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What's in a name?

"What with all the jokes and taunts, I used to envy people with simple, common names, and then there were those very English names which no one made fun of. I often wondered why I should not change mine."

BY THE time I was old enough to recognise my maternal grandfather, he was past 70. My earliest memory is of him reclining in a huge easy chair in a corner of a large hall, lost in thought, his fingers restlessly moving the beads of an imaginary rudrakshamala. He always seemed to wear a stern look. He spoke little. No one dared disturb his endless contemplation, except my grandmother and of course, the newly-arrived grandson. The first time I realised that I had an unusual name was when I was in the first year at school. My class teacher took five minutes to understand my name and spell it correctly, by which time I was in tears.

It was my grandmother, a disciplinarian with a mischievous smile or perhaps my mother, who first told me that I had been named after my grandfather. I seemed to have inherited some of his looks and mannerisms. There were jokes aplenty those days about my name. The most common was to call me after a popular south Indian sweet made out of rava! The other favourite pastime of my tormentors when I told them my name was to pretend that I suffered from some speech defect and perhaps what I really meant was Balakrishnan (my father's name) or may be Balakesan or even Balakesi. I had to steadfastly correct them.

The Governor was the Chief Guest at the function to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the Education Society started by grandfather. The gracious old lady, who had known grandfather closely, was recounting little known facts about him, an orphan... how he had travelled as a pauper, all the way from his native village in Andhra Pradesh by foot, as there were no trains in those days, to try his luck in the big city to the south, how he had known the pangs of hunger, how he taught himself the rudiments of indigenous medicine and set up his own business in patented Ayurvedic medicines, worked his way up and prospered. The lady went on to recount how grandfather had invested the prize money that the garden in his Bangalore home had won over a number of years, to start the trust for setting up the Education Society. How he was interested in the uplift of women, had set up a printing press, started a Telugu magazine and instituted an annual prize to encourage women writers, had been a connoisseur of the arts...

As I grew older, I could not understand all the fuss and giggles about my name. After all, it meant a young lion. Granted, I, with my timid nature and short stature, hardly bore any resemblance to the Lord of the Jungle. Yes, it was an uncommon name, but definitely not funny - no more funny than a Venugopalan a Padmanabhan a Thamarakshan or a Sathyamurthy. What with all the jokes and taunts, I used to envy people with simple, common names such as Raman, Krishnan and even Anantharamakrishnan. And then there were those very English names such as Butler, Barber and Winterbottom. No one made fun of those names; I often wondered why I should not change mine.

I found that my name caused some unexpected, though not unwelcome, confusion. Once, as a young student of engineering, I found my train reservation in the company of a couple of young women from Kerala. The Railways, my eventual employer, thought that any name which ends with an `i' should belong to a female. Thirty years later, when a Balakeshwari was posted to a large workshop as Chief Mechanical Engineer, a few people at the receiving end were surprised when they saw a middle aged man arriving, instead of a woman.

Service in the Railways took me to almost all parts of the country. It was fascinating how my name changed wherever I went. In Bengal, it was Bal Kishori. In the Hindi belt it was usually clipped to Balkesri. In the west it sometimes became Balkesani. And in God's own country it rolled out smoothly as Balaesari. No one could place me from my name. At various times, I have been mistaken for a Upwalah, a Kannadiga, a Maharastrian and even a Bihari. During his lifetime, grandfather had, perhaps unwittingly, breached the language barrier. Starting with Andhra Pradesh, he had chosen to live and set up business in Madras, forged a link with Thrissur through my grandmother and also built a home in Bangalore. In the household, he was at once "Thathaiyya", "Thatha" or "Sami Achan". For a child growing up at the dawn of Independence, there could have been no better object lesson than this, in the essential oneness of the country.

As the years wore on, I found a strange affinity for my name. After all, there must be tens of thousands of Ramans and Krishnans in this world but only me with mine. (Recently, I found one more in the phone directory!). And it took me almost half-a-century of living to realise that what grandfather had bequeathed were not only economic security and a carefree childhood that he himself never had, but also a broadness of outlook and a name that seemed to belong to everywhere in this country.

But, if I thought I had seen all possible distortions of my name, I was in for a surprise. Recently, after diligently noting down the order, my name and address over the telephone, the newly-opened provision store sent the bill in the name of Kaalakesari (written neatly in Tamil) perhaps uncannily forecasting my ultimate destiny.

It no longer matters; I shall carry my name till the end, proudly.

Striving for excellence

FOR A long time the Andhras of Chennai, especially those living in Mylapore and Royapettah, felt handicapped in the matter of education of their children, with the increasing use of Tamil as the medium of instruction the elementary, middle and high school classes. Telugu children had to start learning Tamil or run the risk of missing school altogether. To remedy the situation, in 1940, a group prominent Telugu citizens of Madras started an elementary school with Telugu as the medium, sustained by monthly subscriptions from publicspirited citizens.

In 1943, Dr. K. N. Kesari offered to take over the management of the institution and raised it to middle school and later, to high school level. The first batch of pupils appeared for the SSLC Public examinations in March 1948.

Dr. Kesari endowed the school with a spacious building at 163, Royapettah High Road, valued at that time at Rs 70,000. In addition, he donated Rs. 50,000 to the school. He also constituted a committee of trustees to manage the affairs of the institution and administer the properties.

In April 1947, Dr. Kesari donated a further Rs. 1 lakh to the trust basically for education of girls. To provide for expansion of the activities of the institutions and the starting and running of similar institutions in the future, it was decided to form a society under the Societies Registration Act 1860. Accordingly the `Kesari Education Society' was formed and registered in February 1951. Subsequently, an elementary school was started there with Telugu as the medium of instruction.

The school was upgraded to a high school in 1981.Today, the Kesari Education Society manages the following schools: Kesari High school, Mylapore (English & Telugu medium), Kesari High School, T. Nagar, Kesari Primary School, T. Nagar (Telugu medium). The celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of the Kesari Schools on July 6, 2002 was indeed a momentous occasion.

During his lifetime Dr. Kesari often said that he had tried to pay back something to society through `Vaidya' practice of Ayurveda and provide affordable Ayurvedic medicines through the business establishment Kesari Kuteeram Ltd, now in its 102nd year. K. BALAKESARI

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