Names may sound funny and nicknames funnier. In Tamil some are called Mottai (baldy). My class teacher fondly called me Nattai which in Tamil means tall boy (not to be confused with description of small cars with a large headroom). Unfortunately I did not live upto my promise and hit the ceiling at 5’ 7”.
In Mauritius Indian names had been mutilated by the French colonialists who took them as indentured labour due to the communication gap. My well to do neighbour’s ancestor was enrolled as Pichaikaran (beggar) because he had misunderstood the immigration officer’s question. He though that the Officer was asking about his occupation! My neighbour inherited that legacy. Most Indian names were misspelt by the French because of their silent R.
In India many people faced a peculiar problem when they enrolled for the Civil Services exam. They had to mention their first name, middle name and the last name. Many had only one name and an initial or two representing the first letter of their fathers’ name and that of their village. So they generally expanded these to give themselves 3 names. Then the dilemma was to rank these. The village usually came last. But the Public Service Commission chose it as their surname.
One such guy became Mr. Srivenkatanarasimharajuvaripettah named after a village and its railway station is famous for being the longest name in Indian Railways. It was barely manageable in the non digital age of printed forms but today I know of no digital device that can do full justice to his name. The poor fellow himself suffered from fatigue writing his name and finally shortened it. Over a period of time some names became surnames and their inheritors have to live with the legacy.
One such name is Sodabottleopenerwala as one member of the clan had a bottling plant and passed on the legacy. Such professional surnames are common among Parsees. Daruwalla or liquor vendor is a typical example.
When I joined the Government, I had to ‘Sir’ everyone senior to me in rank. Every junior also called me Sir even if he were 30 years older and stood up automatically whenever I went to their desk. Awe, and not respect was the reason. Uttering the boss’ name was a strict no no. This was initially embarrassing but soon I got used to it. The subordinate team was called ‘my boys’ and I had many 50 year old boys. Then I was posted in Mauritius where everyone including Ministers and Permanent Secretaries were on first or nickname. This was a pleasant surprise. It took me a while to get used to it. I returned to India and reverted to the old ‘Sir’ system at RBI.
Then I made another job switch, this time to an MNC reporting to a Brit CEO. I addressed him as Mr. X. The next day his secretary came to me and said the boss wanted to be addressed informally by his first name ‘George’. I agreed with a caveat that it could take a few days to get used to the practice. She seemed happy with her accomplishment of the task and turned her back. As I was admiring the thoughtfulness of my boss, she made a U turn as if on an afterthought and asked me how the boss was to call me.
I was taken aback and then I realised that this was the real purpose of her visit. I had no ready answer. My family calls me Raju and for my close friends I am Nattu. Others call me by my given name. It flashed in my mind that being a Brit, Mr. X would be more comfortable with ‘Raj’. From that day I took a new Avatar as Raj. Everyone in my organisation called me that. Soon they started writing my name as Raj Natarajan and R. Natarajan (instead of N.Natarajan) for short. This was too much of a threat. I couldn’t accept the Bard’s view in this matter. It had legal consequences. So I politely corrected the name changers so as to avoid a game change.
While on the subject one last point. Indians name their offspring’s by a deity’s name, hoping to have a sacred name in their lips in the final moments of their lives. My parents named me Natarajan, the dancing form of Lord Shiva, the presiding deity at the famous Chidambaram temple. Nata stands for dance and Rajan for king. The literal translation is ‘king of dances’. In the event the name name turned out to be a non-starter as I had no dancing feet. But being a diabetic I need to walk two hours a day. Everyone teases me that this is true to my name loosely pronounced as Nadarajan, Nada for walk in Tamil and Raja for king. I imagine a look of admiration for me in their eyes.