What’s in a name? Plenty!

Admirers aplenty for Gandhiji

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet” said the Bard.

It may be true of a flower. But what about human beings? Famous names inspire and move men and women. A tongue-in-cheek news feature about “Stalin and Napoleon” being in the government at the Centre till the DMK decided to quit UPA-2 sent me back half-a-century, down memory lane. When I was in school during the early 1960s in the port town of Tuticorin, there was a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with me in Class Six, or the First Form as it used to be called those days. We were all amused by his unusually long name. In the class everyone knew who Gandhiji was, even if they didn’t know his full name. My classmate’s father was a freedom fighter and was inspired by the Mahatma and hence his son’s name.

My Maths teacher during SSLC was Ignatius. Though a Hindu (a Tirunelveli Saiva Pillai), he was given the name of a Christian saint by his father, who was inspired by his European teacher of the same name.

Bose and Nehru too

Later, when I entered college, there was Subash Chandra Bose who taught Physics. When US President John F. Kennedy and Pandit Nehru died within six months of each other in November 1963 and May 1964, two book-shops sprang up with the names Kennedy Book Centre and Nehru Book Store and sold text-books as well as fiction. The shops were a big hit with students and the intelligentsia.

The DMK government had one Nehru in the cabinet. Now it struck me that Tamils, particularly, have a penchant for naming their children after the celebrated in history.

However, they often choose the surname, without realising it is not the actual name of the leader they admire. So it was rarely Jawaharlal but always Nehru.

This makes me wonder at times if future historians or social scientists would not be confused about how a Gujarati Gandhi or a Kashmiri Nehru or even a French Napoleon or a Russian Stalin ever came to settle in Tamil Nadu. Could they have been related to the original Gandhi or Nehru or Napoleon or Stalin? When I began my career with a newspaper in Bombay during the 1970s, I came to know about ‘Stalin’ Srinivasan, an eminent journalist with the Free Press Journal, the newspaper founded by the celebrated S. Sadanand. Needless to say, this “Stalin” was, again, a Tamil. He got the Russian dictator’s name as a prefix for sporting a moustache just like Stalin’s!

Bold choice

Some parents have a penchant for naming their children after not so favourably received names as well. I used to tease my media colleague Aurangzeb for bearing a name that is normally associated with antagonism to the liberal values of art and music.

What really took my breath away, though, was the name ‘Ravanan’. This was the name of a Tamil Nadu government PRO based in New Delhi.

It was 2006 and the just elected Chief Minister of the State, M. Karunanidhi, was on a visit to the capital. After his meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he was to meet the press the following day, and the exact time was not fixed yet. The Chief Minister, with his entourage, including the PRO, sped off to Tamil Nadu House to rest.

“Ravanan Sir, if you get to know the timing, please call me on my mobile,” I told him, shouting out my number as the vehicles moved past a long line of newsmen.

“Sir, I don’t have a mobile,” Ravanan replied, making me wonder if, going by his name, he should not be having ten mobiles!

(The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist)

Published on March 25, 2013


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