What’s in a name? What’s in a set of initials?

RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: I don’t know Usha K.R.. I have never met Usha K.R.. I didn’t go to St. Xavier’s college in Calcutta with Usha K.R.. I do not work at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore with Usha K.R.. I have not read a single book by Usha K.R..

But, by god, am I glad that A Girl and A River by Usha K.R. has won the Vodafone-Crossword Award 2007 for best book of the year in the English language fiction category!?

There are a bunch of reasons why I could be glad that the prize went to Usha K.R..

For starters, I gather it is a book about the protagonist’s search for her roots, in pre-independence times, in Karnataka. For another, she apparently weaves in Kannada words like chapdi kal and tutus of mosaranna. And many reviewers think there are shades of R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao in the writing of Usha K.R..

If it’s good for them, it’s good for me.

Heck, no, I am not glad that Usha K.R. won the award for those lofty, literary reasons, it’s for something more simple: I am glad because she won it in spite of her name being Usha K.R..

Think about it.

How often do you see an Indian writer with initials make it big in recent times, and a South Indian at that?

All our English authors have short, sexy, staccato names with a clear first name and a clear last name as if they were brand-ambassaors for credit card ads—Salman Rushdie or Suketu MehtaArundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Nagarkar or Girish Karnad.

But namma Usha K.R. is different.

She is one of us, a South Indian with a name and a set of initials which probably denote her father’s first name and the ancestral place of birth. And who probably hits a nice little writer’s block when she has to fill up forms which have those daunting blanks for first name, last name, surname and middle name like the rest of us.

To be sure, we have had South Indian English writers with initials who have made it big before, R.K. Narayan and K. Raja Rao for sure, but also O.V. Vijayan and U.R. Anantha Murthy, M.N. Srinivas and H.Y. Sharada Prasad. And a few who did not write: M.S. Subbulaxmi and D.K. PattammalB.K.S. Iyengar and V.K.R.V. Rao, G.R Viswanath and B.S. Chandrashekhar.

But it all seems so long ago before the revenge of short names. Now, it all seems as if a set of initials in your name is a bad idea, a hurdle placed by your parents in the path to success/ recognition.

Our best industrialists (Mukesh Ambani, Sunil Mittal), sociologists (Ashis Nandy, Ram Guha), TV anchors (Pronnoy Roy, Barkha Dutt), cricketers (Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid), actors (Aishwarya Rai or Madhuri Dixit), models (Diana Hayden, Gul Panag) all seem cut from the same double-barrel name-generator.

When Mahendra Singh Dhoni says Yem. Yes. Dhoni in that Pepsi ad, it almost seems like a slur. And all those who cannot say Vangipurappu Venkata Sai call Laxman Very Very Special.

It may not mean much to Usha K.R. or to the judges (whose names, tellingly but not surprisingly, were Mukul Kesavan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Kai Friese) or to the fans of Indian Writing in English

But one small literary step for Usha K.R. is a giant mental leap for South Indians weighed down by the length and contortions of their names. She has won a top award in spite of the initials (praise be to the judges)—and she wears a cute little bindi to boot.

That, and those gorgeous cheek bones. 

(Ramya Krishnamurthy was Ramya K.S. before tying the knot)

Photograph: courtesy K. Bhagya Prakash/ The Hindu

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37 Responses to “What’s in a name? What’s in a set of initials?”

  1. Not A Witty Nick Says:

    Point noted. Cool observation!

  2. Shravan Says:

    Yes, I hate those first name second name spaces. We from the south just love our initials and that is how people should let it be!

  3. Mysore Peshva Says:

    So why does Churumuri have only two contributors with initials??
    (E.R. Ramachandran and Ashvini A.)

  4. Aatmasakshi Says:

    As a South Indian, I always knew I was committing some subliminal sin by having an extra ‘A’ in my screen name. In deference to Ramya K.S. and Usha K.R., I shall for the purposes of this article like to sign off this comment as “A. Atmasakshi”.

  5. Doddi Buddi Says:

    SoulTruth!

    I would go one step further and suggest you should go by A.SSoulTruth:) How about that?

  6. oochara Says:

    We south Indians might as well not have initials.

    When you can have it, why not expand it? I think it talks so much about our heritage, culture, ancestors, village, caste. And i think it is the best way to bring in the kannada pronunciation out and teach.

    The author is not clear why she doesnt want to have it. Is it because she loathes to reveal herself more than her name or is it because she just likes the South Indian way?

    If it is the latter I deride the jingoism, while the former is very subjective.

  7. tarlesubba Says:

    what about the rest of us bellads, tuppads, vaNakudris, harkols and shirkols and kabbins, hurkaDlis, joLLads, meNsins, uLLagaDDis, moolimanis, myalinmanis, hosmanis and haLebhavis and dhotrads and vastrads and further east pillalamarris and vedulas and chapulas and inapakanThis and so on…

    where do we figure in this brave new south india of ours?

