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?”
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.