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Bernie, Lucy and Yusuf

SHASHI THAROOR

A DILIGENT reader wrote recently to ask whether it was mere coincidence that the District Magistrate in my last novel, Riot, who deals with a riot stirred up by the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, is named Lakshman. No, dear reader, the choice of name, with its obvious mythological resonance, was quite deliberate, as is the fact that Lakshman's daughter is called Rekha, since her existence delimits his freedom of choice. And, while we're in the confessional, let us admit as well that it is not just happenstance that the American girl who comes to do good in India bears the surname of Hart.

The author who chooses a name carelessly — by opening two pages of a telephone book and randomly combining the results, as one writer claimed to do — does himself and his readers a disservice. The movie world has long understood the aura of names. Hollywood stars have been changing their names for decades — the macho cowboy John Wayne was born Marion Michael Morrison, a prissy moniker that would have sat ill on a saddle, and the sultry Marilyn Monroe was legally baptised with the far too homely name of Norma Jean Mortenson. More recently, Bernie Schwartz took on the more glamorous nom d'écran Tony Curtis, for reasons well understood by Woody Allen (born Allen Konigsberg), Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti), Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz) and Cary Grant (Archibald Leach). Could Boris Karloff have been half as sinister as William Henry Pratt, the name he was born with? Or Jerry Lewis as amiably silly if he had stayed Joseph Levitch? Or Ava Gardner as glamorously alluring as mere Lucy Johnson?

For names have associations of their own that can't be wished away, a fact of which film producers are keenly aware. (The legendary Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick was born without a middle name but added the middle initial O for effect - "as in GOD", he said modestly.) Many novelists have been just as aware of the power of the naming process. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, first wrote a story about a keen-eyed detective named Sherrinford Holmes and his doughty friend Dr. Ormond Sacker, before realising that the names he had chosen "gave no inkling of character". It took some experimentation before Conan Doyle settled upon the sharp-edged "Sherlock" to replace the fussy "Sherrinford", and decided that "elementary, my dear Watson" sounded far more solid and convincing than "elementary, my dear Sacker".

Shakespeare always had a keen ear for the connotations of the names he gave his characters; he wanted them to convey some of the qualities the actors' abilities alone might not have done. (Think of "Shylock" and "Malvolio", "Iago" and "Sir Toby Belch"). Charles Dickens elevated the practice of naming to an art, with characters like the unctuous Uriah Heep, the martinet Gradgrind, the booming rascal Bounderby, the naive Martin Chuzzlewit and the crooked Squeers. (His place names were just as cleverly chosen: the horrendous boarding school in "Nicholas Nickleby" is called "Dotheboys Hall" — if you don't get it, say the name aloud, pausing after the second and fifth letters).

The art is also a science these days, since the study of the significance of proper nouns has grown in importance and respectability in recent years, becoming a subject in itself, known as onomastics. I am all in favour of this new academic endeavour. I have made a small contribution to onomastics myself: nearly two decades ago, in an idle moment, I had speculated in print about the accident of history that had given our then Prime Minister the magic of the Mahatma's surname. Noting that while many Parsis adopted Gujarati surnames, like Gandhi or Patel, others took on surnames under the British that reflected their professions (Engineer, Mistry, Daruwalla, Toddywalla), I wondered whether, had Indiraji's Parsi husband been a Toddywalla rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, might India's political history have been different?

The question was a frivolous one. But then Indians are often exceptions to all the conventional assumptions about the impact of names, whether on voters, readers or movie audiences. After all, unpronounceability has rarely been a bar to political success in our country, especially since what is a simple enough name in one part of India is a tongue-twister in another (just after asking a random selection of U.P.ites to repeat the name of the late All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) stalwart Nedunchezhian, pick 10 South Indians and get them to say "Jawaharlal" — at least nine out often will fail to elongate the second of the four "a"s.). On the literary firmament, the gifted Arundhati Roy managed to make a bestseller out of characters named Esthappen and Rahel, names few of her readers have encountered before or since, and quite devoid of Dickensian associations inmost people's minds. So much for the painstaking lessons of Conan Doyle or Shakespeare. And as for the Indian movie world, some actors did adopt new labels of convenience, but it may be best not to read too much into whether Dilip Kumar would have enjoyed a different sort of career as Yusuf Khan, the name he abandoned as he made his way in Bollywood. It is difficult to make the case that a Hindu name was necessary for a romantic hero to appeal to the majority audience. Certainly a series of unrelated Khans — Feroz, Amjad, Shah Rukh, Salman, Saif Ali and Aamir — have not felt the need to reinvent themselves (and one who did, "Sanjay", added the surname "Khan" later in his career to create one of filmdom's more secular screen credits). And let's not forget that the highly successful Muslim actresses Waheeda Rehman, Nargis, Saira Banu and Mumtaz, not to mention the more recent Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi and Tabu, have proved repeatedly that Indian cine goers look at actors' faces, not their faiths. So it'll be a while before we start issuing Bharatiya degrees in onomastics. Still, in a land where a Shiv Sena ideologue calls himself Thackeray, a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) mayor is not embarrassed to answer to the moniker of M.K. Stalin, and a cabinet minister proudly uses as his first name the title of the magazine he used to edit, any aspiring desi onomast might first need a Ph.D. in Indian politics. And even then he will be unable to explain the foresight of an Italian parent in Orbassano passing over the obvious claims of "Alessandra" or "Antonella" and settling for a name that, years later, would not jar the Indian ear — Sonia. However great the obstacles Sonia Gandhi may face in her political future, they will not be as great as those that would have been faced by Donatella Toddywalla.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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