Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Penchant for Pen Names

In the late nineties, when free email burst forth into our collective consciousness, there was a gold rush for cooler-than-thou email ids. Back then, was considered lame. Everyone wanted a badass avatar.,, or invariably earned you that extra brownie from that ‘shygirl’ in that mystery chatroom. If you really analyze, it was all about appropriating an escape identity, very different from our drab selves. Pen Names played that role, in the pre-internet era.

Sadly, whenever we think of pen names, we always think of it as a Western phenomenon. Because we’ve all grown up on pseudonyms like Ayn Rand (Born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum), Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), Saki (Henry Hector Munro) and Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). If you care to ask your mom and dad, they’ll tell you, Tamil Nadu has a far richer tradition of nom de plumes.

The creator of the epic Ponniyin Selvan, could have written the novel under his real name R. Krishnamurthy. Instead he opted for Vishnu’s tenth avatar ‘Kalki’. The trick worked as the two-syllable name had the acoustics and profundity to intrigue any reader. Kalki is actually a clever coinage minted by fusing the ‘Kal’ from Kalyana Sundara Mudaliar (his mentor) and Krishnamurthy’s Tamil initial ‘Ki’.

Abdul Kalam’s classmate, screenplay writer and ace novelist S. Rangarajan wrote under his wife’s name (Sujatha). A male writing under a female name! Considering it was way before the era of gender-bender chat screennames, it was truly pioneering. An even more scintillating name was thought up by Madabushi Rangadurai when he anagrammed the phonetics of Rangadurai into the very-hip and Anglo Randor Guy.

If authors were having a field day choosing wacky pen names, can poets be far behind? C. Virudachalam dropped his boring name and picked Pudumai Pithan (meaning: Mad about the New). AL Muthiah added a touch of elegance to his persona with Kannadasan. TS Rangarajan swapped his pedestrian name for the mythical Vaali. Muhammad Metha shrunk it all and wrote pudhu kavidhai under Mu. Metha. Moral of the Story: Get your name right, before you write.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sirjee, what is your surname?

Do you know the easiest way to flummox a Tamilian? Just ask him for his surname. And watch the fun, unfold. The usually voluble Kumars, Manis, Murthis and Swamys might yak knowledgeably about everything, including the cup size of Namitha, but when you shift focus to their surname, they might just blink as if they drank castor oil. That’s because unlike other South Indians, Tamilians don’t have a concept called ‘family name’.

Now before you jump on me, let me clarify, caste names don’t count as surnames. So if you’re an Iyer (derived from the Tamil word Ayya), Iyengar (meaning: one who has undergone the 5 purification rituals), Chettiar (one who collects) or Mudaliar (literal meaning – one who invested the seed money), SORRY! You’re not in the same league as the Kapoors (descendants of the moon), Tatas (Gujju word for father) and Gandhis (sellers of perfumes).

Having a weighty appendage to your name always helps. A Reddy (village headman) might tempt people into thinking, you own Hyderabad! The euphonic Khanna (derived from the Punjabi word for sword) creates a regal aura, doesn’t it? And Agarwal (ones from Agroha, the ancient name for Hissar) gives an impression that you might crack the IIT-JEE, right? Put yourself in the shoes of a prospective bride. Whom would you rather marry – Anantha Oberoi or Anantha Krishnan? Finally, it all comes down to that. I am appalled that our ancestors didn’t think of these issues. Can’t blame them. They were probably too busy gulping kozhakattais and guzzling payasam!

