By Viswanath Gurram
What’s in a Name? Said the great Bard of Avon.
But believe me, for a young writer who still has his work cut out for him, the name seems Everything. He wishes to write under a name that would fill the reader’s mouth with just the right sensation and the reader’s mind with just the right pleasantness. Our writer looks high and low, and comes up with the most interesting inventions. Lo!
H. H. Munro reads Rubaiyatand adopts the name Saki, Morris West transforms into Michael East, Edith Mary Pargeter surfaces as Ellis Peters and Samuel Langhorne Clemens becomes the amazing Mark Twain, the creator of our childhood friends Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. He is feted by society as ‘the Belle of New York’!‘Fame is a vapour; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion‘, wrote Twain, but he was proved mistaken. He wasn’t meant for oblivion.Early in my writing career I decided to take on a pseudonym. It seemed the most appropriate thing to do! Almost all those beloved writers who lined my bookshelves had taken on a pseudonym at some point in their lives – George Eliot, whose Middlemarch was one of the literary joys I had discovered in my early teens; Alpha of the Plough, my wonderful, constant companion; Mary Westmacott, who gave me such great portions of Giant’s Bread – oh, the list goes on!The varying reasons for taking on a pen name make a very interesting story in themselves. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot to be accepted as a literary force in the male dominated nineteenth century England. And heavens, did she succeed! The best part of the story is that she was recognised and appreciated as a female author in her own lifetime.So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world .Indeed has George Eliot bestowed on mankind some happy music, and is a glorious member of that invisible choir.Alfred G. Gardiner became Alpha of the Plough on the peremptory demand of the editor of The Star, who gave him a ‘whole firmament’ from which to choose a name. And this delightful essayist looks up at the night skies and ‘hitches his little waggon’ to the head star of that glorious constellation, the Great Bear, also called through the centuries: Charlie’s Wain, the Chariot of David, the Dipper and the Plough.Agatha Christie was so renowned for her mystery novels that she felt restrained from experimenting in any other genre under that name. And thus was Mary Westmacott born, who painted Landscapes of Loves and Regrets with that marvellously sure touch that her alter displayed in crime fiction. I strongly feel that Mary was overshadowed by Agatha, and I claim to this day that ‘Absent in the Spring’ deserves as much an honour as did ‘Murder of Roger Ackroyd.’And then of course, there’s that Mistress of Historical Romance, Eleanor Alice Hibbert, who became Victoria Holt (‘Kirkland Revels’), Philippa Carr (‘Daughters of England’) and Jean Plaidy (‘The Princess of Celle’), just to fine tune the distinction between her abundant Romantic Novels. One wrote pure Period Fiction, the other wrote Historical Novels with a Strong Helping of Fiction, and the third attempted a Purer Historical Literature. It is to her credit that she sold remarkably well under all her three aliases. Well, it is a world full of romantic people, isn’t it? And romance shall flourish till the end of time, for,Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs,
And love is love, in beggars as in kingsIn those days and even now, Urdu poetry has had an intoxicating effect on me. The language itself is like pomegranate juice – rich and red and tangy, it is the language of passion and love. And in Urdu poems, the takhallus (the pseudonym)plays a vital role. The poets choose names that are particularly descriptive of their emotions. The last couplet of a ghazal, called the makta, contains the pen name of the artist embedded in the verse, a sort of a proud signature, a jewel in the clasp. Bahadur Shah, the last descendant of Tamerlane and the last Emperor of Delhi, was a phenomenal poet who wrote under the name Zafar . The British had then conquered almost all of India and in 1857 had banished Zafar to Burma where he died remembering the motherland to his last breath.hai kitana badanasiib Zafar dafn ke liye
do gaz zamiin bhii na milii ku-E–yaar mein(How hapless is Zafar, for his burial he couldn’t get
Even two yards of earth in his beloved native land)This practice of the Urdu poets influenced other Indian writers as well, and among that pantheon we have the fine Hindi poet Shiv Mangal Singh, writing under the entirely befitting name Suman (Flower). His poems are simple and smooth, and they were a sweet part of my green years.kaise chal paata yadi na mila hota mujhko aakul antar?
kaise chal paata yadi miltE, chir-trupti, amarta poorn prahar
aabhari hoon main un sab ka de gayE vyatha ka jo prasad
jis – jis se path par sneh mila, us – us rahi ko dhanyavad .
