Mad about monikers

By Suresh Pattali

Published: Tue 19 May 2020, 1:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 21 May 2020, 9:25 PM

What's in a name?
What a clichéd start to a column, some might say. More often than not, clichés are like an obnoxious friend who comes your way during a pleasant morning constitutional and you have no choice but to shake hands with them. A recent stroll around my little Instagram world reminded me how important names are, at least to me, and how they help me form an opinion about people. It may sound silly but will you ever like a person because his or her name is exotic, intriguing, inspiring or unique?
For Juliet, it does not matter Romeo's surname is Montague, a name she is not allowed to associate with. She reasons that if a rose had any other name, it would still be sweet. Romeo would still be the same handsome young man even if he had a different clan name. The Bard may be right, but I have serious misgivings.
I was aghast when my son got married and started to call his wife Lechu, a short form for Sethulekshmi.
"How can you do that?" I countered him a day after their wedding when he said, "Lechu wanted to go for a drive."
"Go with your wife, not Lechu," I said, because until that moment, the name Lechu was associated with my daughter. It's one of her several sobriquets. Different people called her by different names. She was Lechu when I was angry, Unni when I was sober and Vava whenever she was decent to me.
"I'm referring to my wife. I call her Lechu," he clarified, sipping a cup of joe the original Lechu had made for him.
"Sorry, I can't change my daughter's name because you got married yesterday." In hindsight, I shouldn't have been so rude to a newlywed.
"I call my sister Unni, so there is no clash of interest," he said.
"But there can't be two Lechus under one roof." Ultimately, my daughter had to make a sacrifice.
This is besides the mother of all wars being fought in our family for more than two decades over a generic moniker. In Kerala, my home state, every second boy seems born to assume the default name Kannan. One of the grandmas, who righteously cooled their heels outside the maternity ward, would cradle the newborn and do an impromptu christening. "Kannan kutta, chakkara kutta (Kannan, sweet little Kannan)," the grandma would tweet, and then the name sticks for life whether you like it or not. Going by that tradition, my son Krishna became Kannan to us and my nephew Vishnu Dev became Kannan to his parents. We finally ended up having "Our Kannan" and "Their Kannan" in a family.
Certain names stay in our hearts forever. An unforgettable protagonist from a book you read. An exceptional character in a movie that touched you. A word you liked more than your sweetheart. The name of a shop that caught your attention on a yonder shore. The name of your first love. You safeguard them in your heart's jewellery box to cherish them in solitude.
Can you believe I decided to name my daughter Panchami way back in my salad days after I saw the 1965 National Award winning film Chemmeen? The poignant final scene in which Panchami, with her baby niece perched on her hip, frantically searches for her sister on a beach, still lingers in every Malayali mind.
"Dad, you know something? Whenever I have a baby girl, I will name her Nayomi," my daughter would say whenever we passed by the eponymous outlet in Sharjah's Sahara Centre.
"If I ever have another baby girl, you know what I would call her?" I asked back.
"Another baby for you? Are you kidding? Anyways, tell me the name. Maybe I can borrow."
"Serendipity. That's my most beloved English word," I said, reminiscing the erstwhile Serendipity 3 coffee shop I bumped into during my nightlife exploration of Georgetown, near Washington, DC, on a frosty night. The black-decored Once Upon a Time restobar on the banks of the placid Fewa Lake in Nepal's Pokhara is so awe-inspiring I adopted the phrase to name a home in my upcoming book.
I have a habit of rechristening people when I find a mismatch between their names and persona. So I recently asked my friend Husna, "Shall I call you Amina?"
"Of course, you can," she consented. So WhatsApp diligently ferried scores of messages addressed to Amina.
"Why do you call me by that name?" my bemused friend brought up the matter one fine day.
"Any problem?"
"Looks like there's a story."
My jaw dropped. So was the name Amina. As I kept pondering over the incident, messages screeched to a halt. I felt sad.
"Don't you miss me?" She woke up a week later.
"Never. I missed Amina." A mist of silence fell between us.
As a toddler in the Insta world, reading usernames has been my recent vocation. Ever since the Internet and email came into being, I have strived to be as upright as possible, using my given name for Web accounts, but the newgen's art of fusing words into memorable usernames leaves me flabbergasted. Some such striking names on my friend list include 'boldandbeautifool' and 'surreptitiouslyours'. I believe verbalising a username by stringing words is like making handmade pottery. It holds the shape of one's persona, so I initiated occasional conversations with such people who resuscitated my spirits.
So one fine day when 'surreptitiouslyours' metamorphosed into a plain Jane handle, I sank into dismay. It's like opening the door to see the love of your life, whose curly locks had become your habit, has just returned from the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu's Dindigul district after receiving the tonsures. That's when the Bard appeared in my dream.
"Dude, why did you use words like thou, thee, thy, thyself, thine, ye, shalt etc?" I probed.
"Because I was a newgen writer of my era. Those words were much in vogue as the balderdash you guys now scribble like, Y U THOT I WUD RIT TO U 2 DAY?"
"Dude, how honest was Juliet when she said, 'What's in a name?'"
"Call me the Bard, OK? Juliet was as honest as the blood she spilled."
"Listen, if ever you want to rename Romeo and Juliet, what would it be?"
"And what would be your Instagram account like?"
"baldandbeautifool. Isn't it obvious, sonny?"

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