Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Names Affect Behaviour.

Let’s play a wicked game. I have put you in a small room without an internet connection or mobile phone. You have to pick 1 candidate for an elite job without conducting an interview. You won’t be given any résumés. No clue about age, sex, work experience or how that person looks. All you’ll get is a few names. You’ll have less than 10 seconds to make your choice. READY?

The names are: Kanda, Mookiah, Sapna, Russell and Banumathi. Chant these faceless names in your head. And now take your pick. Before you arrive at a decision point, remember it’s for a top job in a 5-star hotel. OK, have you made your choice?

Alright, let me leap to my first guess. Mookiah didn’t make the cut, right? I knew it, you racist pig! You didn’t find his name hep enough, na? Poor Banumathi would have suffered the same fate. I bet your fat rear that your choice would have been either Sapna or Russell. Kanda wouldn’t have even figured in your radar!

See how my Sigmund Fraud act worked? I could sniff your answer from a mile. A big reason for this predictability is our baggage. The truth is: we are as biased as a Neo Nazi.

We made some primal assumptions in our heads based on our limited experience and exposure to people. We prejudged Banumathi to be the behenji types. We consigned Mookiah to a 2-star job. Kanda unfortunately sounded a little too local for a 5-star hotel. Russell had this white-skin aura going for him. And Sapna somehow conjured up images of a hot bimbo who’d be at ease pampering the glitterati.

That’s how our mind operates. We revel in passing judgments without any concrete basis. We assume all Ramanujams to be nerds! We can never picture a Katrina as a house maid, a Sundaralingam as a stand up comedian, and a Gandimathi as a super model. If the name is Bond, we parrot James Bond. If it’s Smitha, we imagine Silk Smitha. May be that’s why Shah Rukh quipped, “My name is Khan. And I am not a terrorist.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Names that make your day.

Steve Jobs was no magician. He was an excellent illusionist. With his astounding quantum of 317 patents, the bespectacled billionaire just bedazzled the world into believing that he was a peerless genius worthy of an immortal halo and millennia of hero worship.

To put things in perspective, an Australian inventor named Kia Silverbrook holds the world record for the most number of patents. Despite having 4,214 inventions to his credit, I am sure you didn’t even know that he exists!

Now you might argue that JOBS IS GOD because he gave you the iMac, iPod, iPad & the iPhone. Well, all I can say is iDisagree. There are worthier folks who’ve walked this earth who probably deserve as much or more acclaim. Say someone like George Crum, the cook from Saratoga Springs without whom crispy potato chips would have never felt the caress and crunch of the masticating mouth. Or for that matter James Goodfellow, the jolly good fellow, who gave us the freedom to withdraw money anytime by simply keying in a Personal identification Number in an ATM.

If one were to judge greatness by the number of lives saved, then spare a thought for Charles Drew, the doctor who drew up the blueprint for the first ever blood bank. A million babies have benefited from John Wild’s idea of using Ultrasound for imaging the human body. How many of you shed a tear for him when he passed away in 2009?

The trouble with most of us is we’re all so self-absorbed that we often forget to celebrate the invisible giants who make us look taller than we actually are. How many of us gush about Willem Koeff, the man who invented dialysis? How many gadget freaks created a Facebook fan page for Martin Cooper, the man who designed the first mobile phone?

For all this moral posturing, I am as pathetic as you when it comes to remembering those who made it all possible. Nama Sutra wouldn’t have lasted for 90 weeks if not for Rosella’s generosity, Reshma’s support, Sathish’s supervision, Guruswamy’s layouts and Amit’s illustrations. Don’t you think it’s time we thanked them publicly?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

When Leaders Turn Journalists

Our leaders of today are either too tongue-tied or just-about-literate to tweet their thoughts in 140 characters. Thankfully the Men in Whites of the pre-independence era were very unlike these gotta-ask-the-high-command’s-permission-to-pee types.

The netas of yore were more educated (Dadabhai Naoroji was a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy), erudite (Ambedkar wrote a thesis on Ancient Indian Commerce) eclectic (Aurobindo Ghosh knew Greek, Latin and Classical Sanskrit), fearless (Subhash Chandra Bose slapped his Professor for his Anti-India remarks) and forthcoming (Gandhiji never held back his views - be it on potty cleaning or proudly sporting the loincloth).

Quite a few of these gentlemen were gifted writers and fairly opinionated. So invariably they ended up founding newspapers, journals or periodicals to speak their mind. The names that they gave their journals make for interesting analysis. The character of the name strangely mirrors the character of the author!

The unorthodox and sharp Dr. Ambedkar chose the unconventional Mook Nayak (Leader of the Dumb) as the stand-out name for his weekly. He could have chosen something sober like Mute Voice, Silent Majority or Dalit Times. Instead he preferred the stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb strategy. Almost like his blue suit in a sea of khadi. In stark contrast, look at Gandhiji’s Harijan (God’s own people). It’s as lofty, religious and noble sounding as the ‘half-naked fakir’.

Aurobindo’s explanation for calling his periodical Arya is almost autobiographical: “Arya means an effort or an uprising and overcoming. The Aryan is he who strives and overcomes all outside him and within him that stands opposed to the human advance. Self-conquest is the first law of his nature.”

Tilak’s Kesari (Lion) is but a cryptic way of summating the audaciously proud braveheart inside Bal Gangadhar. While Nehru’s anglicised National Herald offers us a clue of how Jawaharlal perceived himself – as a harbinger of things to come.

Imagine if we apply this character-revealing-journal-names theory to today’s paradigm…then Advani will end up editing Wrath Yatra, Rahul will preside over Photo Op India, Yechuri should lord over Bleeding Red, Pranabda should start PC Fix and Manmohan would make the right publisher for Voiceless Voice.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Animal Farmers

Darwin got it right. And women will vouch for it. Men are nothing more than glorified beasts. Because come hell or high water: we still hog like a pig, drink like a fish, multiply like rabbits, rat on each other, chicken-out under pressure, shed crocodile tears, parrot hackneyed lines, come up with hare-brained ideas, implement them with the stubbornness of a mule and get results that smell like a skunk!

The savage streak sums up the quintessence of man. That’s why the wise old Chinese chose 12 animals as their zodiac signs. Even the kings of the ancient times always had a marked preference for animals as their royal insignia. In Mahabharata, Duryodhana is said to have used a Cobra as his war flag. Likewise, the Cholas are famed for their Tiger symbol while the Pandians had a fetish for the Fish.

Some royal types took this brute fixation to the next logical step by appropriating an evocative cognomen. Eleventh century English Emperor Richard I booked his ticket to immortality by picking the name ‘Richard the Lionheart’. Cut to the year 1699. Guru Gobind fashioned a whole warrior-like Khalsa by making it mandatory for male followers of Sikhism to embed the surname ‘Singh’.

Over the years, the animal instinct has only become more explicit. Now celebrities have proudly started wearing their nicknames like a military decoration. The late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi used his childhood sobriquet ‘Tiger’ as his calling card to roar his way into our national consciousness. Tiger Woods (born Eldrick Tont Woods) is a recent example of this name machoisation.

The recent trend to blend zoonyms (animal names) with human names is bound to catch on given our penchant for appearing manlier than we are. When Steven Demtre Georgiou was looking for a catchy stage name, he picked Cat Stevens. When Chris Carter was creating the character of a ‘smart FBI agent’ for X-Files, he settled for Fox Mulder.

Who knows, the success of zoonym-tinged names might embolden many more fathers to experiment with Hinglish creations as bizarre as Jaguar Jaishankar, Panther Parameswaran, Deer Damodaran, and Akash Cobra!