Sunday, May 7, 2023

 Calling People Names

If there was one wrong thing the venerable bard of Stratford upon Avon ever uttered, it was that a rose would remain a rose whatever you call it, there being nothing in a name. For naming our ever loyal monkey god in an election address in Karnataka, Prime Minister Modi is facing a demand for apology. Congress spokesperson Surjewala will rest content only after the wounded faith and feelings of Hanuman devotees are duly assuaged. 

Surjewala is no ignoramus. He knows Hanuman’s superhuman or sub-human qualities of head and heart: piety, commitment, loyalty and, if you like, some incendiary and investigative tendencies. The mighty monkey had the presence of mind to upload a whole hill  to take out a life-saving herb whose name he had forgotten. When he was tied up and prepared for live cremation, he broke out of captivity and comprehensively torched his captors.

Watch out, it is risky to play around with names. Surjewala’s big boss knows that as well as anyone else. The boss knows too. He is required to explain in court after court, from Surat to Patna, how he took Modi’s name in a manner some thought was bad naming. The word for it in Hindi heartland is appropriate: badnaam. Rahul’s father had made a faux pas too when he called a garrulous senior lawyer  not a monkey but by a canine name. Duly incensed, Rajiv’s verbal victim resorted to an interrogative response, asking every day of the ensuing month ten questions that would trap the respondent either way, affirmatively or dismissively. 

So it is not wise to play around with a monkey’s name. No naked ape, whom Desmond Morris identifies as our early ancestor, may like to be called that, ape, naked or dressed.

Ape is an epithet of condescension, abject abuse. I am not too proud of my tribe’s tendency to vilify people for no fault of theirs. In our lexicon of abuse, what is viewed as the harshest is sex-related. Suitably described, genital organs yield good results, infuriating their objects. One may not mind being accused of felony or theft but one would not like to be called a bastard. One may not like being called bald or ugly but one would not put up with an ape-related accusation. Don’t call one by one’s racial name. 

Surjewala seems to know all the attributes of Hanuman. As a boy, when sleep was elusive or an irrational fear coursed through my veins, I used to recite Hanuman’s ten names: Sri Hanuman Anjana suno, Vayuputro Mahabala… My hope was that the redoubtable monkey would calm me  down and hoist me on the wings of sleep  and dream. I am not sure it worked any better than a compulsory chanting of the thousand names of the supreme goddess: Sri Mata Sri Maharajni Srimad Simhasaneswari. Naming, name chanting, that is, is no mean feat, as the Congress spokesperson may helpfully endorse. 

Thiruvananthapuram, where I live, has two giant monkeys installed on divine platforms with sundry minor deities sharing a berth with him in his hallowed premises. How they came to grab such good space near the legislature complex and the military station may be of historical interest. But they evidently generate enough funds to maintain themselves and their managers. In Suchindram, close to Kanyakumari, where K K Pillai made a seminal study of temple architecture, there is an imposing statue of Anjaneya who is pleased when he is offered a garland of vada. Little round southern snacks with a growing hole in the middle. Mind you,  I can vouch for the crispness of this well-fried delicacy. 

Hanuman can work wonders if you keep him on your side. I have grown up with stories of our legendary village sorcerer, Appu Paniker, befriending both the monkey god and the goddess and using his divine influence to strike terror or, as the case may be, calm in the deepening rural darkness. Paniker was said to have spent forty-one nights in breast-deep water in absolute seclusion seeking the benediction of Hanuman and Devi. The eerie penance, throughout  which the thousand names of the deities were chanted under a whisper, rendered Paniker capable of mind-boggling feats. My mother took me to him once to heal my migraine-like headache but Paniker’s potion gave no more than an imagined cure. 

The monkey god was one whose name was considered for my son when he was born. I shouted my preference for a non-divine name but one that would not be comic. It was a million dollar search,  patently futile, because there was no name that a god or goddess claimed as theirs. That solved, three years later, the problem of finding my daughter’s name as well. There was no escape from gods when you look for names or namelessness. I felt,  as Wittgenstein said, I was growing stupider and stupider every day. 

So monkey is a monkey is a monkey. You imbibe his sacrament, delicious vada, place an appropriate garland round his neck, chant his fear-removing, sleep-inducing names with buoyant hopes, right or wrong. But you don’t call a monkey a monkey, as Surjewala and his boss must have discovered, no less than Narendra Modi. That there was nothing in a name was an error made by our myriad-minded poet. If he were around when an African tyrant was ruling the roost, he would have had a hearty laugh, sparing himself the agony of a Hamlet or Iago.

The tyrant had been given an unusual name, Canaan Banana. Some miscreants who could not make sense of his dictatorial name, who found no fun or fervour in it, began bandying it about, liberally, indiscriminately. Though a tyrant, Banana had not been drained of all his sense of humour and indignation. The insinuation triggered by the anonymous crowds of miscreants was not lost on him. He banned his own name.      .