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When names don’t matter

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ISSUE When it comes to those from our own social class whom we encounter daily, we take great care to remember their names and if we forget or mispronounce them even once, we feel terribly embarrassed. Those who serve us deserve the same privilege

Jameela is late today, I say to myself. I haven’t heard her lean heavily on my calling bell, a resounding ding-dong that makes me jump out of my skin. The thought barely leaves my mind when I hear the clangour. I open the front door to find another sweeper come to collect my organic waste. I ask her name. Jyothi, she says, surprised that it should matter. Her voice rises in dismay when I scrape out the bin with my bare hand instead of allowing her to empty it.

I have been resolutely finding out the names of the female sweepers in our apartment complex because some time ago I caught myself referring to them as “the kachra women” and realised how awful that sounded. There are three of them and I don’t yet know the name of the third. I have been reliably informed that my neighbour Mrs K called Jyothi “Rosie” for six months before the building manager pointed out her error; Jyothi herself would never presume to correct a ‘madam’. I know someone who called her cobbler Maria for years until she heard another customer call him Arumugam. “Is that your name?” she asked him incredulously. Yes, he replied. “Then why didn’t you tell me before?” He shrugged.

Those who lack power lack the confidence to declare their very names. They mumble something, and if we mishear them they submit to being wrongly addressed because they believe it’s insulting for an ‘inferior’ to correct a ‘superior’. Sadly, what they are called is of no consequence; what they do, is. We identify them by their jobs alone. They are sweeper, plumber, dhobi or electrician. “Security!” we summon the man in uniform. “Has the mali come today?” Just imagine how absurd it would be if everyone in your office only called you by your designation! When it comes to those from our own social class whom we encounter daily, we take great care to remember their names and if we forget or mispronounce them even once, we feel terribly embarrassed. Those who serve us deserve the same privilege, I would think.

On the other end of the scale from Jyothi, Jameela and the Unnamed One are the assorted students I bump into frequently in the M.G. Road area. “Ma’am!” they protest, noticing my bewilderment. “You came to our college?” The question mark at the end implies: “And therefore how can you possibly not recall us?” I go to XYZ College once or twice a year, to one department or another, and take a session or maybe two, for a class of 40 or 50. Honestly, am I expected to record in my far-from-photographic memory each individual face for all eternity? But that’s their strong sense of personal identity speaking.

When the feudal Indian goes to the west he misses the bowing and scraping, the sir and the mister. US-style egalitarianism is a bit too much for him to swallow. He gets a shock when an ‘inferior’ calls him by his first name. Speaking of the US, I’ve been noticing what I mistakenly thought was a practice borrowed from that country. After you order a taxi or a biryani you get an automated message that gives you, among other details, the names of the driver or the delivery man. Oh, shouldn’t that be ‘delivery boy’? We ‘boy’ every working class man to diminish his status: newspaper boy, car-wash boy and so on.

To get back to the messaging, I was told in government-style jargon that my biryani order was confirmed vide number such and such, and “the same will be delivered at 2.05 p.m”. A few minutes later I got another message saying my order (number mentioned) had been dispatched through Swamy (mobile number given). Wow, I thought, finally the delivery boy is growing into a man, and one with a name, to boot. Similarly, on another day I was informed in telegraphese: “Sir/madam pickup vehicle (number given) Shivu (mobile).” Yet another taxi company stated: “Dear sir your cab details (number) Gowda (mobile).” Have the names been provided so that I can, upon receiving my parcel, say “Thank you Swamy” or, upon encountering my driver, say “Hello Gowda”? I suspect not. It is more likely that the companies give us their names so that we know who to complain about if we’re not satisfied. If the biryani doesn’t reach me on time I get it free. And Swamy probably pays for it.

While we’re on the subject of drivers, I think the parody of the memsaab in pearls and high heels warbling in an affected voice, “Driver, gaadi leke aao” is perhaps out of date. Householders do call their chauffeurs by their names, just as they do their domestic workers. It is manual labourers who toil outdoors whose identities are effaced. I wonder how many of my neighbours know the name of the man who has been ironing our clothes for well over a decade. I too am guilty: there is a takeout joint that I regularly patronise and a delivery man who always brings my order, but although we must have exchanged pleasantries a 100 times I don’t know his name.

I did find out the name of the third sweeper, though, while she was on her lunch break. It turned out to be a highly appropriate Pachamma. Green Mother. Carer of our environment.

(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)

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