I hate my name, particularly my nick name: Shuman. It’s so common that some of my classmates at Jahangirnagar University used to call me “common.” Despite its literal meaning that aligns with Oscaresque “beautiful mind,” the proper name has been damaged by its overuse. I guess in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was not considered that bad a name. It was quite trendy for my father’s generation to look for Bangla names to distinguish their newborns from those from West Pakistan. An Arabic or a Persian formal name along with a Bangla nickname was the order of the day.
The irony is my father named me after a Pakistani singer: Shamshad Begum. He was probably a fan of the classical singer, but that does not necessarily explain my nomenclature, which is tinged with a story that is too hard to swallow, too supernatural to be natural. Then again it had been told by a person whom I would trust with my entire life—my deceased father, Mr. N.A.G. Mortuza.
One day, a year before I was born, when he was going to his office in Motijheel, he was waylaid by a mad beggar in scanty clothes. This mad man was touching the feet of all incoming rickshaw passengers and asking for alms. When my father’s turn came, the man just put in my father’s palm all the coins he had collected and said, “You are going to have two sons. Name them - Shamsad and Haider.” Sure enough, as the first born, I was handcuffed to a mystical uni-sex Persian name that literally meant “a sapling” or an “evergreen shrub.” My mother probably still has those old coins wrapped in a small bundle as a memento of that incident. My younger brother, however, managed to have got rid of his name during his school registration as it matched the name of the caretaker of our grandma’s house.
So I ended up with a mouthful name: S.M. Shamsad Mortuza. The first letter stood for my family title - Sardar; the second one of course confirming my Muslim identity - Muhammad, while my dad’s name blazoned at the end. But when at school, little did I care about our family title or the legacy it carried. At the time of registration for my SSC examination, I decided to do a root over of my SM squares name. I simply retained SM, and gave up being an esquire (a punny wish).
When I moved to Willes Little Flower School in Class 5, there was this girl called Shamshad Jahan. Trust me it’s not nice to be in a class where you have to share a girl’s name, especially when you are ten-year-old. I started going by my father’s name, my last name. I dropped off the tail as a bait, and it worked. My friends started bulldozing it at their own will: Mortooz, cartooz, tormuj ... For me, what mattered the most was the fact that they were no longer teasing me for sharing the name of the first girl of our class. My teachers were also calling me Mortuza without any decorum of adding Mr. before the last name. My friends would phone me asking for Mortuza, and our maid would say that I was not home—thinking it to be for my dad. Then in the evening my dad would return the call only to find out the phone was for me. Mortuza senior and Mortuza junior would exchange a laugh. It’s funny how my family name became my first name at school. I tried to change it during my intermediate days at college with mixed results; different people were using different parts of my name depending on their convenience.
When I moved to the university, my effort to establish my first name —Shamsad —did not meet any visible success. I noticed people were struggling to say it: they would call me Jamshed, Shamseer, Shamsul and what not. How difficult is it to say, Shamsad? I would never know. I know I have spelled it wrong with a missing H, making it phonetically incorrect. Then again the morphemes can be split into two parts: you can tell that I am sad to see sham before me!
In 1999, I was working as an intern at a tribal school in Arizona. And these kindergarten kids would call me - Shimsham, shamsam and so on! And the teacher had to intervene (bless her soul), “how come you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger - and not Shamsad!”
Why blame the kids from the Yaqui tribes, when my own people keep on messing up my name? My friends at the University of Arizona would call me Sammy. I also used “Sam” to order food in an eatery or a taxi over the phone. Even though I had two Samanthas in my class, it never became an issue. Going by Sam was a lot easier, and even my Profs would use that!
There is no point in being rigid with names. I pitied those who could not pronounce my name and introduced myself using my nick name to my friends at Jahangirnagar. Little did I know that my name would stay with me even after I had joined my alma mater as a lecturer. My students would call me Shuman Sir behind my back. The tradition started with some of the immediate junior batches with whom I had the good fortune of sharing my student life as well as the beginning of my teaching career. For them I was Shuman bhai who later obtained an upgraded designation. By the time, mobile phones became popular, my students came up with a tech savvy acronym - SMS (Shamsad Mortuza Shuman).
Well they are not the only ones to fiddle with my name. I like playing with my name. I always have. I used to write the initial S of my name like an integration sign (with elongated S) placed before “human.” Integration of human - Shuman: I chose it as my life’s motto.
Much later when I was researching for my PhD on Shamanism in British poetry, I came across an interesting find. The root word for the Alaskan word shaman (referring to a tribal medicine man or kabiraj) is “Schumann” which means show-man. The German name Schumann is still there ... it was quite a serendipity. I guess as schuman I was destined to work on the figure of the shaman who heals society through showmanship and performance. Luckily, I didn’t become a shoe-man!
At DU, some of my pupils have compared my teaching style with my fellow Capricorn, my senior colleague Syed Manzoorul Islam. Although humbled by the suggestion, I chuckled and said: I am not SMI; I am I, SM (loosely borrowing Asimov’s short story title “I, Robot”).
Then again, as the bard puts it, what’s in a name?
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.