Tuesday, 19 July 2011



Amongst all animals it is only the Homo sapiens who have the predilection to assign names for every individual. One is not aware whether the great apes, which are so close to, us in intellect and appearance also have some such method in the various calls that they use to communicate with each other. Be it as it is, this piece is not about animals. It is about the most intelligent animal of all human being.

In all societies a newborn child has got no say in the name that it is given, whether male or female. Usually it is left to the choice of the parents or grandparents. These worthies indulge in their unexpressed fantasies in naming the new arrival in the family. The results are sometimes quite ludicrous, sometimes painful for the bearer of the name, sometimes thought provoking, sometimes philosophical etc. At time of the naming of the child hardly any thought is given to the situation that he or she is likely to face later on in life. 

In certain parts of India it is an accepted practice to add the name of the father plus the name of the family and in some cases even the name of the village to the name of the child. Therefore there can be a first name, there can be a second name, there can be a third name and a fourth name for the same person.

I think that the Srilankans are the unquestioned champions in this. Look at the names of their cricketers. In abbreviated form it is common to find W.D.H.P.X.A. SENANAYAKA. If anyone takes the trouble of finding out what this stand for it comes out that the father, the grandfather, the family and the village are represented in this name.

I have been a sufferer of the flights of fantasies of my father when naming me. Being very proud, and naturally so, of our lineage he insisted that the family name should be attached to the first names of all of us three brothers. Of course his name had to be also there. The end result was my name as ‘Premnath G Kainikkara’. Little did I realize the implications of this name till the time was commissioned into the Indian Army. One of the first forms that I had to fill instructed implicitly that the full name should be entered with expanded initials. So there I was from ‘Premnath G.Kainikkara’  to ‘Premnath Govinda Pillai Kainikkara’, ‘Govinda Pillai’ being my father’s name. The Armed Forces bureaucracy in India is in a different class by itself. There are no comparable systems anywhere else in the world to the best of my knowledge. That system, in its own wisdom, decided to name me as ‘PGP Kainikkara’. The word ‘Kainikkara’ is difficult to pronounce even in Kerala, where I come from. It was virtually impossible for my colleagues from all other parts of India to pronounce and spell this name. But there was no choice and I was ‘Lt. PGP Kainikkara’ in Military Hospital, Ambala in the autumn of 1969.

Things were going on in a routine way when suddenly the information came that the General Officer Commanding In Chief of Western Army Command was to inspect the Military Hospital. The army dictum of salute if it moves and paint it if it is stationary was applied in full force in the hospital to prepare for the visit. Soon the day arrived and we officers were all lined up to be introduced to the visiting general. Introductions on such occasions are choreographed to perfection in the army wherein the commanding officer of the unit moves down the line of the officers standing as per their ranks and telling the names of each one to the visiting dignitary. The visiting dignitary is then given a salute by the officer followed by a perfunctory handshake and some inane questions by the dignitary and monosyllable answers by the officers. Being the junior most officer at that time in the Military Hospital, Ambala, I was standing the last. My commanding officer, tall, handsome, Sikh belonging to the Royal family of Kapoorthala Punjab was introducing the officers to the General.

I had seen the pictures of this general and I definitely knew his name. He was Lt. General K.P. Candeth. He was a short stocky man with huge moustache and a booming voice. He was known for a no-nonsense approach and notorious for his sticky attitude as far as military etiquettes and discipline was concerned. History hails him as the victor of Goa because he was the general who led the troops into Goa during the short campaign to oust the Portuguese from there. Later on in 1971 Indo Pak war, General Candeth exhibited his brilliance on the western front.

Let us revert back to my predicament. After standing in line for almost fifteen minutes, finally my turn came to salute the general. I did that with as much as smartness I could master at that time and looking straight ahead I suddenly realized that because of the disparities in our height I was looking well over the gold-braided cap of the General. By that time my commanding officer was trying to introduce me to the general. The words went something like this, “Sir! This is my new officer” “His name is Katakada!” By that time the general had his hand extended and I was grasping it. The general tilted his head looked up to my commanding officer and asked him “Jasbir! What did you say the name is?”  “Sir! Kinnikkara”! Still holding my hand the general turned to my commanding officer and asked “Jasbir what is my name?” “Sir! Candeth Sir!” “Like hell! It is not bloody Candeth” “It is Kunjiraman Palaat Candoth! Can you ever pronounce that Jasbir!” and coming further closer to me he said, “Don’t worry son! Do so well in this army that people will be forced to spell and pronounce your name correctly”. His words were of great motivation for me to excel in whatever I did later on to ensure that what he prophesied in 1969 became true in the later years.

It is not only in the defense bureaucracy that mutilations of names occur. Some do it on their own and change the names to fairly unrecognizable ones. Let me give a few instances that I have personal knowledge. Long years back while working in the main street of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) holding the hand of my father I read a board hanging that said “GO Pal”. I read it out loudly as any young boy who has learned recently to read well. My father then told me how this name came. This worthy doctor had his given name as “Gopalan”. When he went abroad for studies he modernized it as ‘GO Pal’.                 

Years later while attending college I opted for French language as the second language to be studied. The lecturer who taught me was ‘Mr. Madhavin’. That sure was an unusual name. Soon I was made to understand that this gentleman has his original name as ‘Madhavan Nair’. When he went to Paris to learn French, off went the tail of ‘Nair’ and from ‘Madhavan’ he became ‘Madhavin’.

After graduating from the Medical College and having served in the Indian army for more than 20 years I took voluntary premature retirement and went to the United States for Post-Graduate studies. Knowing that more than twenty of my erstwhile classmates were settled in US, I made earnest efforts to locate as many of them as possible. With a fair amount of difficulty I was able to obtain the contact numbers of most of them. The majority still answered to the name that they were christened, but two individuals were dramatically different. There was one classmate of mine whose name was ‘MK Kumar’. He was fairly a close buddy of mine and I was therefore, quite keen to meet him after almost about 25 years. I got his number and rang up. The lady who picked up said “Good morning! Dr. Madom’s office! Can I help you?” I was taken aback and thought that perhaps I have dialed the wrong number. I rechecked the number and dialed again, with the same result. I then contacted another classmate of mine and verified the correctness of the number that I was dialing. He assured me that the number is the correct one. This put me in a quandery. I thought about it and suddenly it dawned on me that I have reached my friend Kumar’s office only. Let me tell you how. The ‘M’ in the name ‘MK Kumar’ stood for his house name, which was ‘Mecherimadom’. When he went to US married a Norwegian lady he decided that he should thenceforth be known as ‘Dr. M.K. Madom’. He was very sheepish when I confronted him; but there it was.

Yet another classmate could not be located by the name he was known while he was my classmate and that was ‘RP Venugopalan Nair’. I knew the hospital and the department where he was working. Try as I might I was stonewalled by the sweet talking lady in the department who finally told me that there was only one doctor of Indian origin working in the department and that he was the head of the department. I asked the name of this gentlemen and I was told that he is ‘Dr. Rama P Venu’. It took me sometime to realize that from ‘Ramachandran Pillai Venugopalan Nair’ he converted himself to ‘Rama P Venu’. Of course I did meet him and he said that he had to change the name because this name made easier for his friends and colleagues in the hospital to call him!!
So, after all, what’s in a name?

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