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18 June 2015

Whats in a name?

Please note: This is a humorous post. If you do not laugh or smile reading this post, it is your problem. You just lack the required humour quotient, that is all.

You know why I don't write a novel?
It is not that I don't have any ideas. I have plenty of them. I can write about a guy who spent his childhood days in Kerala, about another guy who spent his engineering college days during the late 80s, about another person who has been a  part of both the old economy and the new economy and has seen the best of both 'economies', about an ERP Consultant who loves his job, about a person who has a lot of interests but fritters away his time and talent moving from one passion to the next.....
I can write about many topics.
They why am I not writing a novel? or a story?
The reason is simple, I don't know how to name my protagonist.
Every time I think of writing a story, only two names come to my mind, one is Rahul and another is Rohit. Nothing else.
Unfortunately for me, my protagonist is from the state of Kerala. Rahul and Rohit are not the kinda names that parents in Kerala give to their progeny. Names like Baby, Saji, Jiji, Ebby, Biby, Liji, Siji, Siby, Seby, Sabu, Prince etc are more like the norm in that part of the world.
So are Karunakaran Nambiar, Sahadevan Kurupu, Subramaniam Iyer, Vasudevan Namboothiri, Bhaskaran Nair, Krishna Kumar Menon, Viswanathan, Bharathan, Vinayan etc. You throw a stone in the south of Kerala, and it will fall on someone with any one of those names.
Not Rohit, not Rahul either.
And these are the only two names that I can give to my protagonist as I think about writing a novel.
English writers do not have this problem. Any western name sound apt for any part. The protagonist names and their roles are mutually interchangeable. For example, you could have a Stuvert Rumpnell or a Frederick Kettering (This was the name of the hero in one of my childhood novels, that I tore into pieces of course, but the name still rankles), Ebenezer Magellan or Ewoke (Pronounced ee-woo-Ke) Holding....
All of them will make fine protagonists. You need the name of a detective? What about detective Ewoke Holding? Need a good name for a Banker? No problem, you can use Ebenezer Magellan (He started the 'Magellan Banking Trust'). Need a janitor who also doubles up as a neighborhood arsonist? Go for Frederick Kettering.
Or you could flip the script. A writer of English Novels could make Kettering as a banker, Holding as a janitor and Magellan as a detective without batting an eyelid.
You see my drift. For a western novel or story, any name is Ok. It has to sound westernish, that is all.
Ok, coming back to the problem at hand, if you think that I am being a harsh on Kerala, you are factually incorrect. (I mean 'you are wrong').
The problem is the same if you take a protagonist from any part of South India. I could take a Palaniappan or a Pichaiappan or a Kattabomman from Tamil Nadu, a Manjunath or Devi Shetty from Bangalore, a Sooriya Krishna Reddy from Andhra or a Bhaktheswar Gokhale from Maharashtra. The fact remains the same. These names are not sexy. It is difficult to imagine Sooriya Krishna Reddy as a Banker navigating in the upper echelons of the Banking Industry in Wall Street. At most he could be imagined as a local money lender.
Or for that matter, you can't write the story of a world renowned cardiologist with the name Devi Shetty from Bangalore. Just does not fit.
That is where I appreciate Sathyajit Ray. To create a detective with a name like 'Byomkesh Bakshi', and unleash him among unsuspecting public needed some guts.
I often wonder about the name 'Byomkesh Bakshi'. Even in a place like Bengal, where convoluted names are more of a norm rather than the exception, where names like Debabrata, Tathagatha and Oindrella float around like pollen, it is difficult to imagine a couple naming their child as 'Byomkesh'. As such it is difficult to pronounce. With a rasagolla in the mouth, it is impossible (to pronounce. Do I have to explain everything?).
May be that is why Ray gave that name to his detective. There is an advantage that the writer of  mystery novels enjoy that writers of other genre of writing do not. He need not use the name of the protagonist a lot in a detective novel. The usage of the name is optional. As an author, he just has to stealthily sneak in, early in the story, that the name of the detective is 'Byomkesh Bakshi'. Just create that association early in the reader's mind. That is all. He need not mention it again. He can manage the entire story with phrases like 'Detective took out his flashlight...', 'Detective smelled something fishy (apt for a Bengali Detective, methinks)', 'the piercing eyes of the Detective looked intently into her eyes' till ending the story with 'as usual, when the detective explained the process, he made it look so easy'...
After reading the story, the reader is relieved that the Old Lady died due to natural causes and the stab wound on her chest was just an accident (she accidentally fell on a sharp object) and that the suspect, sweet, young, adorable Amitaba is innocent. She doesn't care for the name of the detective. 
See, no need for the author to reiterate that the name of the detective was Byomkesh Bakshi. Mentioning once is enough.
(Same is the case if you are writing the story about a Doctor. You can write an entire novel saying 'Doctor did this', 'Doctor did that' etc without even once mentioning the name of the doctor. Do not believe me, watch all 10 seasons of 'Doctor Who' and tell me the name of the main character. But it is not easy if you have two or more doctors in your story and you have to tell the story of their professional rivalry or their love. Imagine how convoluted 'Grays Anatomy' would be if one character says 'Doctor, I am going to kiss you now' and the other responds, 'Doctor, I am waiting with bated breath'.
Damned confusing. You don't know which doc is going to kiss and which doc is having breathing troubles..)
While a complex name is ok in a mystery novel, that is not how it works in the story about an ERP Consultant. The name has to be repeated ad nauseum. Of course, one could write about a protagonist named (Let us say) Karunakaran Nambiar, top notch ERP consultant from Kerala. Typing that name itself is an effort. Also it is difficult to imagine 'Karunakaran Nambiar' as an ERP Consultant, implementing ERP Solutions in Latin America. 
If it is difficult for an author to write the story with a protagonist whose name is Karunakaran Nambiar, imagine the plight of a reader who has to sit and read the novel. Every time he reads about ERP Consultant Karunakaran Nambiar, his head spins. He gets a headache as he tries to pronounce the name. His tongue twists. Literally.
Of course, the reader might have some options. He could blackout the name 'Karunakaran Nambiar' with Astrix like they do to swear words on Indian Television. For example, he could read like  'the requirement gathering meeting that ************ ('ERP Consultant Karunakaran Nambiar') arranged with the customer was very stormy'. Or he could read it as blank spaces like 'It was a happy day for ' <                       >' (ERP Consultant Karunakaran Nambiar).
You get the gist.
The reader could avoid the confusion by following this methodology
But it is not fun. As a reader you do need to read the name of the protagonist. You need to identify with him. You need to feel his agony and share his ecstasy.
You can do that with Kettering or Rumpnell or even with Ewoke (see you are already on first name terms with him....)
But not with 'Karunakaran Nambiar'. By the time you read 'ERP Consultant Karunakaran Nambiar', you have lost the thread of the story. You get frustrated.
You don't bang your head. You just tear and throw the book in fire (what the arsonist Stewart Rumpnell would do, given a chance,  a crime which detective Kettering would eventually solve, of course) and run.
I don't want you to do that.
And that, my dear readers, is the reason that I don't write a novel.
I have only two names for my protagonist.
Rohit and Rahul.
And both do not fit the milieu, if you see what I mean.

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