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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Living up to a name
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Living up to a name

Living up to a name

Namesake: ‘Jawahar’ is Arabic for jewel, a name Nehru shared with Gandhi’s Khilafat movement ally, Mohammad Ali Jauhar. Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images.Premium

Namesake: ‘Jawahar’ is Arabic for jewel, a name Nehru shared with Gandhi’s Khilafat movement ally, Mohammad Ali Jauhar. Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images.

In Gujarati, the Tata logo is spelled with a soft T, like the one we use in tara, though we say Tata with the hard T. Which is correct? The truth is that Tata is actually misspoken now. The name was modified to make it Anglicized, though the Gujarati spelling was retained because it was original. The other famous industrial name to be mispronounced is Ambani. We use the soft N for Ambani. But Gujaratis know the name with its rolled N used in the word for atomic, parmanu. To complete our trio of mispronounced industrialists, we have the Birlas.

In her biography of G.D. Birla, Medha Kudaisya writes that the family was first called Baidh, then Behada, then Behadia, and finally Bedla/Birla. Old Marwaris still pronounce it Bidla. As prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote two letters to K.K. Birla in Hindi. One on 11 January 1999 addressed to “Priya Dr Birla", the other on 24 August 2001 addressed to “Priya Dr Bidla". We know that the Birlas use an R in English because of their firms’ names. But do they, like Tata did, retain the old spelling in the original Hindi, with a D? No.

In K.K. Birla’s autobiography is a photograph of G.P. Birla’s Padma Bhushan certificate. Here the name in Hindi is spelled with an R, and it is Birla in the way it is familiar to us. This transition of D to R is interesting.

Most Indians spell horse ghoda, but upper-class north Indians and Pakistanis use ghora. Why is this so?

The rolled D is a unique sound to India, and present in neither Sanskrit nor Perso-Arabic. In Hindi it is shown by modifying the letter D, by placing a dot under it. In Urdu, however, the rolled D is produced by modifying the letter R. This explains the spelling difference when the word is articulated in Roman, though the pronunciation is the same. They see an R when thinking of ghoda, while we see a D. Pakistani names with R are often misleading and should alert us to the way in which they are spoken. The Bhuttos’ ancestral village is near Ladkana, not Larkana.

My mentor in Surat, Badriprasad Benday, had a theory about names. He felt the label given to a man infused its value into his person.

Someone named Suraj, for instance, would be radiant. Benday thought the person’s natural personality was altered by his constant, though unconscious, living up to his name.

Let’s look at some names, and consider if their owners lived up to them. Jawahar is Arabic for jewel. Nehru shares his name with Gandhi’s comrade in the Khilafat movement, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, after whom Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road is named.

Namesake: ‘Jawahar’ is Arabic for jewel, a name Nehru shared with Gandhi’s Khilafat movement ally, Mohammad Ali Jauhar. Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images.

His daughter Indira Priyadarshini was named after Emperor Ashoka, who was called Priyadarshi because he was magnificent to behold. Ashoka means he who doesn’t grieve. But Ashoka’s most famous act was one of grief, after he slaughtered the Kalingan army and renounced violence.

Another thing that interests me about names is how the same one changes when used across cultures.

We saw how the Arabs substituted G for J. The Greeks had G but no J. See how the Biblical name John changes across Europe: Iohannes/Giovanni/Juan/Ivan/ Juha/Jens/Hans/Eoin/Iain/Ian/Jan/Yanni.

In Arabic the word for John is Yahya. This was the name of Ayub Khan’s successor, the man who presided over the partition of Pakistan in 1971.

The other Arabic name for John is Youhana. We are familiar with it because of Pakistani batsman Yousuf. He became Mohd Yousuf after converting to Islam from Christianity. But he needn’t have changed his name at all because John the Baptist is a revered figure in Islam as well.

Christianity’s other popular name is Peter. From this we get Peer/Pierre/Pyotr/ Pedro/Petr across Europe. Peter comes from the Greek word for rock, Petros. The Arabs don’t have “P" and so in Arabic Peter is Boutros, the first name of the former UN secretary general from Egypt.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was Coptic Christian by faith, which is why he was named after Peter the Apostle. One South Asian famous in the UN was Pakistan’s A.S. Bokhari. In 1958, The New York Times wrote in his obituary: “Occasionally we have been blessed with the presence of some individual, who could give human form to our abstractions. We have just lost such a person in the untimely death of Prof. Ahmed S. Bokhari, diplomat from Pakistan, who served as chief of information in the United Nations. He was, in the best sense, a citizen of the world."

The talented Bokhari was the first humourist of Urdu essay writing. He wrote under the name “Patras" Bohkhari, which also means Peter. At Partition, his brother Z.A. Bokhari was packed off as the first Indian director general of All India Radio by Vallabhbhai, apparently because he insisted everyone use a very Perso-Arabic form of Hindi.

Students of Arabic are taught that all its words have a root of three letters. For instance, the root s-j-d is to prostrate in prayer—sajda. From that we get the person who prays, Sajid and Sajida. We also get the place where we pray—masjid. The letter “m" in Arabic usually represents “that which" or “he who". For instance, mu-jahid is he who does jihad. President Obama’s name is Arabic not only because of his middle name Hussein but also his first name. Barack is the same word Indians use when we say “mu-barak ho".

To return to sajda, writer and former minister Rafiq Zakaria pointed out that the Quranic injunction was against Muslims prostrating to anyone but Allah.

Singing Vande Mataram was fine, he reasoned, because it only referred to bowing through vandan. I am always attracted to such pragmatism. Rafiq means friend, and he was a dear friend of mine, whom I miss. Zakaria was the father of famous journalist Fareed, only in his 20s when he commissioned Samuel Huntington to write The Clash of Civilizations.

The name Zakaria probably comes from the Arabic word for remembrance, dhikr, what Indians call zikr (to mention/remember). Arabs don’t use the clean Z sound always and that’s why our Ramzan is actually their Ramadan. Few Indians can pull off the lisped Arabic D. But this doesn’t stop Indian Muslims from trying to Arabicize themselves.

Instead of Khuda hafiz is now said Allah hafiz. This is because Khuda is Farsi and so not Islamic enough. Even hafiz is Farsi (as opposed to Arabic hafidh) but this word is not yet under assault.

Hafiz means protector, but also memorizer, from the word for memory, hafiza. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader Muhammad Saeed calls himself Hafiz because he claims to have memorized the Quran. Doing so “protected" it, from being corrupted or being lost, because the early Muslims were illiterate.

The first three Indian prime ministers all had Islamic names. Arabic Jawahar Lal, Farsi “Gulzari"lal and Turkic Lal “Bahadur". It strikes me that of the others we have had mainly Krishna-named prime ministers and no Ram. The Krishnas are Manmohan, Morarji Bhai (through Murar), while Atal Bihari evokes Krishna through Banke Bihari.

We have also had a Narasimha, two Shivas (Vishwanath and Chandra Shekhar) and one Indra (Gujral). If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won the last election, we would still have got Lal Krishna or Murli Manohar.

We await our Ram.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

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Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 24 Feb 2012, 09:17 PM IST
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