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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Long before she was conceived, and confident that my firstborn would be a girl, I had a middle name – Saoirse – for her. We lived in Asia, and felt that an Irish first name, especially one that did not conform to English phonetic rules, would be impractical. Her first name, we agreed, would be Sanskrit and, by virtue of its transliteration, easy to pronounce. In his hometown of Chennai, my husband bought a copy of the ‘Book of Hindu Names’.

‘Ishthar,’ he pronounced after flicking through it.

‘Ishthar,’ I rolled the name around my mouth. It sounded too harsh, too masculine, it stopped too abruptly.

My eye was drawn to another name further down the page.

‘I could live with “Ishthara” I told him.

So it was decided; my daughter would be called Ishthara – which, in Sanskrit, means ‘that which is desired most’.

It was the perfect name for the perfect child that it took me nearly ten years to have. When I held her in my arms for the first time, I knew that she was all I desired. She was every dream I’d ever had come true. She was a part of me that had come back to me. She was the song of my soul. She was, truly, Most Desired. In Hindi ‘Ishthara’ means ‘Falling Star. In either language, it’s a beautiful name. For short, I call her ‘Isha’ – which means ‘Goddess’ – and that, too, is appropriate.

Not long after Ishthara’s first birthday, I left my husband; and the nature of my work meant that I found myself in occasional need of a babysitter.

I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful Bangladeshi woman – Neelu – who was kind, sweet, motherly, and who adored Ishthara.

During that summer, Neelu’s daughter visited Singapore. Tahira was pregnant with her first child and sometimes accompanied her mother when Neelu babysat. Both women shared their hope with me that Neelu’s grandchild would be a girl. Further, Tahira told me that she really wanted a little girl like my little girl; sweet, affectionate, sunny, good-natured, and beautiful.

In the middle of October, I hired a full-time, live-in nanny, and Neelu went back to Bangladesh to be with Tahira in her final trimester.

On January 25th, 2004, my phone rang. The line was very crackly and there was a slight time-delay. It was Neelu, calling to tell me that her granddaughter had been born a month earlier.

‘What’s her name?’ I asked.

Neelu hesitated. The child had not yet been named, she told me.

‘That’s why I’m ringing you. We – my daughter and I – want to call the baby Ishthara, after your daughter. But my son-in-law will not agree. For one month, we have been asking him. We told him how wonderful your Ishthara is, how much we love her, and that we really want to call the new baby by her name. Finally, today, he said that if we can find out what the name means, and he likes the meaning, the baby can be called “Ishthara”. Please, can you tell me what means the name?’

I felt a rush of mixed emotions. I realised that it is quite an honour when someone wants to call their baby after yours.

But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that ‘Ishthara’ was my daughter’s name. I chose it especially for her. It’s hers! I felt as protective of the name as I am of the child. I didn’t want anyone else to call their child ‘Ishthara’. I wanted this woman to go and find her own name – to put as much effort into finding a name for her child as I had put into finding a name for mine. A very unkind part of me was tempted to tell Neelu that the name means ‘Pig Goddess’. There was no way a Muslim would consent to his daughter being named that! I couldn’t though. I couldn’t lie about the meaning of my daughter’s name.

‘It’s a Hindu name,’ I cautioned her.

‘A Hindu name? Okay….but what does it mean?’

‘Most Desired’, I told her.

‘Most Desired?’ she repeated, to ensure that she heard correctly over the bad line.

‘Yes.’

Later, I learnt from Neelu that her son-in-law had been satisfied with that meaning, and her granddaughter had been named ‘Ishthara’.

Naming a child is a very serious matter, and should be taken very seriously. I put a lot of thought and effort into naming my children; and, somewhere in Dhaka, someone else put an equal amount of thought and effort into the task when she named her eldest daughter after mine.

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