No, seriously. Lack of a surname can hurt. Imagine if you were the grandson of Sivaji Ganesan. How are you to subtly proclaim to the world that you carry the genes of the great thespian? By refusing to leverage the brand equity of our forefathers, aren’t we wilfully committing a grave error? May be this is where we can learn from the Bachchans (means child-like). The Big B was never a surname. It was the nickname of Harivansh Rai Srivastava. Hari liked the sound of it. He smartly dropped Srivastava for Bachchan. And thanks to that. Today, Aby Baby is Abhishek Bachchan.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On the Use of Abuse

Profanity is a poor pariah in the world of words. I often wonder why. If you ask me, expletives are like salt and pepper. Without them, conversations are oh so bland and boring. Imagine office life if you weren’t allowed to use foulese. WTF would you do during WTF moments? You can’t ‘cow compost’ during presentations, can you? And ‘toady’ is such a limp substitute for ‘rear kisser’ which in turn is a sterile euphemism for you know what. What I am getting at is, the unparliamentary, deserves as much respect as the immaculate verbs in tuxedos. Thankfully, at least one industry has recognised the need to celebrate cuss words – the booze industry!

Thierry Boudinaud and Guy Anderson were the first to spot the potential in the power of insults. Around the year 2001, they dubbed their brand new vintage wine, Fat Bastard. The snobs and stiff upper lippers were clearly taken aback. ‘Why would a nice wine, be given such an offensive sounding appellation?’ was the one question on everyone’s lips. But the vintners couldn’t care less. To them, the name was befitting, downright provocative and a clear conversation starter. And the best part was it brought a smile to everyone’s face. What else can one ask from a wine!

The success of the Bastard spawned many more Swear Word Brands. Boutinot, UK’s best known winemaker threw its hat in the ring with a low priced wine called Old Fart. And they broke wind again with Old Fart’s Wife. A company in Australia took the cue and extended the logic to beer. They christened their crisp, clean and gob-smackingly refreshing premium lager as BITCH. Their rationale: with 6% alcohol that packs a lot of kick, what else could you call it!

If all those labels sounded outrageous to you, I am sure you’ll cringe when you hear of Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush. That’s what the New Zealanders chose for their Sauvignon Blanc. Ain’t that as lovable as naming a TASMAC rum, Moothrum? Before you call me names, think of the recent hit Kaminey. Doesn’t it prove that bad words are good for business?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Name Cult of Culfests

On the day when Mother Earth quaked in Haiti, I was lost in my world, doing something shatteringly unconstructive. I was putting together a list of ingenious brand names, minted in India. I expected this exercise to be a cinch. But, believe it or not, even after hours of mining, I was unable to spot one shimmering name that made my day. I felt as underwhelmed as an Obama supporter. That’s when I realised one fact: the names of some college culturals pack a lot more pizzazz than any Made-in-India trademark.

Take Mood Indigo, the IIT-Bombay gig, legendary for its babes, booze and boogeying. Perhaps named after the Duke Ellington song, Mood-I has everything going for it. It’s bluesy, newsy, and very Indian (Indigo the dye, originated in Mera Bharat Mahaan). The closest I can think of in terms of aptness is BITS Pilani’s Oasis.
Catering to the parched lives of bored engineers nestled in the desert bosom of Rajasthan, Oasis is a splash of hot spring to legions of world-weary campus foot soldiers, tired of losing the Battle of the Yawn.

But the one that takes the cake is IIT Guwahati’s Alcheringa (Australian aboriginal word for ‘dream time’). This 4-syllable name is catchy, intriguing and almost sounds like a bindaas rhino from Kaziranga.

If the Guwahati Geeks looked Down Under for inspiration, the Jokers from Joka (that’s my pet name for my friends from IIM Calcutta) turned to a poem by that Roman lyricist Horace. They’ve christened their Annual Fest as Carpe Diem (Latin for ‘Seize the Day’). In my opinionated opinion, it’s a lot more pedestrian than IIM-A’s ironical choice - Chaos. Or for that matter, National Academy of Legal Studies And Research’s The Summons.

The best named women’s college culfest to my mind is, Mount Carmel’s very clever Cul-ah. Phonetically it’s an allusion to Kala (Sansrkit for art and crafts) and morphologically it cues a sigh-worthy, nostalgia-filled talent fest. Osmania’s All-go-rhythms tries to be cute but somehow feels contrived. Nevertheless it’s a notch better than the many bland names that masquerade as brand names in our shop shelves.

