Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rotten Apple Syndrome

What comes to your mind when you think of Veerappan? That sandalwood smuggler with the handlebar mousch, right? And what visuals fill your head when you imagine ‘Lewinsky’? Most hot-blooded men are likely to see a ‘buxom intern’ and ‘Bill Clinton’s cigar’. Let’s take one more question. If you travelled with a bloke named ‘Godse’, which historic incident is likely to cloud your worldview? The assassination of a much loved old man, no?

Don’t you get what I am alluding to? It takes just one rotten apple to spoil the reputation of a name forever. Ask actress Mugdha Godse or parliamentarian Hemant Tukaram Godse about the kind of grief they get from strangers on account of their surname. Perhaps that’s why they fought so hard to remove ‘Godse’ from the list of unparliamentary words in the Lok Sabha. It took the community nearly seven decades to undo the damage caused by one Nathuram.

I am reminded of the Bollywood number 'Munni badnam hui darling tere liye’ every time I come across such instances. To quote a telling example: Nithyananda is a revered 15th century Vaishnava saint in the Gaudiya faith, often seen as an incarnation of Lord Balarama. But mention ‘Swami Nithyananda’ to Chennaiites, and all you will elicit is sniggers and snide references to a naughty sex tape. In one stroke, the Video Clipananda ruined the reputation of a genuine godman and the aura of respectability of thousands of Nithyanandams across the world.

Put yourself in the shoes of your neighbourhood Dr. Prakash (namesake of a local smut king) to know what stigma is. It’s never too easy being a Ravana in Ramaland or a Judas in Jesuspuram. You always carry the baggage that comes with the name. There’s no escaping that.

Fortunately, companies have a choice. They can drop their ill-reputed moniker at will and choose something with more positive associations. When ISIS, the radical Islamic group, reared its ugly head, the Belgian Chocolate maker ‘Isis’ carried a makeover and labelled themselves as ‘Libeert’. Ditto with the mobile wallet app ‘ISIS’. They opted for ‘Softcard’.

Individuals have no such luck because you can’t chuck away your identity in a flash. You’ve got to live with it like a good fruit in a stinky basket.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hu's Who of China

When Modi was busy taking his famous selfie with the terracotta warriors, a respected newspaper quizzed a few Chinese about what they thought of India. The responses were quite revelatory. Uniformly, nearly everyone viewed us as a disorderly, Buddhist nation with an ancient past and an unattractive present akin to what was showcased in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Before we laugh off the unflattering references citing crass ignorance, let’s imagine a reverse vox pop. If a cross section of our society were interviewed about China, we’re likely to portray our neighbour as a country of look-alikes hiding behind the Great Wall manufacturing cheap goods in labour camps all while suppressing democracy, and plotting world domination.

Oh yes, we’re as pathetic, blinkered and clueless about their culture as they are about us. For example, we don’t even know that the conventional ‘last name’ is the first name for most Chinese. So Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping would have been Zedong Mao and Jinping Xi in any other part of the world!

Another eyebrow raising fact is that close to 40% of the population have the same ten surnames. Wang (meaning: King) is the most popular surname. Nearly 92 million people in China are Wangs. May be that’s why Wang’s Kitchen was picked when some foodie was thinking of a befitting name for a Chinese eatery.

Asides aside, we don’t even know what Chinese names mean. The ‘Chang’ in Michael Chang stands for ‘prosperity’. The ‘Lee’ in Bruce Lee alludes to the ‘plum fruit.’ The ‘Chan’ in Jackie Chan cues ‘grace’. And Mao in Mao Zedong curiously implies ‘hair’. For a man with a receding hairline, that’s quite an ironic surname!

Like most other nations, Chinese surnames broadly draw inspiration from dynasties (sample: Zhou), directions (Dong is west, Xi is east), official positions (Taishi is an allusion to the astronomy in-charge), craft (Gin is a potter, Wu is a wizard), and birth (Bo is the youngest, Ji is the eldest).

Sadly, the eminently punnable nature of the surnames, has given rise to a cottage industry of funny Chinese names. If you haven’t heard them yet: No Tsmo King is off ciggies, Chu Ying is into chicklets, Dum Gai is a doofus, Kum Hia is very approachable, Wei Ting is always put on hold and Sum Ting Wong symbolises the current state of equation between our two civilizations.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Two of a kind.

Try visualising twins. Most people of my vintage are likely to imagine a bowler hatted, walking stick wielding, black suit wearing, moustachioed imagery of two comic detectives who go by the names Thomson and Thompson. Now here’s the kicker: although they appear identical and have near-similar names, the fictional fact is, they aren’t at all twins!

