plate in such a way that the baby’s arms and legs are not hanging out of the plate like one of those circus performers on a trapeze, think again. TamBrahm customs are never ever that simple. To convolute matters further for the new parents (read father because remember the moms are almost always doozy around this time due to lack of sleep and sheer exhaustion) he now has to lift the entire brass plate, baby and all, up and whisper the baby’s name three times in his / her ear. Another reason to keep those baby names short, eh ?
First the newly minted parents (or parent the second / third time around – it doesn’t really matter – things are just as confusing as ever) whisper the baby’s name three times and then the whole clan lines up to whisper the same name (obviously) into the baby’s ear three times. Funny, come to think of it – even after having its name literally dinned into its head so early on in life, the number of times parents have to call out their kids’ names in order to get a response from them later on in life, is simply amazing. One would think the name should have gotten imprinted in memory or branded in his/her head with having so many people repeat the name – that too three times over. Apparently not !
After this is done (or maybe before the name whispering ceremony – I’m not quite sure), the priest mixes up ghee (clarified butter) and honey in a bowl. He then asks the father to take off the ring on his finger and dip the ring into the ghee honey concoction in the bowl. I do remember watching out to see if this was a traditional gold polish of sorts but apparently it was not. Now the father has to feed that ghee-honey concoction to the baby. Now show me a baby that does not like something sweet. All babies do. Quite naturally, when a baby is literally being spoon fed (in this case, ring fed) honey, the baby is sure to open it mouth for more. Logic, right ?
According to the TamBrahm mamis, this is no logic vogic. It is something to be massively excited about, every single time they stand witness to a naming ceremony, and trust me when I say this, when they see that baby opening its mouth for more of the sweet stuff, the mamis and mamas break into this super excited chatter that makes it seem as though they’ve seen all seven wonders of the world, at one go. It is that expression of wonder, of jaw dropping delight and an expression of utter enchantment and satisfaction – all rolled into one. One look at their rapturous faces and one would be convinced that feeding something sweet to a baby and getting baby to eat it is nothing less than the eighth wonder of the world. If their expression turns out that way to babies eating and downing normal food without spitting it out on the mom or dad’s face, it is totally understandable. But sweet stuff – isn’t that the stuff one finds it difficult to get babies out of ?? Then why do the mamis look so incredibly thrilled as though they’ve just seen Brad Pitt walk around nude on a beach ? Sigh ! Just one of those things to which there is no answer, I guess !
Once the father has fed the ghee honey concoction to the baby three times, the priest signals that the mother can now feed the baby. I mean, they just announce that the baby now needs to be breastfed. Yeah – just what moms need. A permissive signal from the priest to breastfeed the newborn babies – Ye God ! Of course, the priests ‘milk’ the moment (sorry for the pun – was not intended but then puns often get the better of me rather unknowingly) and announce it loud enough for the whole world to hear “ok now you can go and feed the baby”. Thanks for that because that is often misconstrued by the mamis there as a cue to start talking about the breastfeeding issues that the new mom is having ! . I remember thinking at Macadamia’s naming ceremony that the priests do forget to put something on that shopping list. A megaphone !
Another thing I noticed during Macadamia’s naming ceremony was the fact that I was not allowed to take part in any of rituals other than whispering her name three times. Reason given then was that I was still “impure” because postpartum bleeding takes a few days to completely stop. This did strike me as odd because a woman goes through a lot through nine months of pregnancy and then the rigors of labour and delivery. It doesn’t stop there. She is still going through a massive adjustment phase in terms of learning to care for her newborn, handling sleepless nights, latching issues and what have you. Basically, she has a lot on her plate – both parents do, for that matter. Also, the very thing that provided nourishment for the baby in utero now has her sidelined from rituals associated with her baby ? Somehow, to me, that does not make sense at all. Being told that she needs to stand aside and not be a part of the rituals is yet again, in my books, quite insensitive and illogical. But then again, I’m a rebel and when I see something at odds, I say it. Period ! (did not intend that pun too, yet again).
So now we have a little newborn, who has had his / her name dinned into his / her head a gazillion times by the elders in the family and we also have a newborn who has had his / her first taste of sugar. So we leave the newborn in that happy place for now, all tizzy and dizzy from the sugar high, yelling for more and the right now hapless new parents, quite unsure of what all that ruckus is about.