During one of my visits to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), I saw a beautiful mansion named Xanadu. Pondering over the unusual name, I asked myself how people chose names for their homes. It was Coleridge, the poet, who made the word popular in his poem on emperor Kubla Khan, who built a “pleasure dome” in Xanadu. In Chinese history, Xanadu, which should rightly be Shangdu, was the summer capital of Kubla Khan’s Yuan dynasty.
The name has been adopted by the hospitality industry. There are hotels and resorts bearing that name in several countries. Puri in India has a Xanadu Garden restaurant. In Ranikhet, there is Xanadu Retreat, in the lap of the Himalayas, an ideal spot for relaxing, far from the hectic life of the metropolis. In its advertisements, the resort boasts of its Colonial English style. In Kerala, Xanadu is the official residence of a minister of the state government. That leaves people wondering how a house in Kerala came to have the same name as Mandrake the Magician’s house.
A French word that originated in Germany and then spread out is sans souci, “without a care”. It refers to the palace built by Frederick the Great of Prussia, as a retreat into tranquillity from the uneasy life of the court. The name spread in India during the days of the Raj. Sans Souci in Mumbai (then Bombay) was the venue of banquets and balls given by English nobility for their compatriots. Reports say that the ball at Sans Souci in 1873 “was the most gorgeous and brilliant ever given there.” In Kolkata, there was the Sans Souci theatre, where English troupes presented Shakespearean plays. In 1848, the theatre presented Othello, with a Bengali actor, Vaishnav Charan Addy, appearing as Othello.
Allan Sealy brought back Sans Souci into currency in his novel, Trotter-Nama (1988). The Great Trotter, who owned a vast tract of land near Naklau (read Lucknow), built his family home there in grand style with vast courtyards and towers. He named it Sans Souci.
Atrium is another word used by real estate developers for their projects. It originally stood for the central hall in ancient Roman homes, open to the sky, with a pool for the collection of rainwater. Because of the smoke that escaped up through the opening, that part of the house turned black. Atrium was formed from the root ater, meaning black. Other rooms led away from the atrium. In modern times, the atrium is a spacious central hall which extends upwards through several floors and has a glass roof to admit light. Such halls are found in modern commercial buildings such as hotels, malls and corporate offices. The hall is elaborately decorated with lights, plants and pieces of sculpture. The Ramprastha group has launched a major residential project named Atrium in Gurgaon. There are Atrium residential complexes in Kochi and Chennai, too.
What about Indian names for Indian houses? If you walk around in the middle-class areas of your town, you will see houses with names such as Lakshmi Nivas (instead of nivas, you can find vihar, sadan, vilas, or bhavan.) A fairly common practice is to choose the name of a member of the family, the mother or the child or the wife, and add one of these prefixes to make up a name. There are also names adopted from Indian legend. Names such as Brindavan, Mithila, Avanti, Dwaraka, Ajanta, Kailash, Rambagh and Gurukrupa are popular.
Still the lure of English names continues. Names of flowers and names of precious stones, such as daffodil and amethyst, have been adopted by builders as names for their projects. Nitesh Estates in Bangalore has launched projects with names such as Wimbledon Park, Buckingham Gate, and Hyde Park. It has adopted some American names too: Forest Hills, Columbus Square, and Central Park. You will find Flushing Meadows in Goa, Coimbatore and Bangalore. DLF has projects in Gurgaon with names such as Alameda, Belvedere and Belaire. The owners of these apartments seem pleased with the exotic touch given by these names.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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