SUNDAY MAGAZINE

`Scrabble' in real life

Raajkumar was once Rajkumar.  

THE news that the erstwhile (or should one say "once and future"?) Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms. Jayalalitha, has decided to add an extra "a" to the end of her name because a numerologically-minded astrologer told her it would be more propitious, is the kind of Indian story foreigners find almost impossible to believe. There is no other society on earth in which a leading public figure would change the spelling of her name in such a manner, and that too for a reason that most non-Indians would find frivolous. And yet, of course, we take it so cheerfully in stride in our country, because we manage to live in that rare combination of modernity and superstition that defines us as a breed apart from the other peoples of the world.

Where else, after all, is so much made of an individual's astrological chart, that mysterious database which determines his opportunities in life, his marital prospects, his willingness to undertake certain risks? I once wrote that an Indian without a horoscope is like an American without a credit card, and the truth of that observation shows no signs of fading away in the 21st Century. It seems particularly entrenched in our political world. As one who is what we like to call a "God-fearing'' Hindu, I make no claims to be a pure rationalist myself, but I am still bemused to read of the swearing-in of a minister delayed because a politician's astrologer told him the time was not auspicious to take the oath, or of a candidate's nomination papers being filed at the last possible minute to avoid the malign influences of raahu-kaalam. My favourite story is of the Chief Minister who refused to move into his official residence because a pundit claimed it was not built according to the principles of "vastu" and he would not fare well in it. The bungalow was accordingly redone, at great public expense, with new doorways being made and windows realigned to satisfy the pundit. At last the Chief Minister moved in — only to lose his job, and his new home, the next day, the vagaries of politics having outstripped the benefits of "vastu".

Why on earth do otherwise intelligent, educated people put themselves in thrall to such superstition? I am all in favour of the innate human desire to propitiate the heavens, and I am even prepared to entertain the notion that the cosmos might be sending us signals in every planetary realignment, but what makes us so credulous as to believe that our godmen understand the code? I suppose it is entirely possible that Ms. Jayalalithaa will attain political successes that a mere Ms. Jayalalitha might not have, but on what possible basis can it be argued that the addition of a superfluous vowel made all the difference? I remember when I was about to publish The Great Indian Novel and a friend's guru advised me solemnly that all that was lacking was an extra vowel in the title. Put in another "a", he advised, and success was certain; otherwise the book's prospects could not be guaranteed. I could scarcely believe he was suggesting that a retelling of the Mahabharata would work better as The Great Indiana Novel, nor that a 432-page tome could get away with calling itself The Great Indian Novella. So I ignored the advice, and I am glad to say the novel is currently in its eleventh printing, while the godman himself, having been arrested a couple of years later under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, is now spending his eleventh year in prison.

Not immune from the contagion ... Krshnamachari Srikkanth.

Not immune from the contagion ... Krshnamachari Srikkanth.  

I must confess, however, that there has been a spelling change in the bosom of my own family. My son Ishaan was named Ishan on his birth certificate, but growing up in America he soon tired of people pronouncing his name as if it rhymed with ``I can", and around age seven he did a Jayalalithaa and baptised himself Ishaan — a spelling less liable, he felt, to mispronounciation. (His twin is named Kanishk, without the conventional final vowel, which puts us doubly out of sorts, since to the purist Ishaan has one "a" too many and Kanishk one "a" too few).

I was quite willing to accept this precocious act of individual affirmation by my little son, but had he based his preference on the suggestion of a tufted astrologer, I would have resisted it stoutly. I do not believe God dispenses his favours according to the number of vowels in his creatures' names.

Bollywood, of course, disagrees with me; our cinematic history is full of the titles of movies being chosen, amended or misspelled on astrological or numerological grounds. (Think of that absurd second "u" in "Ek Duuje Ke Liye".) Actors, too, have had their names tampered with for luck: I recall the actor Rakesh Roshan, after a couple of undeserved flops, trying his hand at being Raakesh Roshan for a film or two before giving up and finding success behind the camera rather than in front of it. And wasn't Raaj Kumar a plain "Rajkumar" once upon a time?

Not that other fields are immune from the contagion. As a long-time cricket fan, few things drove me as much up the wall about the exhilarating and exasperating Krishnamachari Srikkanth as that irritating second "k" in his surname. Was it idiosyncrasy, illiteracy or numerology? After all, no Indian language renders this Sanskritic name with a double k.

But in all fairness, I have to admit that the rendering of Indian names into English follows few consistent principles to begin with. Why do many Maharashtrian names end in ``e''(as in Borde or Godse) when they could as easily be spelt with an ``ay'' (as in Mhambray or Thipsay)? Even more confusingly, why do the Sinhalese use the same "e" ending (as in Ranasinghe) to convey not the "ay" sound but the "uh", the half-vowel that comes at the end of many Sanskritic names? Yet that only reaffirms my point: spellings vary for assorted reasons, so do people's fates, but a correlation would be impossible to find. Do Naidus, Nayudus and Naidoos enjoy different kinds of divine benediction? And what about those Bengalis who spell their common name Mukherjee, Mukherji, Mukherjea, Mookerjee and even Mukherjei, because the Brits couldn't wrap their tongues around Mukhopadhyaya?

Spelling, in other words, cannot disguise, let alone alter, the essential nature of the thing itself — the person, the name, the title, the book, the film so labelled.

A couple of flops for Raakesh Roshan?

A couple of flops for Raakesh Roshan?  

As Gertrude Stein so memorably put it, a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, whatever else you choose to call it, and Shakespeare beat her to it by famously asking whether a rose by any other name wouldn't smell as sweet. Bollywood might hope that a different spelling on the marquee would alter an actress' fortunes, but would it matter whether a woman was Priti, Preeti, Preety or even Preity as long as she was pretty?

Of course not. But nonetheless, we are all wedded to our own spellings — to the ways in which we are used to seeing our own names written down.

So may I request those of my Indian correspondents who are nonchalant about spellings to please stop addressing me as ``Sasi Tarur"?

SHASHI THAROOR

Shashi Tharoor is the author, most recently, of the new novel Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com