Viru, Mahi and their hidden secret

For long, I’ve held a conspiracy theory, close to my chest. It may sound like a harebrained hypothesis to cricket aficionados like you, but to hardnosed cynics, it might hold more charm than the Undie Tiwari tapes. To cut a short story shorter, the meat of my premise is that cricketers get to wear the Indian Test Cap not on the basis of their bowling or batting averages but on the uniqueness quotient of their names!

Let me elaborate. If you have a blend-with-the-crowd name (say Sridharan Sriram, Vinay Kumar or Manoj Tiwari) as compared to a catch-the-ear name (think Tinu Yohannan, Hrishikesh Kanitkar or Saba Karim), then you can kiss your career goodbye. The bitter truth is stellar players have to have stellar names. The others will have to settle for the Almost-There slot. Take a close look at some of the names of our cricketing stars. Perhaps that may clinch the argument in my favour, your honour.

Exhibit A is Harbhajan Singh. You’ve heard of many Singhs but this one really sings. Harbhajan literally means one who praises god forever. May be that’s why we see him swear, all the time. Jokes apart, don’t you think that’s a stand out name? Exhibit B is Virendra Sehwag (Virendra = Lord of the brave, Sehwag = Wielder of the sword). In this case, the surname makes all the difference. If Viru’s name had been the plain vanilla Virendra Shekar, my gut feel is, he would still be languishing as the Non-entity of Najafgarh.

Let’s face it. Dhoni (a Kumaoni surname) is the LSD in MSD. Dravid (Sanskrit for someone from the coast) adds the jammy to the very bread-and-butter Rahul. And Tendulkar (anyone with roots from the village Tendul) is the reason why he towers above all Sachins.

It’s not always about supra-original surnames. Sometimes even the first letter of your first name can ensure you stick out like a sweet thumb. Take Zaheer Khan. He’s the only Indian cricketer whose moniker starts with Z. With an advantage like that, you don’t need toe-crushers to make your test debut.

Why Rajapalayam is not a dog

A lot of trivia buffs I know, can wax eloquent about Timbuktu and Transylvania. But when you can ask them about Tindivanam or Thoothukudi, they are likely to think, ‘Can’t lower our level from Shaquille O'Neal to Shakila, dude.’ My riposte to them will be: what’s the point of knowing every little detail about Washington when you know nothing about our own Washermanpet? There’s no shame in being a patchai tamizhan (Tamil for son-of-the-soil), guys. You have nothing to lose except your ariyaamai (ignorance).

Now that I am done with my rant, lemme clarify. I am no kazhaga kanmani (Dravidian fanatic). I am just another peyarsooti (namer) with a fascination for names with fascinating origins. And Tamil Nadu offers plenty of delights for nameophiles like me. Take Erode for instance. The netizen might be tempted to assume that it’s an Ecommerce site like eBay. But as any Dravidologist will tell you, it’s a portmanteau of Iru odai (two rivers).

Likewise Tanjore might delude the American into imagining a Miamiesque beach with the allure of skin bronzing. Pity, it’s a breeze-kissed verdant city with an exotic etymology. The story goes that Tanjan, a demon who was killed by Sri Anandavalli Amman, had one unticked checkbox in his bucket list – that of a city being named after him. Amman, being a generous woman, gave the devil his due.

Pazhani, Madurai, Rameshwaram and Mayiladhuturai have equally intriguing mythological origins. If you remember your KB Sundarambal and Thiruvilaiyadal, you can work them out. The names you’ll have trouble with are Kanchipuram, Pappanasam, Rajapalayam and Vellore.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kanchipuram is not derived from a silk saree, or for that matter, Rajapalayam, from a pedigreed hound. Kanji is a tree peculiar to the temple town while Palayam means Fort. Papam Nasam means destruction of sins and Vel Oor is the land of spears. Get it? Now that I’ve enlightened you, I solemnly assure you that the next time I hear you making statements like ‘Sivakasi got its name from a Vijay movie,’ I will hunt you down in true blue Vettaikaran style.

