Thursday, September 10, 2009

Oh My Name! Sigh!

My last post on this subject was the outcome of a need to unload a burden I’d been carrying all my life. But this time I was provoked.

“Can you give me a sensible name that I can call you?” pleaded the delegate to whom I was introduced in my official capacity as Kochuthresiamma P.J. etc etc etc. She was not from my part of the world; so I understood her difficulty in getting her tongue around my name. But surely there was a more polite or less boorish way of expressing that difficulty.

“You can call me whatever suits you so long as you don’t call me names”. I tried humour to conceal my irritation.

The lady made me repeat my name several times and then appeared to strike upon the brilliant idea.
“Hey, can I call you Kochu?”
“Why not”, I replied returning her sweet smile with a sweeter one.

I’ve thought of changing my name officially, but my father used to get distressed every time I mentioned my intention. He thought my name was the most beautiful one in the whole world. I suppose if you are a Malayalee and a catholic, and know the history and etymology of the word you’d find music in my name – or else, my father had an extraordinary ear that could detect harmony in the worst of tongue twisters.

On a more practical note, he pointed out the hassles of changing the name. Thus it was, despite my yearning to get away from my name, I remained Kochuthresiamma p j all my life.

Since I have this capacity to step out of a situation and look at it and enjoy the situation in which I am the butt of the joke or the lifelong victim of a father’s fancy for a particular name, I have
come out quite unscathed by the embarrassment the name caused me on several occasions. The worst is what I have related in my earlier post on this. Close on heels comes the occasion when, the day I joined a particular college in Mumbai a little over a decade ago, I was introduced to the staff at the staff meeting which, my bad luck, was scheduled for the day. I was asked to attend the staff meeting by the Principal.
“You can meet the other teachers too”, she said.
My HOD took me to the hall where the meeting was to take place. Being a very punctual person, she was the first to be in the hall, with me along with her. Soon people started streaming in. Men and women, young and middle aged, all dressed to kill and looking very sophisticated and powdered and patched. This was a new experience for me who hadn’t, till then, served anywhere outside Kerala where teachers dress up in a very sober and businesslike manner when they come to teach. I looked around happily, charmed by the styles and sounds and perfumed smells of the elite working class of Mumbai who gathered in the room.

Then the Principal walked in.

“Before we start, let me introduce you to the new teacher”

She looked at me and beckoned to me to come forward. My heart sank. I wasn’t prepared for this formal introduction, or I’d have given the Principal some phonetic training.

“This is Dr. ----“ . Silence. I could feel my ears turning red. I was always one who hated attention.
“Will you tell them your name, please?” she entreated, looking at me sweetly, pleadingly.

I announced my name.

It made no sense to anyone except two people who looked at me and waved from where they sat. They were keralites. The others looked at each other as tho’ some alien creature had descended on them from some other galaxy.

“Thank you. I can deal with the rest of the details”, she said cheerfully. Big deal, I thought. One would think that the rest of my biodata included terms like Kalaripayatu, Angathari, and Verumkai - terms which she could handle with the greatest ease while my name was the only problem that she couldn’t digest!

And then came the parting shot. Just as I was about to leave the dais for my seat, she said “Just a minute Dr er er er - - - is there another name I can call you?”

Looking at my smiling face, none could have imagined how high the seismic rumblings inside me measured on the Richter scale. What the heck, I thought. I take trouble to learn the pronunciation of unfamiliar and difficult names of people. That’s basic decency. This head of the Institution should have done her homework and learnt to pronounce my name instead of making a song and dance about it.

“I have no other name”, I lied. Let her learn to pronounce my name, I thought angrily – but my face betrayed none of my feelings. It had a heavily sweetened smile on it.

“Oh”, she looked unhappy. Then brightening up she said, “What did you say your name was?”
I repeated.
She wagged her bobbed head like a little child who unexpectedly stumbled upon the extra terrestrial she wanted to meet desperately.
” Yes!” she declared triumphantly. “I’ll call you Kochu. That ok?” she asked, looking at me and beaming at the teachers who were watching this one minute drama which, to me, seemed to stretch out to eternity.

Thus, I was Kochu during the short period of over a year that I worked there. With my quaint name, an exotic aura surrounded me throughout my service there and I decided to bask in the feel good, privileged feeling it gave me. Make the best out of a bad situation, has always been my policy.

I can never cease to be grateful and appreciative of the CEO of an organization I worked for in Mumbai before I joined this college. He was a Bengali I think, and was the only one in the organization who called me Kochuthresiamma - that too with the greatest ease and perfect phonetic and syllabic accuracy. The others resorted to my pet name which I shared with them because I met them informally, unlike the fiasco introduction episode described earlier. Whenever the CEO gave me an unrealistic deadline, I’d honour it each time, no matter how hard or impossible. Such was the impact of calling me the way I should be called. Without any distortion, stumbling, ridiculing.

My name - no matter how terrible it is – is part of my identity, and respecting my name is respecting my identity.

I have a pair of twin nieces, almost identical but I’ve had no problem distinguishing one from the other. But for some reason I used to think of them not as individuals but as two in one – which, I suppose, they resented. There was a time when I used to bungle up their names and call one by the other’s name. At one point they decided enough was enough. They wouldn’t respond to my question if I addressed X as Y, and vice versa. They’d wait till I realized my mistake and corrected myself. Only then would they respond to me. That’s when their separate identities emerged for me, and my eyes were opened to the fact that the two are so different from each other, and each had an individuality of her own.

