While growing up, I often wondered why all the women’s names in my family began with a V (my mother and two sisters being named Visalakshi, Vidya, and Venil respectively), while mine was the odd one out, starting with a G. Why had I been singled out? I did not care for its length either … three syllables instead of one or two, so it was harder on the tongue. Moreover, it was often mispronounced by teachers, classmates, and even friends. Over time, however, it became something I accepted and tolerated, until I realized that a name is more than just the sum of its syllables; it can mean so much more, and in my case it does.
While my name Gomathy has several different meanings in different Indian languages, it is especially relevant to me in a few ways.
Firstly, the Gomati, a tributary of the holy Ganga river, flows through the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Although I never had a chance to cleanse my soul and nourish my spirit in its holy waters, I felt an inextricable bond to it, by the simple fact that we share the same name (though spelled differently). Knowing that millions of people had bathed in its waters for generations made it historically significant, and yet real to me.
A second distinction is that my name is derived from a Jain saint Gomateshvara. He was a prince, who, after a war over the control of his kingdom with his greedy older brother, accepted defeat at the instant of his victory, having realized the futility of it all. He renounced the world and his rights to the kingdom. He left to lead a life of peace and meditation, and attained nirvana many years later. A 58-foot nude statue was carved in 980 C.E. out of a single block of rock as a sacred tribute to this prince-turned-saint. I was lucky to see this monument a few years ago and was struck by its majestic beauty and innate spirituality. The intricacy of the carving is astounding, right down to the fingers and toenails. It is situated on the top of a hill, with a glorious vista of the city of Bangalore below. As I trod up the 600 steps with my father and hundreds of others in anticipation, I was rewarded by the sudden view of this subtly smiling, gentle-faced saint with such a benevolent expression of peace and hope that I was truly mesmerized by it. I felt grateful in bearing a derivative of this great saint’s name.
My name’s final claim to fame, and the most meaningful to me, was the reason I was named Gomathy—to honor my maternal grandmother.
My grandmother, Gomathy, a woman of uncommon strength, character, and wisdom, was married to my grandfather at the tender age of 13 and was unable to finish high school. In spite of this, she has more smarts and common sense than almost anyone else I know. She and my grandfather struggled in their early years together, but in time, with a combination of intelligence, hard work, perseverance, and simple living, were able to support their family of eight.
I have warm childhood memories of my grandma: playing with and brushing her silky, wavy metal-grey hair while she patiently allowed me to experiment with fanciful and absurd hairstyles on her; eating ripe, luscious orange mangoes and ruby-red pomegranates at my grandmother’s feet, as she cut and peeled away the skins and handed me the juicy nuggets; going on early, misty morning walks with her and my grandfather on the winding roads near their home. I remember grumbling about getting up at 5 a.m. (she would wake me up at the last possible moment, so that I could get as much sleep as possible), but then once I was out there, I reveled in the crisp, cool air with hardly anyone else in sight. I struggled to keep pace with my grandfather, who briskly out-walked us every time. I was content in the more relaxed, deliberate pace I kept with my grandmother and glad for the quiet time with her. Though we did not talk much, her presence alone was comforting to me. I fondly recall the long card games we played—Rummy and Memory. I played hard to try to beat my grandparents, even in Memory!
As a child of four, I was lucky to have lived with my grandparents for a couple of years. I was an insecure kid, afraid of many things—of school, new faces, and being alone. I remember my grandma walking me to school every day, saying goodbye at the gate, and then when I came out, to my relief, hers would be the first face I saw. She never disappointed me; she was always there, rock solid, yet gentle and warm in a way that only grandmothers can know how, and helped wash away my fears and insecurities over time.
For me as an adult, getting to know my grandma has had its own set of rewards. She suffered from periodic depression, but stoic as she was, took no medication for it other than the homeopathic pills that my grandpa prescribed. I would never have guessed it, having always seen her with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face. I remember the words she used to say often to me on parting: “Be courageous!” It became a mantra for me, and whenever I felt nervous about events such as exams and interviews, this simple mantra of courage inspired me, especially since it came from one of the strongest and most disciplined people I knew.
When she was in her 30s, one of her daughters was stricken with polio. Even though she had never set foot in a pool before, she did not hesitate to put on a swimsuit for the first time in her life (in spite of my grandfather’s teasing) and learn to swim, so she could help her daughter with her leg exercises. She believed nothing was impossible to overcome, and lived her life by this principle.
Today, at 92, she still gets up at 3:30 every morning, washes her clothes by hand, bathes, and says her prayers. Her enthusiasm for life, sense of humor, and spirit, are infectious and affect all those around her. I love spending time with her, just talking to her, going with her to meet older relatives, visiting a temple together, meeting her at a family gathering, or just hanging out. She is always alert and vibrant, with a sharp wit and memory.
My family calls me by my nickname Mathy, which means moon and mind in my native language Tamil. To everyone else, friends and strangers alike, I am, and always will be Gomathy, a name I cherish and am proud to bear.
Gomathy Naranan is an engineer at Cingular Wireless in Pleasanton, Calif.