Cowshit Lane on Constipation Ridge

My wonder years were spent in the not-so-hip-sounding Pinjala Subramaniam Street - one of the many armpits attached to the upper belly of T.Nagar.

Every time someone asked me, where I lived, I used to cringe with embarrassment and couch the ungainly acoustics by shrinking the lousy name to PS Street. Like me, if you’ve had the misfortune of residing in lanes and gullies with downright mortifying odonyms (names of roads), then you’ll totally relate to the plight of those who dwell in Little Schmuck Road in Evansville, Indiana, or for that matter Cowshit Lane in South West England. As it is, we get a lot of bull every day, don’t we? Imagine how much muck you’ll have to take, if your street makes you look like a piece of crap!

Sometimes I wonder why our civic authorities put us through this trauma. Why were the powers-that-be in Arkansas so stuck-up with Constipation Ridge? Which murderous jerk in Michigan came up with Psycho Path for a quiet byroad in Traverse City? Why piss off Dorchesterians by picking Piddle Lane? What were the Woolwich jokers smoking when they thought up Ha-Ha Road? The point I am making is that, so many egos take a beating when you name streets, therefore the task should not be left to the whims and fancies of a few dimwits in the municipal council. What we need to do instead is, to evolve a naming architecture for our high streets and low streets.

The elegant city of Paris tackled this issue impeccably, ages ago. There, the educational districts have streets bearing the names of Lagrange, Laplace, Descartes and Fermat. Parks are bounded by lanes that evoke the memory of naturalists. Roads that lead to opera houses remind you of musicians. And historical sites are named for warriors, kings and generals. You get the picture, right?

Another simple way of ensuring that you don’t end up with a house in WTF Road is to be like Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. There the streets have no names! If you don’t believe me, ask the rock band U2.

On Cabbages and Condoms

Naming a restaurant is the easiest job in India. Any untrained monkey can do it. No, I am not being snarky here. Just look around you. Doesn’t the average restaurant name sound very average to you? I mean, you don’t need a Ph.D in Verbal Calisthenics, to name the outlet after the cuisine, right? How many China Towns, Little Italys, Punjabi Dhabas, Chettinad Bhavans and Pizza Joints have we all seen in our already-boring lives?

I’ll bet my non-existent-reputation that you won’t mind a restaurant moniker that brings a thousand-watt smile to your face. But how does one do that? How does one whip up an appellation that’s spicier than gongura and sweeter than payasam? Well, as any namer worth his sugar and salt will tell you, the answer lies in the good old pun. Let me elaborate with a few masaaleydaar examples.

When Rich Melman and Jerry Orzoff launched an eatery in Chicago, in 1971, they called it ‘Lettuce Entertain You’. Their sense of humour paid off and ever since, they’ve only been living out their salad days. Ditto with Virginia-based restaurateur John Yarnell. Life’s been all peaches and cream for him, after he rolled out ‘It’s About Thyme’. The point to note is wordplay cannot guarantee success. All it does is, to make the offering meatier. Take the case of the Mario Puzo fan who christened his fish and chips outfit as ‘The Codfather’. He could have chosen Seaqueen, Sam’s or even Supper Time. By opting for an intriguingly punny name, he just made sure that his take-away is talked in the same breath as the other Big Kahunas in town.

Another technique for sexing-up names is to be unabashedly provocative. A sushi bar in New Zealand raked in the moolah by picking the in-your-face ‘Fuk Mi’. One Minister of Family Planning in Thailand created ripples when he started ‘Cabbages & Condoms’ with the tagline: Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy! Actually, the trick is to know where to draw the line. If you’re offensive like ‘Dirty Dick’s Crab House’, you’ll end up changing yours to ‘Eat crow’.

Rocket Singh and other Surprise Singh names

In 1699, the venerable Guru Gobind Singh made it mandatory for all Sikh males to have the Singh surname. Ever since, millions of Mummyjis and Daddyjis have had to grapple with the challenge of picking a mine-is-better-than-yours first name that packs more zing when placed before Singh.