Yes, my name is part of me. No wonder it is said that remembering names and calling people by their correct names are so important in effective PR and HR management.

I hope all future parents, particularly Keralite parents who read this blog will realize that when you name your children, you are confering on them a factor that plays a major role in identity formation. Despite the unpronounceable name that I was given by him, I am so grateful to my father for sparing me such names as Shito (d/o or s/o of Shinu and Tommy), or BDP (Birth Day Present cos she was born on her father’s birthday) or all those terrible names that we mallus come up with.

My name at least has a history, geography, tradition and a cultural content to it.


  1. I think you do not have to feel bad about your name.For those who cannot pronounce it properly you can always suggest calling you as Kochu which is in fact a short form of your name.Otherwise just feel good that you have a name everyone will notice and feel good about it
    Probably you father must have been fond of St.Kochu Thressia

  2. Very well said!
    As you mentioned, when we take the trouble of trying to understand the correct way of calling someone else with a name which is a tongue twister, the least we expect is them to reciprocate.
    We went through something similar in Kerala when we named our daughter Naomi :-)

  3. Laloo's daughter's name was Misa, because that was the law under which he was imprisoned, when she was born.

    There is a Keralite called McMahon, born shortly after the India-China war.

    I know a Pushkin, a CPM worker, in my village.

    Poppy Petal Montgomery is an australian actress. What a beautiful name! Innovation could be sometimes for the better.

    I think Muslim names also got a distint malayalam flavor, sometimes. Ali becomes Kunjalikkutty, Muhammed becomes Mammotty(short of Muhammed kutty), etc..

    This is good. This is good for a regional identity. So do not be unhappy, ma'm KPJ .. You are a sacrificial lamb made for identity preservation, carrying a difficult but distinctly Kerala syrian catholic name.. The lamb, that takes upon itself all the sins of the world .. :-)

    To make you feel good, I will put it in Latin:

    Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi!!

  4. until yesterday, i didn't put one and one together - to get two. and i didn't know this was your name - always knew you by the other name. it's not too difficult to pronounce - in any case i hate shortening names ;)

  5. Due to personal reasons, I retire from blogsphere for a while. I do not know whether I will return or not. It was fun to interact with you.

  6. I cn so identify with the whole same is a simple two syllable most non-Keralities mispronounce it...
    I stopped correcting every1 long time back....
    Though at times I feel my parents could have named me a more conventional name...I never want to change my name....
    Bt yeah after Gwyneth named her baby Apple I ws thankful tht my mom wasnt tht adventurous...

  7. this is my reasoning why the rest of india - other than those who are familiar with kerala cannot pronounce typical names that originated in malayalam.

    malayalam has around 56 alphabets, while hindi or marathi have around 36 alphabets. i am assuming this would be the case with other indian languages.

    so the number of phonetics in malayalam is larger than hindi or marathi. so for those who learn malayalam in kerala can learn hindi or marathi, because the phonetics are lesser. the vice versa seems more difficult - don't you think ? - i am sure you know this.

    so most americans have difficult reading indian names because the syllables and phonetics in indian languages are more than the english language. thankfully because america deals with this in a majority of cases. we are asked - what would you want to be called. so everyone can know us by the name "lisa" (because we give it to them ) than the original name - hwang ting ku or a simple name as pashupati Sarvapalli.

    everytime i address you as kpj - i am reminded of APJ :)

    and on another note no father wants their daughter to change their name. they scratch their head to name their children:)my father would certainly not like and he is glad that i am still keeping my maiden last name.

    and in maharastrians after marriage tradition dictates that the first name too can be renamed by the husband ( not relevant to this post )

  8. comment from amala

    i was laughing my head off at the last but 1 line. Ichayan really deprived us of great pleasure by not naming you Shito!!!!!!!!!!! I would have loved to call you Shito aunty!!!!
    You probably would also have lived to be a shitty-old-spinster all your life!!!!!!!!!

  9. In the 1960s, a classmate girl of mine at Kollam actually had the name 'Shitty'; her Singapore-returned father having named her thus.

    Then in the 1980s, I came across a bakery owner's having named his bakery after his darling daughter Anu. The Board 'Anus Bakery' was a great attraction to many of the NH47 travelers.

    As for your case...

  10. me Amma would have been good enough.

  11. @ stoic
    that bakery name takes the cake:-)
    regarding amma - too many celebrity ammas around.

    @ anrosh
    the maharashtrian practice simply stunned me when i first heard of it while in Mumbai. a woman has no right to even that bit of her identity given to her by her name, once she gets married?
    absolutely shameful!

  12. oh oh,so touchy! you started with a sigh but ended with a snarl!by the way,if kochuthressiamma is,as you adamantly claim,is who you are,what you are,then who is molly?

  13. I totally agree. One must take the pains to call ppl by their correct names & pronounce it well too. I have a pretty unique name too & most teachers ended up making a mistake (although it wasn't a tonge twister like yours) but its definitely irritating!

    The best part about having a difficult name - Noone ever forgets you.. ever! :-) Right?


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