As a boy in Class 3 or maybe 4, Pranab Mukherjee, on rainy mornings, would bundle his clothes in paper, tuck them under an arm and march off to school bare feet through the fields of his village in West Bengal. It was perhaps because the schoolboy’s mannerisms resembled that of a marching platoon (‘polton’ in Bengali), that India’s outgoing president came to be fondly known as ‘Poltu’.
“His father and elder sister Annapurna Devi started calling him Poltu,” recalls journalist and long time friend Jayanta Ghosal, who has known Mukherjee since 1985. As India elects a new president today to replace Mukherjee, the Poltu story is one that will strike a chord with families across the country.
While nicknames are common the world over, Indians have a special fondness for them. And Bengalis, in particular, love their pet names, or daak-naam.
Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, was fondly called Robi, Satyajit Ray was widely known as Manik or Manik-da, while Bengali superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee is called Bumba. The late West Bengal chief minister, Siddharth Shankar Ray — said to be one of the architects of the Emergency — was called Manu.
For most Indians, choosing what’s called a “proper name” is an elaborate process, involving many hours of discussions and weeks of thumbing through the pages of name books to analyse meaning and provenance of each suggestion. In some cases, numerology and astrology are called into play to ensure that the name is propitious. In contrast, nicknames are usually spontaneous and fun, referencing an incident, a place, or a much loved thing.
The easiest and obvious thing to do for most people is to abbreviate an individual’s proper name, says Kamna Chibber, head of Mental Health at Fortis Healthcare.
So, Manish becomes Monu and Pooja becomes Pooh. “Nicknames are a representation of affection. Choices of nicknames tend to vary with people as different factors are taken into account when settling on a nickname,” Chibber told PTI.
Many names have a back story.
Bollywood actress Karisma Kapoor, for instance, is known as Lolo by friends, family – and gossip columnists – apparently after her mother’s favourite, Italian star Gina Lollobrigida.
Her uncle, actor Rishi Kapoor, is called Chintu, and that is an interesting tale too. He revealed in an interview that Chintu came from a poem his elder brother Randhir had recited at school — “Chote Se Chintu Miya, Lambi Si Pooch… Jaha Jaye Chintu Miya, Waha”.
Chintu it was, and Chintu it still is. Then, there’s former cricketer Rahul Dravid who was affectionately named “Jammy” by friends and colleagues, because his father worked in the Kissan Jam factory.
But nicknames are not always about warmth and affection, they can often be cruel too.
Many indigenous names, says sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, are often based on a person’s physical or mental attributes — colour and body shape.
“We name people after their physical disabilities, which they might not necessarily want to be named after,” Delhi-based Srivastava told PTI.
Many, particularly during the growing up years in school, have had the misfortune of being called ‘Haddi’ or ‘Beedi’ for having a lean body type. While the body type might change over the years, the nickname stays on!
Sonam Kapoor is apparently called giraffe by her father for being tall. Bipasha Basu was named Bonnie, because she was round and plump as a baby.
It is disturbing to note how certain choices for nicknames, particularly those that take after a certain flaw of an individual, indicate the “harshness of the Indian society”, says Srivastava.
A Delhi resident recalls the story that her house-help told her about her nickname. She was called China, which surprised her employer, till she heard the tale behind the name.
“My parents called me China, or Chai-na, which in Bengali means ‘We don’t want’. I was another girl child born to them, and they wanted a son,” she told the employer.
An increasing trend of “westernised” names among Indians, with a Bobby or a Dolly in almost every household, particularly in Northern India is evident, Srivastava adds.
So yes, there is plenty in a name, notwithstanding what Shakespeare said.