Don’t snigger, dude. Naming a Punjabi puttar has never been a walk-in-the-park. If you ask any lassi-gulping-paratha-munching household they’ll tell you that a sardarji naamkaran is more complex than the Kashmir issue. Consider the issues they have to face: How do you add more tashan to the first name when you have a limited pool of prefixes and suffixes to play with? How many permutations and combinations can you mathematically create by fusing Aman, Amar, Abhi, Man, Param, Inder, Sat, and Jas, with Jeet, Want, Bal, Pal, Mohan, Deep, Preet, Das and Veer? Aren’t there too many Jaswants, Kulwants, Khushwants, Satwants and Balwants, already? How many more Manmohans can this nation take? How many more Navjots can Indian television tolerate?

These seemingly trifling questions have haunted the turbanscape for centuries. But thankfully now the Gordian knot has been cut and the Rubicon has been crossed. And guess who’s solved the mighty problem? Some ingenious scriptwriters in Bollywood!

Yes, my hapless readers. A whole new genre of naming has just been invented in recent times by the dream merchants of Adlabs and Yashraj Studios. It all started with Singh is Kinng, when the protagonist was called Happy Singh. Now Jaideep Sahni and Shimit Amin have pushed the envelope further, with the very original Rocket Singh. I feel this might just be the trigger that might inspire a thousand avant-garde names that lace the patka with some more pataaka. Think of the possibilities. Amuse Singh can be a stand-up comedian’s son. A marriage broker can his call his boy, Match Fix Singh. The uber cool tattoo types can opt for Pierce Singh. The internet junkie can be named Browse Singh. Focus Singh will suit photographers. Wax Singh will befit beauticians. Hype-meisters can make do with Advertise Singh. Chipmakers with Process Singh. And goofballs like me, can settle for Embarrass Singh!

A dog named Shah Rukh and a snake called Madonna

Hey you, celebrity voyeur. What we’re about to dwell on, is more supra profound than Megan Fox’s ninth tattoo. Yes, you guessed it right. The topic at hand is: Celebrity Pet Names and Their Seismic Effect on Wagging Tongues.

Remember the Aamir Episode that sent our nation into a paroxysm of mirth? All he did was to share the name of his housekeeper’s pooch. And that seminal piece of trivia consigned Obama, Chandrayan, Sensex and the Subprime Crisis to the doghouse. Such is the power of a provocative name, gentlemen.

So the next time you’re having a debate on what appellation to choose for your turtle, squirrel, fish or skunk, just follow some time-tested rules laid down by the titans of the Page 3 industry.

Rule No.1 is Think Like Vinod Mehta. Vinod, the saffron-hating-khadi-loving Editor of Outlook magazine, named his Labrador, ‘Editor’. Extending his logic, we can conjure up a delightful range of monickers that befit your profession or designation. Think of the possibilities. Saurav Ganguly can choose ‘Coach’. Sonia Gandhi can opt for ‘Prime Minister’. A husband can pick ‘Wife’. An employee can select ‘Boss’. Get the drift?

Rule No. 2 is Use the John Lennon Formula. The God of Beatles named his cat ‘Elvis’ as a tribute to his contemporary. Paris Hilton, perhaps, took a tip from this and labeled her Pomeranian, ‘Marilyn Monroe’. Sometimes it helps to deviate from the rule and poke fun at peers. Michael Jackson’s Madonna (his pet albino python) is a mockalicious case in point.

Rule No. 3 is Adopt the Celina Jaitley Philosophy. Basically, name your pet after your favourite brands, places, movies or things. The former beauty queen calls her Cocker Spaniel, ‘Heineken’. Ashley Judd, the Double Jeopardy actress, prefers the curious ‘Buttermilk’ for her Cockapoo. While our very own Ulaga Nayagan christened his dog as ‘Spartacus’.

