Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Prosaic Names of Poets

Parents are rarely prescient. They don’t possess that mystic ability of Paul the Octopus to foretell the future. So they end up giving us strange hand-me-down names that have no connection to who we are or what we’re gonna do when we grow up.

Brit couple Alice & John Lockwood Kipling fared no better in this name game. They fell in love in 1863 at Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, England. To immortalize their courtship, they named their love child - Rudyard Kipling - which literally means ‘Red Yard used for preserving Salmon’. Had they known that their imaginative boy would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, they would have certainly bestowed him with something more profound.

Kipling is not the only great bard with a misfit name. Many of his illustrious predecessors, peers and successors were subjected to similar doses of embarrassment by their doting dads and moms. Geoffrey Chaucer may sound sophisticated today. But back then, in the times of The Canterbury Tales, it had a very pedestrian etymology. Derived from ‘peaceful maker of leggings’, Chaucer represented anything but sublime.

Keats was worse. It connoted ‘herdsman or worker at the sheds’. Examining its meaning in isolation no one would even visualise him as the wordsmith who wrote ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’. Ditto with Lord Byron (Lord of cattle sheds), Percy Shelley (Hunter on the banks of a river), Sylvia Plath (Forrest maid) and Walt Whitman (Commander of White Men).

Some Indian poets have been a bit luckier. Kabir was blessed with the Persian word for ‘The Great’. Javed Akhtar was named after the ‘Eternal Star’. But people like Sahir Ludhianvi (Charmer from Ludhiana), Kannadasan (Devotee of Krishna) and Gulzar (Flower garden) weren’t as fortunate.

Sahir was the pseudonym adopted by Abdul Hayi (The Alive Servant). And every Bollywood buff knows that Gulzar was born as Sampooran Singh (100% Lion). The only poet who got a name he deserved was probably Gibran Kahlil Gibran. Khalil is Arabic for ‘friend’ and Gibran means ‘most able one’. The rhythmic tautology of Gibran just underscores his talent – how lyrical!