Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 2-in-1 nation

If Bombay can become Mumbai, Calcutta can mutate into Kolkata, and Madras to Chennai, how long will it take before someone moots the idea of dropping the name ‘India’ altogether in favour of something more native?

Blasphemous as it may sound, the fact remains that many oddballs in our country have already started voicing such suggestions. During the 2004 elections, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party had promised to rename India as Bharat. Just recently, Subramanian Swamy, the maverick of mavericks, went on record demanding a name change to Hindustan.

To settle the matter once and for all, it might help to revisit the Constituent Assembly Debates in 1949. The very same issues were discussed threadbare by our founding fathers. Bharat, Hindustan, Hind, Bharatbhumi, Bharatvarsha and Aryavrat were all tabled for consideration and shot down one by one.

Hindustan was vetoed for several obvious reasons. The most hilarious logic spouted against it was voiced by Kallur Subba Rao. He argued that Hindustan is the Persian way of saying Sindustan (the land of Sindu or Indus). Since the river is in Pakistan, the only nation that is truly entitled to call itself as Hindustan is Pakistan! Can someone convey that to Swamy, please?

Kallur Subba Rao and many others were boisterous in their backing for Bharata. The inspirational freedom movement slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was the biggest driver of support. It also helped that for centuries the subcontinent had been referred to as Bharatvarsha by ancient Indian texts. Even the venerable Vedas called us all the progeny of Puru dynasty King Bharata.

But Ambedkar wasn’t a man easily swayed by scriptures or mythology. He saw immense utility in the name ‘India’, especially in international fora, and hence pushed it through with all the authority he could muster. But when it became clear that he’d face resistance, he struck a compromise of sorts by coining the famous line, ‘India that is Bharat’. Thanks to his half-measure, we ended up with a split personality. Just like Ireland that is Eire and Japan that is Nippon. When one looks back, one wonders, if he was being too clever by half.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Charlie

Till that bloody day in Paris when 12 brave hearts were butchered for standing up for free speech, the name ‘Charlie’ meant so many things to so many people. In the shadowy streets of London, it was the code word for ‘Cocaine’. Among giggly Victorian women ‘Charlie’s dead’ was the euphemism for ‘your slip is showing’. For men high on testosterone, ‘Charlies’ meant a pair of hooters. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to ‘Charlie’ as the Brit slang for a ‘fool or simpleton’. But January 7th changed everything.

Out of the blue, the rallying cry “Je Suis Charlie” (French for ‘I am Charlie’) emerged as the collective middle finger equivalent for everyone opposed to intimidation of freedom of expression.

The ‘Charlie Hebdo Attack’ made us all pause for a minute. And ponder about weighty issues like: ‘What the hell does Hebdo mean?’ If you thought along those trivial lines, you’re not alone, my friend!

To clarify matters, Hebdo, is derived from hebdomadaire, the French word for ‘weekly’. So Charlie Hebdo essentially means ‘Charlie Weekly’. Originally known as ‘Hara-kiri Hebdo’, the satirical newspaper took its name from another comic magazine titled ‘Charlie Mensuel’ which in turn borrowed its Charlie from ‘Charlie Brown’, the Peanuts character. The urban legend is that ‘Charlie’ was picked because it was an inside joke on Charles de Gaulle, the then French President.

Let’s dissect the pedigree of ‘Charlie’ further. The diminutive of ‘Charles’, it literally implies ‘Free Man’. Given what transpired in Paris, very unsurprising, no?

Charlie has been the famous first name for scores of distinguished men. Charlie Chaplin, the comedian extraordinaire, was actually christened after his dad. Charlie Sheen was different though. He was born Carlos Irwin Estevez. ‘Charley’ was also the screenname of Tamil actor Manohar Velmurugan Thangasamy. Incidentally, like Rajnikanth, he owes it to the late K. Balachander.

Contrary to common belief, the comic character ‘Charlie Brown’ is not a nod to its creator Charles Schulz. By his own admission, it was a tribute to his friend from art school days.

Then there’s the saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker who owed his middle name to his childhood habit of being a ‘Yardbird’ or someone who hung out in the yard outside clubs listening to the bands playing jazz inside.

There are many more Charlies worth talking about. But for now, let’s raise a toast to the one who redefined them all with their pungent wit.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why Sarkari Names Suck.