All these rules work when you want your pet to be more renowned than you. But if by any chance, you don’t want any limelight, you can settle for the inane like Salman Khan. He had two dogs: Myson and Myjaan.

Lenghty names that take your breadth away

As a nation, we’ve never been short of ideas when it comes to creating long names. We’ve made movies with serpentine titles - remember that unforgettably forgettable Mansur Ali Khan flick Rajadi Raja, Raja Marthanda, Raja Gambira, Raja Kulothunga Kaathavaraya Krishna Kamarajan? We’ve had railway stations with more letters than a post office. I am referring to Venkatanarasimha Rajuvaripeta - yup, that godforsaken station in the middle of somewhere near Renigunta. We’ve even had school principals who muscle their way into record books by cramming 1022 words in a book title!

To cut a lamba story short, we are a no-full-stops country with a deep fascination for the unending. No one loves the longiloquent more than us bloody Indians. Or that’s what I thought. Till I trawled the net. A little research killed my freshly baked hypothesis. The fact of the matter is it’s a global phenomenon. Yes my lovelies, I am sorry to say, we are not unique. Everyone everywhere is a sucker for longer-than-long names.

Take the Sri Lankans, for instance. If Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas was not enough, they’ve just unleashed the young Uda Walawwe Mahim Bandaralage Chanaka Asanga Welegedara in the Ahmedabad Test Match, on us hapless souls. The Americans are no better. There’s a Texas band called The Clouds That Fondle Jagged Crags And Raging Storms Conspire And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. And a Philadelphian by the name Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvim John Kenneth Loyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor Willian Xerxes Yancy Zeus. If you thought that was a mouthful, wait! What you read just now was only his first name. He’s got a surname with 588 letters!!!

I’ve always wondered what guys like Adolph Blah Blah will do for blocking their priceless domain names. Because domain registrars are notorious for not accepting dot com names longer than 63 characters. May be the only way out is to settle for something like!

Monday, February 1, 2010

On the Charms of Silk Smitha

There was this lady from Elluru
Who wanted to be known even in Bengaluru
To stand out from her ilk
She changed her name to Silk
And ever since she’s escaped from Obscure-ru

Silk Smitha is dead and so long gone. But her sensuous name lives on. In the jealous hearts of wannabe vamps and the erogenous zones of repressed men. For an enchantress born as Vijaylakshmi, that’s no mean achievement.

I am of the opinion that a large chunk of Voluptuous Vijaylakshmi’s oomph factor flows from her alliterative name. Without the satin cadence of repeating consonants, our lady, would never have been the It Girl of India. Namers of yore have, had an inkling, about the mystic power of alliterations on public memory. Perhaps that’s why Charles Dickens wrote a romantic novel titled Nicholas Nickleby.

If you don your thinking cap, you’ll realise, this naming strategy has been used and abused by men and women from all walks of life. Ben Lyon, the 20th Century Fox executive leveraged it brilliantly when he met a young actress, way back in 1946. With a blonde bombshell look and a name like Norma Jeane Dougherty, he felt the actress might end up as a Jean Harlow me-too. So he renamed her Marilyn Monroe, as it had a nice flow and ring to it. And how right was Ben.

Somehow Shakespeare didn’t think so highly of consonant callisthenics. I am yet to come across a major character of the Bard with an alliterative name. But clearly the world doesn’t share his view. Turn the pages of history and you’ll discover: Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, Janet Jackson, Donald Duck, Mike Myers, Ozzy Osbourne, Pablo Picasso, Ronald Reagan, Hugh Hefner…I can go on and on.

The fascination for phonemic tautology is most rampant in Tamil Nadu. Aren’t we all guilty of coining such cheesy names as Mokkai Mohan, Lord Labak Das, Revolver Rita, Gapsa Gopi, Balaji Bajji, Sarakku Santha, and Jalsa Jaya? Strangely, no local brand has tapped into this insight to sex up their name. May be it’s time they studied Velvette Vani & Lycra Latha!