Can you see the games the mind plays? Similar dressed people with similar names somehow create an illusion of sameness. That’s why child psychologists have implored parents time and again to stay away from the ‘Ramesh/Suresh’, ‘Seeta/Geeta’ and ‘Ram/Shyam’ templates. The theory is it impedes the development of a distinctive persona.

Despite the protestations of experts, moms and dads everywhere prefer a semblance of similarity while naming their twins. Part of the blame should be apportioned to our screenwriters who are downright lazy when it comes to devising nomenclature.

A cursory look at Bollywood and Kollywood will reveal the extent of predictability. In ‘Chaalbaaz’, Sridevi played Anju and Manju. The twin villains in ‘Ghajini’ were Ram and Lakshman. Back in the sixties, Neetu Singh acted as ‘Ganga’ and ‘Jamuna’ in ‘Do Kaliyaan’. Dharmendra doubled up as Ajay and Vijay in ‘Ghazab’ (a remake of Kalyanaraman).

Tamil actor Ajith takes the cake. In ‘Vaali’, he was Deva and Shiva. With 'Villain', he became Shiva and Vishnu. Finally in ‘Varalaaru’ he chose to be Vishnu and Jeeva. In Khiladi 420, Akshay Kumar appears as Dev and Anand. Although I must add, that things got a lot wilder with ‘Khiladi 786’. Akshay donned the avatars of Bahattar Singh and Tehattar Singh. For those of you who are clueless about Hindi, Bahattar is 72 while Tehattar is 73!

The most memorable twin names that I can remember in Tamil films, was in ‘Jeans’. Prashant essayed the roles of Vishwanathan and Ramamurthi, a nod to the music composer duo who dominated the industry before the Ilaiyaraja era.

Things have improved in Bollywood too. Aamir Khan slipped effortlessly into the skins of Sahir Khan and Samar Khan in ‘Dhoom 3’. Sahir and Samar are both Urdu words that have a connection with night/after dark. In contrast, Hollywood is a lot more creative. The Japanese twins in ‘Austin Powers in Goldmember’ were called ‘Fook Mi’ and ‘Fook Yu’. Surely, we can learn a trick or two from them!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Need for Swede

There’s a lot we don’t know about Sweden. Bet you didn’t know that moms and dads over there enjoy a baby break of 16 months which includes 2 months for the dad, all while taking home 77.6% of the salary.

Here’s another one. It’s mandatory for companies to offer at least one massage a month as perk. If you couldn’t believe your eyes, sample this: Income tax rates are rather high but people pay up gladly as college education is free and healthcare is virtually free!

The Swedes are indeed full of surprises. Apart from gifting us the greatest pop band (ABBA) and the finest tennis player (Bjorn Borg), the Scandinavians were also the earliest in framing naming laws. The Names Adoption Act of 1901 banished the established practice of affixing the father’s first name to new-borns and replaced it with the concept of family names, thereby bringing relief to thousands of babies of unknown parentage.

From a nation of Ericssons and Anderssons, people were empowered to choose surnames that were more descriptive of the family, ranging from topographic names like Soderberg (meaning: ‘from the south mountain’), Edberg (‘from the isthmus mountain’), and Lindberg (from the ‘lime tree mountain’) to pedigreed noble names like Hammarksjold (from the folks with the ‘hammershield’ insignia).

But with time, a nosy bureaucracy took over and used an updated version of the law to act as name inspectors who decide how children are named in Sweden. Consequently, a couple were denied the right to name their son as ‘Q’ citing failure to satisfy ‘basic linguistic requirements’.

Diana Ring had a similar experience when she baptized her child as ‘Token’. The Tax Authority (believe it or not, they decide names!) summarily rejected it on account of being ‘offensive’. Kasim Mats’ case is weirder. When his parents applied for a name change to Kasim Von, it was declared ‘inappropriate’ because ‘Von’ was seen as an aristocratic name not meant for commoners!

But parents are not giving up. They are going to court to get the matter sorted. When Michael and Karolina Tomaro were prevented from calling their infant ‘Metallica’, they took to legal recourse to challenge the move and were successful in rocking the veto. ‘Lego’ has been taken off the banned list too, thanks to a colourful court intervention.

These gaffes apart, the Swedes have been liberal enough to clear ‘Google’ for a search engineer father. So, it might still be worth it to make babies in Stockholm.