What’s in a (Balinese) name?

There’s a reason why I don’t like to yell out a person’s full name in public to get his or her attention.

To get into the house from the beach side after walking home from work, I use a combination of a Swiss yodel, British colonial “cooee” and motions reminiscent of the Maori haka.

On lucky days, our cook Nyoman would hear or see me from the kitchen and unlock the gate. Otherwise, I have to go around a few more rice fields to get to the roadside entrance.

Nyoman is like a surrogate mother to me. She has been with us since I was in primary school. Her name means that she is the third-born sibling in her family.

Like its internal-rhyming substitute, Komang, the name Nyoman supposedly comes from the root word “anom” which means “younger”. Ergo, she is the younger one.

Perhaps it comes from an ancient family-planning scheme. Children’s names among us commoners in Bali tend to follow a preset unisex pattern: Putu, Gede or Wayan from words that mean “big” or “more mature” for the eldest; Kadek, Made or Nengah from the root words madya or tengah meaning middle for the second born; and Nyoman and Komang for the third.

Oh, and if a surprise comes along after the “younger one”, then he or she would be called Ketut. I believe it comes from the word kincut, which means “tail”.

Then again, life can’t always be confined to planning, especially that for families. Should the wonder of a fifth child arrive, then (perhaps by lack of imagination) we would start again: another Putu, Gede or Wayan. Then another Kadek, Made or Nengah for child number six; another Komang or Nyoman for the seventh, etc.

It’s always amusing when someone asks, “Do you know Wayan?” when they hear I’m from Bali. It’s rather like asking a Londoner, “Do you know John?”

But we do like to go by our generic first names. Introducing myself as Kadek when overseas, the name is unique enough to be mispronounced or remembered, despite there being about half a million with that name in Bali. The often-exasperated question from a visitor becomes, “How do you tell one Kadek from another?”

The exasperating answer is: by his or her nickname. We all get nicknames, whether at school, at home, or in the village.
There were several Kadeks in my class at high school. I was the Kadek bule (albino, on account of my lighter skin) who sat next to the Kadek bola (“ball” — he was a nicely rounded).

Yes, nicknames often don’t pick our most admirable traits. Once a name sticks and one stops fighting the inferred jest, though, it can become just another handle.

Or term of endearment, even. While it often bothers me that those of dark skin want to be white and the pale want a tan, I learned to take my nickname as a compliment.

First names aside, the Balinese can be creative in carving out unique names for their babies.

We look forward in Bali: it is the parents who are called after their firstborn and not the children who are named after their parents. That’s why most of us don’t have a family name.

I tend to use Krishna, my second name, for more formal situations.

Krishna is perhaps a name best known as the sage in the Bhagavad-Gita, the hallowed chapter of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

He later became recognized as one of the 10 Avatars in Hindhu mythology: a reincarnation of Wishnu, the manifestation of God as Protector and Sustainer of life.

My father would have had long consultations with his father and other elders when selecting a powerful name for me. It was a form of blessing to impart a certain characteristic, a certain power.

Usually at the age of 105 days, a naming ceremony would take place. The child’s name would be inscribed upon a piece of lontar (dried palmyra leaf). He or she would grow up to know it in full, but it is the child’s way of pronouncing the name that sticks.

Hence my sister Trishna is better known as Nina, which is how she referred to herself as a toddler. And by that spell of her self-identification my father and mother became Pak Nina and Mek Nina respectively.

To those who believe, true names have even greater power to summon, handle, affect and control a person.

Doesn’t the uttering of your name out of the blue summon you to turn around to face the caller?

In traditional societies, a person’s true name is often hidden from the public ear lest it be used in spells.

So it wasn’t until I was 18 and about to leave for New Zealand that my cook told me her full name. It was imparted to me after months of lobbying and entreaty, and after guarantees not to share the knowledge lightly.

Imagine living with someone for over a decade without being entrusted with his or her name. Imagine it being the norm, not exception.

You, dear reader, know my full true name. I trust you not to use it lightly.

Kadek Krishna Adidharma is a Bali-based environmental engineer who works as a cultural liaison officer and is an interpreter.