Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Name Is George!

There are two ways to find someone named George in a gathering of Malayalee Christians. One is to use the PA system to ask Mr George to make his way to the wherever - and then deal with the consequences of the inevitable stampede. The other (quicker and less public-hazardy way) is to take a large-sized stone and chuck it into the crowd. Wait for a couple of minutes, and then start looking for someone with a bump on his head. If he's male, chances are you've found your George.

My family, being a relatively clever bunch, thought of this from the very start. So when they christened me George, they also kept another name - Rohan - that would be used within the family, as a code sort of, to draw my attention in case of an emergency. I'm a little hazy as to why they settled on Rohan, but one theory I've heard is that my father is a big cricket fan, and his favourite batsman was Rohan Kanhai, the legendary West Indian batsman famous for his falling sweep. No, that's not quite true. Dad's favourite was actually G.R. Viswanath. But Gundappa Mathew just doesn't sound right. So he settled for second favourite.

I suppose it must've been a big disappointment to him that my cricket skills turned out the way it did, but I did have a signature shot of my own. The Running Cover Drive - played by running toward the square-leg umpire, as a fast bowler comes steaming in, with the bat swishing in the general direction of the covers. Ten years later, some of my former classmates are still out on that field, laughing their asses off. But it's not like I was there of my own free will. PT sessions were compulsory. And they didn't even have pads.

The trauma was such that by the time my brother was born, my parents seemed to have given up on cricket altogether, and turned to social heroes. Besides, it was my mom's turn. So they codenamed him Kiran - after the courageous IPS officer best known for Tihar Jail reforms, for towing away Indira Gandhi's car for a parking violation, and for being the first woman to join the Indian Police Service.

Over the years, I grew to really dislike my official name. For one, "George" seemed to have a vaguely sinister sound to it. All fictional characters I was aware of named George were wimps, or belonged to the jungle. Plus, women novelists and 12-year-old amateur girl sleuths were sometimes known to be called George. All of this is crushing for the ego of a little boy named George. Little girls making faces at me while singing nursery rhymes that accused me of kissing other little girls and running away when the boys came out to play - and then themselves running away, shrieking with laughter - didn't help either, now that I think of it.

Then there is the little matter of practically every male child in my family being named a George. I even have an uncle who has my exact same name - right down to the initials. My friends from school who called up and asked for George were curtly told to be more specific. Once our maid even told one of the callers that "George is out of town, to take care of his sick son." You don't see the funny side of stuff like this when you're a school kid. And so it was that when I got my first shot at fame, with an essay for my school magazine, I signed it "Rohan Mathew".

Our story rests there for a few years, until I got my first job, and was required to fill in some papers for my bank account. My school certificate had this name, ****, at the end of my name. I always assumed that it was some sort of a clerical mistake that started with someone with a sick sense of humour in the birth-certificate department. But since I didn't know whether to put in **** as a middle name or to skip it altogether, I rang up my dad.

There was a long pause...

"Son, there's something I have to tell you."
"Eh?"
"Your surname is ****. Mathew is just your middle name."
"How come you, or grand father, don't have **** in your names then?"

He put together some story of how my grand parents had lived outside Kerala for a long time, and the name was hard to spell or pronounce for outsiders - and that it was reinstated with my generation to reclaim family pride. I had this feeling that he was leaving something out, though.

I forgot about the matter of my surname for a few years, because I had bigger issues to deal with. Kerala has a large population of Christians, but this isn't the case with the rest of India, where Christian names are generally uncommon. Now, I'm not religious at all, and frankly, would've preferred a bland, generic name like Amit Kumar, but I couldn't articulate this when they named me.

Getting calls from telemarketers is ordeal enough for most people, but in my case... Mr Gorge (as in, to stuff oneself), Mr Jerog, or Mr Jyorgie are what I'm called on a good day. A bad day would be when the more formal ones call up, and then spend the next three hours trying to get my last name right.

Then there is the way people spell my name. Ever tried to get an expense report approved when your name is spelt Joj or Jwarz on the receipt? "Why're you using company money to entertain your Polish friends?" was how one conversation with my manager started.

Now's as good a time as any to talk of Young Frankenstein, that harrowing tale of a young scientist doomed to a lifetime of ridicule because of the family legacy. I was struck by the pathos of young Fronkensteen, as he, with some deft spelling work, implored people to look beyond his name. The plaintive, heartrending cry "My Name is Fronkensteen!", repeated several times through the movie, of a man unable to get people to pronounce his name correctly, affected me so much that it became the name of my blog (only for a short time, admittedly).

Things became progressively worse the further north I moved. And then a few months back, I moved to Delhi. I didn't expect to like it. But against all odds, I did. If one were to nitpick, though, it would be that Delhi's citizens tend to lack tact. Two months into my stay here, while waiting for the office cab to take me home, this guy walks up to me with, "Hi. You must be George. Your name was on the transport list. I'll be sharing the cab with you. Did you know that your surname means 'horny' in Hindi?"

I hadn't known that. While on the topic of things I was unaware of, beginning conversations with complete strangers in this particular style was a new one, too. I'd lived for years in Bangalore and Pune - both cities with a fairly high percentage of Hindi speakers - but everyone had scrupulously avoided bringing up this dimension to my surname. At any rate, I'd finally found out what my dad had left out of that conversation all those years ago.

I can't think of a time, a place, or an event that made me rethink my revulsion for George, but over the years, I find myself using the name more and more over Rohan. When I call up people now, I tend to introduce myself as George, which was unthinkable a few years back.

It could be that I'm now starting to put behind me the traumas of my childhood. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that women tend to mature as they grow older and none of the ones I know now make faces at me while singing nursery rhymes. Or maybe, since I now have my surname to worry about, all those complaints about my first name seem trivial in comparison.

So here it is, one more time, for those at the back...

My Name Is George! And I don't care who knows it.