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, firstname.lastname@example.org was considered lame. Everyone wanted a badass avatar. Thescoundrel@yahoo.com, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org 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.