There’s this person I know who spouts MBA style jargon every day. He seriously thinks it’s cool to speak in acronyms. He reduces everything to an alphanumeric mantra. If it’s 5Ts (Talent, Tradition, Tourism, Trade, Technology) one day, the very next day, he would get rapturous about the 3Ds (Democracy, Demography, Demand) and the 3Ss (Skill, Scale, Speed). By the way, NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) is his latest obsession.

By now, you would have realised that the person I am alluding to is NaMo. Despite being an outstanding communicator with a visible penchant for wordsmithery, he’s been less than impressive with the nomenclature of his pet government schemes.

The man who gave us the very catchy RSVP (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra, Priyanka) has somehow picked unexciting lemons like ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana’, ‘Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana’, and ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ for programs with the remarkable potential to transform the face of India.

Perhaps Modi picked the bad habit from previous governments that have been guilty of burying life altering concepts with mind numbing names. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) is a telling example. Here’s a scheme that ensures 100 days of paid work to every villager, and they go and give it a pedestrian label that feels as long as Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas! Even soaps, detergents and mediocre shampoos that do far lesser have far more impactful names.

The problem really lies in using words that have no connection with the masses. When was the last time you heard anyone using ‘Shram’ for ‘labour’, ‘Krishi' for ‘agriculture’, ‘Protsahan’ for ‘stimulus’ and ‘Pravasi’ for ‘NRI’? You need to either be a black belt from Hindi Prachar Sabha or a newscaster from Doordarshan to dabble in such gobbledegook.

So, why, oh why, should the very savvy Narendra Modi choose an ‘Apprentice Protsahan Yojana’ or a ‘Swavlamban Abhiyaan’? Why not take a cue from his pal Jayalalithaa who preferred ‘Amma Canteen’ over something as banal as ‘Mukhya Mantri Antyodaya Anna Surakasha Bhojanalay’! Yes, she overdid it with Amma Cement and what not, but at least she applied the pithy principles of branding and kept it simple and smart. Time to think KISS, Modi!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Eye Catchers of 2014

2014 was not an easy year to vie for your attention. Aamir Khan had to literally drop his pants and cover his family jewels with a retro transistor. Kim Kardashian had to bare her galaxy-sized rear to break the internet. Smriti Irani had to pull out her 6-day Yale degree to acquire a smidgen of respectability. And Mangalyaan had to cover a distance of 650 million kilometres to get the earthling’s approval.

Given this need for ultra-showmanship, is it possible to make heads turn by merely using a name? A few brave souls have proved that it’s very much in the realm of possibility.

‘6-5=2’ is a stand out case. The perplexing algebraic equation is the title of a Kannada horror flick, made on a shoestring budget. When the director didn’t have an extra dime for publicity, he decided to tease his audience with a cryptic name with viral value. The trick paid off. The 30-lakh film went on to collect 1.5 crores at the box office!

The niche English movie ‘Finding Fanny’ was an equally bold attempt. Fanny is ostensibly the nickname of Stephanie Fernandes in the road trip comedy. But Homi Adajania’s audience got the naughty double entendre and showed up to cheer for his cunning stunt.

‘Sulemani Keeda’ (Meaning: Pain in the butt) and ‘Fugly’ (Slang for Effin Ugly) tried the same formula and got tongues wagging. Likewise, the punk girl band ‘Childbirth’ took the Indie music world by storm with their iconic number on one-night stands that goes ‘I Only F*ked You As A Joke’. Fortunately for them, the joke turned out to be a chartbuster.

Being irreverent is not the only mantra for grabbing eyeballs. Sometimes length should suffice. Disney opted for the longest movie title of the year with ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ much against the wishes of some marketing executives. But the gamble worked. Director Shankar’s one letter ‘I’ is the polar opposite which will reap its dividends, come January.

Among the other newsmakers, Megan Fox caused a splash by naming her child ‘Bodhi Ransom’. Recording artist Azaelia Banks courted fame with her classily named debut album ‘Broke with Expensive Taste’. Irish author Eimear McBride earned hosannas for her first novel with the very evocative ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’. South London band ‘Fat White Family’ continues to tickle curiosity with their unusual moniker.

But personally, my pick of the year, is the New York pork joint ‘Arrogant Swine’. You’ve got to give it to them for going the whole hog.