Recently, a friend dropped me a note under a different name from the one I’d known him by for eleven years. I raised one culture-mulcher highbrow eyebrow at his new moniker and immediately called him out on it. As expected, the change had been a result of his moving to Australia, where – he said – his new buddies had rechristened him. I snorted privately and exhorted publicly: “Be proud of your polysyllabic name! Besides, Bobby doesn’t rhyme with Banana (while your real name does)”. Rhyme is important to me – in case I ever have to write a sonnet for an epitaph, I don’t want my options to be limited to hobby, lobby and (ahem) snobby. Banana, cabana and Hannah Montana lend themselves much better to eulogizing.
He had changed his name on all his social networking profiles, chat and email programmes. I found this annoying and somewhat regressive, but he insisted that letting one’s friends call you by nicknames is sweet. “Sure,” I acceded. “But you don’t see me changing my name to Ammamma Kitty”.
At this juncture I will confess to the following: I have a different legal name for reasons you can exaggerate in your imagination, once published an article under a pseudonym inspired by an alter-ego inspired by a plush toy, and yes, one of my friends calls me Ammamma. Many others do call me variations of Kitty (though not, you monkeys, the obvious synonym). Still, to my mind, none of these things are rooted in embarrassment, which is how I saw the friend-henceforth-known-as-Bobby’s choice. There is a long history of Asian people assimilating by taking on Western names – how many Tripurasundaris have become Tinas, and how many Mei Lings, Marilyns? Rueful, I considered how Bobby rhymed with Robby, a diminutive – in every sense – of Rabindranath.
No, the whole thing made me want to commit many cliché reactionary acts, like politicizing my sloth as a bed-in, wearing homespun khadi, piercing my other nostril and rereading Spivak (she of the ex-husband’s name). I was too lazy for all of this, though, and had evening plans that interfered with the bed-in, so I settled for clicking the “like” button on someone else’s snarky post to “Bobby P.” asking when he was going to cut a record and start a fragrance line. The view from my high horse was pretty great.
Of course, I was duly chastised. Later that day, I went out with an expat friend. We were the last to arrive, and a group of people I hadn’t met before were already there. “Hey everybody,” said my friend cheerily, and extended a hand in my direction. “This is Ranya”.
Then she turned to me and said, just as cheerily, “I’m so glad you texted earlier, because I spent ages online trying to remember how to pronounce your full name, but on my phone I have the ‘version for dummies’ saved!”. This was true. Ranya was the nickname I hadn’t needed to bring back to India, cases of extreme closeness or extreme mangling notwithstanding. Someone had given it to me back in school, when P. Diddy was still Puff (and still cool), Bobby still had a name that rhymed with Banana, and I – well, I was Ranya.
I did, however, at least already have one nostril pierced by then.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.