  8. M.K.Raghunandan Says:

    This article sounds a lot like nomenclature jingoism. I think without bringing regional pride etc. into the equation it would be easier if we all just adopted a standard system (a la Nokia’s GSM technology in Europe). It saves a ton of effort for everyone when names come in a standard format and I believe that the Firstname Lastname format is very useful, especially by promoting uniqueness in search terms on the internet and on forms of all sorts. It has a great tagging and linking mechanism, with the Lastname playing the part of a link between people. If you think of this as a economic problem, I feel the solution would not favour south indians.

    — Raghunandan M. Kainkaryam

  9. Alok Says:

    It also leaves with the embarassing situation of being known by our initials and the even greater embarassment of being called your Dad’s name in front of your Dad by North Indians who know no better…

  10. sanjay Says:

    I can commesurate with this.
    I had the standard initials and first name till I went to the US and started using the first name middle name last name format.
    Unfortunately my PAN card is in the old format and when I tried to open a PIS account recently it was a real hassle trying to prove I was the same person ( my current IDs all from the US do not match the itials and first name used on the PAN card)

  11. Madhu Rao Says:

    Agree with oochara. What’s wrong in expanding initials when it brings more exposure to your roots ?

    Per a line or two that mentions Usha’s writing being in the same mould as R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao, I would have loved it if we went beyond her initials and dwelt on her writing – style.

    If people with initials have been discriminated, should we not ensure we do not do the opposite ? Feel elated just because a person with initials won ?
    Looks like the judges, despite being by products of the ‘double-barrel name-generator’ did just fine to not let that or the initials hamper their appreciation of Usha’s work.

  12. H.R.Bapu Satyanarayana Says:

    Yes, intials or lack of it lands us in any number of troubles. I have experienced this in USA where they want first name, last name and middle name and everytime it gets confused and if you do not have any initials it creates a problem for you have to split it. Anyway, we are veering off course and the point is it is her third novel and she writes superbly. we had discussed about the novel when she came to our place and her speciality is history. We can expect more from her for she is brimming with talent.

  13. Prateek Ambs Says:

    Not sure what is all this hoopla about initials..

    R.K.Narayan – hello??

  14. Janasamanya Says:

    Having initials gives the person a kind of mysterious touch! It makes people think what are those stand for! But for convenience sake, one should have his personal (first) name followed by surname, whatever it is, caste, family name, house name, father’s name, husband’s name etc.

  15. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Dear All,

    I would like to suspend my judgement till I read the book. Shades of ole RKN, I am not impressed…Raja Rao is alright.

    Also I don’t know any of these judges! Mukul Kesavan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Kai Friese. I remember spending exactly 9 seconds on some column written by Manjula P. which was bloody awful and extremely pedestrian in nature. I thought this lady should not be writing in english and here she is judging in english! Wow!

  16. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Just a sideshow on that gorgeous high cheekbones remark…I thought TS would be going, “”And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
    Jesus loves you more than you will know
    God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson”

  17. Yella Ok Says:

    I am sure there are other reasons to be proud of rather than the name being usha KR. Feel sad for Ramya KS that she found no other reason. Would have been atleast better if she had read the book and had a couple of intelligent things to say about the same.

    But Ms. Usha KR – dont worry am sure there are good enough reasons that you won the book. Maybe someone will talk about it. I, on my part, will try to buy the book and read it.

  18. Dr. Sree Reddy Says:

    @Yella Ok
    I agree with you.

    She should have read the book and given some comments intelligent or otherwise.

    @tarlesubba
    Many people from Northern parts of Karnataka have expanded family names. They are left out in the discourse of Ramya KS(Krishnamoorthy)

    Many people in southern Karnataka too have family names.
    I am from Bengaluuru district, my mother still uses her maiden name in the order: village name, father’s name and her own name and refuses to use her husband’s(my father) name. By mistake if my father attaches his name to my mother’s name, she gets very annoyed (mahabharata yuddha) and says she is born this and this so shall remain so and insists she has her own roots and identity!!.

    I will be happy to see south indians with or without initials. doesn’t make a difference.

  19. Gaby Says:

    I just found out from this post that our ‘ BEST’ industrialists are Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal and ‘ BEST’ models are Diana Hayden and Gul Panag among other BESTs !!!!?? All I can say is WOW for ourselves:)

  20. prajwalpai Says:

    I think this is just a post for post sake! With the whole book to read, you are only commenting on the Initials of the name of the author. Well, People are just being proud of their name and letting others knwo their full name!

    Also, Its just Convenience , Let me correct you, ITs Sachin R(amesh) Tendulkar, You can call him S.R.Tendulkar, and Its Rahul Sharad Dravid or you can call him R.S.Dravid or even Rahul S.D. Just because you just know his first and last name didnt change any fact about him. Its not the name we should talk about, Its the personality that should matter.
    Its Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani ( Mukesh DA ) and Sunil Bharti Mittal( Sunil BM) , Its was Madhuri Shankar Dixit and the list goes on.

