The Names of Our Grandmothers

RAKSHYA SILWAL, Daayitwa-Incessant Rain Fellow 2022

One of my earliest memories of going to school was learning to answer the question “What is your name?” I had learnt the answer to that question by heart. I had also learnt how to write it. In a notebook, which had blue and red horizontal lines on every page and which was referred to as the ‘English copy’, I would write the sentence “My name is Rakshya Silwal”.

I would write the sentence over and over again as kindergarten homework or classwork assignments. Once I had learnt how to spell my name, I felt so proud of the accomplishment that I would write my name on any surface I could find. All I needed would be something to write with. I would write on the walls at home (to the horror of my parents). I would write it on the front and back blank pages of books from my father’s treasured collections. Writing, saying and hearing being called my name over and over again had it etched on my mind and it has become a part of my identity. However, Shakespeare disagrees and says “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet). There is truth in what Shakespeare is saying. The answer to what makes a rose may be known to scientists rather than philosophers. However, the things (chemical compounds, genome sequence, …) that make a rose, rose, make it so even if it is called a gulab or rosa or róża. Then, is my name or what I am called a matter of importance? Can what/ who I am be encapsulated into two mere words, that is my name? Maybe not. But it is a start. The act of naming allows us to enter a discourse. Thus, when I say “My name is Rakshya” or “I am Rakshya” to introduce myself to others, I use my name as an identifier. I use it as a point of identification not only for others but also for myself. I use it to make sense of who I am and where my place is in the world.  

Names are defined as proper nouns in English grammar and begin with capital letters as per the grammatical rule. The usage of capital letters allows readers to easily move across text and know important words. A sentence begins with a capitalized letter, there is then a flow of letters in a lowercase sequence making words and meanings and then bam! We come across a name, a proper noun, with its uppercase first letter. There is a disruption in the flow. The proper noun or the name looks different and asks for the reader’s attention, almost saying ‘hey look at me I am different and important.’ Thus, aesthetically reinforcing the importance of a proper name. But then, what about hooks?

bell hooks was an American author and social activist. She wrote prolifically on feminism, class and race and focused on the intersectionality of race, gender and capitalism and their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression. bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) adopted the name bell hooks from her maternal great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. bell hook’s use of lowercase letters in her pen-name was to honor her great-grandmother and also to convey a message that rather than her personal qualities, the focus has to be her work, what she has written. 

One may ask, why am I going off on a tangent and talking about bell hooks when I am exploring the importance/(unimportance) of my own name and how I introduce myself. It is because of two reasons. The first reason is that when hooks lets go of the uppercase in her name, she is being defiant of a system of language (Honestly tell me if the first letter in the above paragraph that began with a lowercase b did not make you feel some discomfort or make you think it was a typo). On top of that, writing about oppression and oppressive systems is another instance of her being defiant of an unfair system. She also defies self-importance by urging the readers to focus on her work instead of herself. However, the lowercase letters in her name ironically bring the focus on her and her name. Furthermore, her name now encapsulates her spirit and her defiance and hence reinforces the importance of names. 

The second reason I brought hooks into the conversation was because of her usage of the name bell hooks to pay homage to her maternal great-grandmother. When I say that my name is Rakshya Silwal. It also tells people of my familial history. My last name gives the audience a quick glance at my paternal lineage. But what about my maternal lineage? Unlike hooks, I don't even know the name of my maternal great-grandmother. Our culture with its association with patriarchy does not give much emphasis to our maternal side but even on my father’s side I do not know the name of my great-grandmother. Whenever I have had to fill up official government or legal documents, I have had to fill up my father's name and my grandfather’s name. However, the names of my grandmothers or their mothers do not come up in any circumstance and are slowly disappearing due to lack of use. One may argue that, as we move forward in time, the past becomes hazier and details (like the names of our great-grandmothers) are lost. Is that it, then? Is there no harm in the disappearance of the names of our grandmother and great-grandmothers from living memory? 

The names that are frequently used, spoken and written have more chances of living longer in memory. I wonder if my great great-grandmother’s name was ever even written down anywhere. My grievance here is the systematic forgetfulness of certain people. This systemic forgetfulness has seeped into the socio-cultural context. Womens’ names disappear over time because their name gets merged into their male counterparts and this makes the system easier to forget their names, their contribution and their existence. The system makes it seem like our grandmothers and their mothers were seen and counted. Afterall, we could not have existed without them. But in reality, we are assuming, we are taking them for granted.  Our systems (social/political) barely acknowledge their existence and only sees them as a consequence of a male counterpart. It foreshadows their visibility and makes them invisible. This system of invisibility is not limited to gender. It transcends to ethnicity, religion, class and caste. When a system is made such that only those in the forefront are seen and heard. It only accommodates the needs of those in the front. The experiences of all others become obsolete. 

Thus, it is our duty, as proud grandchildren of strong wise grandmothers, to remember their names and share their stories and create spaces to share the stories of those who have experienced other-ness and strive to change unfair systems such that those even in the margins are seen, heard and regarded with the respect they deserve.

For An Enterprising Nepal