(How could I’ve moved ahead on my path, had I not a spirit dissatisfied
I wouldn’t have moved at all, had I boundless joys, immortal dawns
I am beholden to all who’ve gifted me heartache
I am thankful to all who’ve befriended me; on my wayfaring path…)While I was neither seeking anonymity like Acton Bellnor was I trying to distinguish between genres (I did not even have a genre to boast of, and my whimsical literature, my friends point out kindly, definitely does not fit into any), I just was entranced by the allure of the Pseudonym. All my repressed dramatic instincts came to fore as I forayed into the Land of Names to choose a Persona for myself. Whatever mask I put on that day, perhaps I once was that mask itself, somewhere in the centuries past…Ipse ego (nam memini) Troiani tempore belli
Panthoides Euphorbus eram(I can declare, for I remember well,
that in the days of the great Trojan War,
I was Euphorbus, son of Pantheus…)I sat on the porch steps gazing at the evening skies, orange and dust laden. The scent of jasmines was strong; it was the height of summer in Hyderabad, that wonderful Indian city where most people are either poets themselves or read poetry the way the rest of the world reads the daily newspaper – as a matter of absolute necessity! I remember well that day when I was going home from Alliance Francaise in an auto-rickshaw, loudly practising the pronunciation of the French verb ‘boire‘ and its past participle, trying to produce the proper throaty sounds. I was totally oblivious to the fact that I must have first confused and then irritated the poor driver with my concerted efforts at getting ‘bu‘ just right! And then came the Gentle Blow! The driver sang a couplet of Ghalib, the master of Urdu poetry, in a casual monotone. I quote the original, and translate it for you, dear reader:imaaN mujhe roke hai jo khiNche hai mujhe kufr
ka’aba mere peeche hai kaleesa mere aage(My impiety pulls me hard while my honour holds me in check
The pub lies behind me and the cathedral lies ahead)Sitting in the back seat, I got the message, though it was devious. Poor man, how he would have loved to be impious and tell me to zip it! Suffice it to say I was contritely silent for the rest of the way home.But I digress. Where was I? I was sitting on the porch steps, trying to find a name for myself. My diary was open on my lap and my Camlin fountain pen was uncapped and ready. I wrote:Art GardenI do remember thinking then that it was a pleasantly comforting name. The second on the list was Meeth Mitra, which I thought delightfully redundant, since both words meant ‘friend’ in Hindi.My good friend G_, who joined me on the steps at this point, laughed outright at my first two inventions and without actually explaining why, pronounced them both ‘unsuitable’. My little grey cells produced further nomenclature, which I list below, along with the enlightening comments made by my well-meaning friend.OmkarNath (the Master of ‘Om’, the yogic word) – ‘too sanctimonious’
Percy Marvell – ‘ridiculously obvious that I was stuck on Shelley and Andrew Marvell’
KamalKanth (the King of the Lotus) – ‘sickeningly romantic’And thus we went on, till the sun had fully set. I went to bed, without having created an alter-personality and feeling quite shadowless and disappointed. All these years later, and many deeper frustrations later, I look back upon those days of youth and its inconsequentialities with unbecomingly sweet nostalgia. Those were the days that held so much promise, and they went by ever so swiftly. Yes indeed,I have seen priestesses of Life go by
Gliding in samite through the incense-sea…I discovered that selecting a name for myself was as difficult as picking a title for one of my poems or stories. Nothing ever seems right! I find myself reverting, like most writers, to the likes of John Donne, Walter Savage Landor and Shakespeare, seeking apt phrases from their works to entitle my literary efforts. Colin Dexter had to resort to Gillian Cooper for a classic title for one of his Inspector Morse books:Espied the God with gloomy soul
The prize that in the casket lay
Came with silent tread and stole
The jewel that was ours awayHe could well have called the novel ‘Death of A Daughter’. But then there would not have been that poignant sense of loss that the reader feels so deeply when he reads the words – ‘The Jewel That Was Ours’, which was the phrase the author wisely chose for the title.One fine day I sent in a poem to a biweekly magazine, under the name of Gangadhar (the Lord of the Hills from whose coils of hair flows the mighty river Ganga). I was particularly fond of that name and I adopted it without the consent of my friend – actually I never apprised him of my assumption of that pseudonym. Just as well, since my poem was returned, with a Kind Letter of Regret; and I dropped my alias, with a Heavy Sigh of Regret.I knew well that the quality of my literature and people’s response to it was most surely unaffected by the pen name I used; but I was young, and quite insanely superstitious, and thus I am still on earth, years later, writing under my own name.Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in mePerhaps it’s time to be adventurous, kind reader, and bravely tackle all my aspirations! I therefore remain, your friend Gangadhar.Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ Act 2, Scene 2Omar Khaiyyam’s poetic masterpiece, translated by FitzgeraldUrdu: Cup-bearer/Page/BelovedMark Twain’s ‘Notebook’George Eliot’s ‘The Choir Invisible’A. G. Gardiner’s essay:’ On Names’ from the book ‘Pebbles on the Shore’Sir Edward Dyer’s ‘Even the Lowest Trees Have Tops…’Urdu: Victory/TriumphSuman’s ‘Aabhar’ (Gratitude)The pseudonym of Anne Bronte, who wrote ‘Agnes Grey’Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses‘, xv 160Vachel Lindsay’s ‘The Argument’Shakespeare’s ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’, Act 5, Scene 2 About the Author:Viswanath Gurram is a poet and a writer who spent his formative years in the multicultural milieu of Hyderabad, India. He is fascinated by the little incidents that arise in people’s everyday life, and aspires to capture them in stories and poems. He currently shuttles between United States and Canada undertaking human resources work, which provides him greater insights into the human psyche. Some of his poetry can be perused at http://www.chesterfieldian.blogspot.com/. A collection of his short stories is available as a Kindle book at: https://www.amazon.com/s?field-keywords=viswanath+gurram