    Ignorance is bliss!

  21. Not A Witty Nick Says:

    prajwalpai, you missed the idea. biT haak!

    I remember reading a cool post about south Indian names by a cool mallu…

    yeah… got it! Here it is: http://sidin.blogspot.com/2004/05/travails-of-single-south-indian-men-of.html

  22. Yella Ok Says:

    Ramya KS – Shouldn’t the kannada words be written chapPAdi kalLU and THUTHUS of mosaranna (I know writing the thu with a vothakshara is diffiult – but thuthu is any day better than tutu, isnt it?)

    The vowels are such an important part of kannada – ignoring it while writing in English takes away the charm of the language (kannada i.e.)

  23. tarlesubba Says:

    in high school, my class had two girls with the same name – rohiNi v. so the class teacher re-christened them v1 and v2. that changed their stars and sealed their fate for ever. for all 3 years in high school and beyond that they were known as v1 and v2.

  24. Faldo Says:

    We had two Manjulas with the same initials in my class and the teacher resolved the ‘naming’ issue by calling them chikka -M and dodda – M.

    On the same note another incident comes to mind. A friend of mine was being paged at an airport by the gate agent but did not realise it because (a) he was unused to have his initials expanded and (b) his family (town) name along with his father’s was being split up into nice little words in a wonderful accent.

  25. sanjay Says:

    Anyone know how this habit of using initials started. Tracing my own family’tree in mysuru I find that my great granfather bron in 1880 did not use initials neither did his parents or his grandparents. However my grandfather born in 1906 did and it has persisted since. Ditto on my maternal lineage. Is this some practice the British started in the twentieth century? Did the British have different rules to standardize names in Madras presidency? North Karnatak was under the Bombay presdiency and hence probably the different system? Or maybe i am just imagining??

  26. Faldo Says:

    @Sanjay – Interesting theory but Mysore state was not under Madras Presidency so there could be a other reasons for this as well.

    Talking about initials, even though the first name/ last name system is convenient in some cases, the system of initials followed by the person’s own name defines the individual for what he is and not by what his family, town, village, caste, ancestor or father is named. I was told by somebody (unverified) that in the early part of the last century there was a drive by educated youth of the time to remove caste and in some cases family names from their records. Not sure if that has anything to do with this practice.

  27. Dr. Sree Reddy Says:

    @sanjay

    My paternal grand father was from the Madras presidency and did use family names and titles. and my maternal grand father came from Mysore state also had family names and titles.
    Their garndfathers also had family names and titles. Though women did not use titles but used family names.
    Tiltes were an indication of class and sometimes family names also derivatives of some economic/social status.

  28. armugam Says:

    usha’s has matured as a writer with her third novel. she deserved better appreciation than this trivial trash.

  29. Shamanthakamani Says:

    Wow. What a profound post!

  30. Subbulakshmi Says:

    Hello… i just take a break and come back and see what comments I read on K R Usha!? Ramya Krishna dont take pride in ” I have not read a single book by Usha K.R.” go read before making such silly observations…

  31. Meera Says:

    Speaking of initials (& not about the book, since that is what this thread is debating)…
    It may come from our heritage, village, and what not. But time to remove the politically incorrect parts – ditch the caste et al.

    BTW, why do the initials usually come only from the father’s side??
    Of course there are occasional exceptions from matrilineal communities – who also have started changing to match currently accepted first name-surname format)

    Why not use initials from both parents? I have a friend called L.S Aravinda (who has used her parent’s first names).

  32. Pulikeshi the Last Says:

    What a beautiful woman! Her initials don’t matter.

  33. GuGoRaKu Says:

    Isn’t there a reservation for us “differently named” folks?

    G G Rajendra Kumar

  34. tarlesubba Says:

    subbakka, yall hogiddi? bikO antitt noD.

    meera why drop caste name? more important to drop th eproblemtic attitude no? symbolic name inda yen problem?

    hunter, fisher, smith, shearer, taylor ….

  35. ankitabhattacharya Says:

    She is a great Person. I like her books and the best part is her book ‘A Girl and a River’ is now nominated among the best 5 books for the Goldenquill award organised by Indiaplaza. She is one among the great Indian authors who is nominated for this award. You can find more details at http://www.indiaplaza.in/Goldenquillaward/. I think she is one among the best.

  36. samaira Says:

    Actually I’m glad it won that award too. I really liked her book. Hope she gets the next award too. Indiaplaza Golden Quill. Here’s to Usha. May you write many many more books like that!…Cheers!!!!

  37. Krishna Says:

    It is an interesting commentary on USHA K.R. , A STRIKING WOMAN, BUT WHAT DOES THE BOOK SAY?
    I came to the site by accident, googling fo Chappady, where my mother grew up 100 years ago.
    South Indian names are long when the initials are expande, mine was PRAthivadhi Bayabkaram, mouthful for any Westerner.

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