The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- How Serendip can affect the senses

The first piece I wrote for The Telegraph was about Sri Lanka, hereafter referred to as Ceylon. I visited it again last month. The first thing I noticed was that Colombo is much smaller than comparable Indian cities. Middle-level Indian cities contain more than a million people, some going on to two, three and four million. Colombo is still under a million. How did it manage that' For one thing, Ceylon itself is not all that populous; it has only about 20 million inhabitants. For another, the distinction between town and country is blurred in Ceylon, just like in Kerala. Ribbon development is rampant; settlements go on and on along roads out of cities. Except that in Kerala there seem to be no villages left; in Ceylon, cities do end.

The sprawling expanse of Indian cities, together with the Indians’ frenetic driving, means that one cannot explore the cities on foot. Admittedly, Indian drivers treat humans with the same respect as they do cows, and seldom kill pedestrians. But whereas Indian cows love hydrocarbon fumes and get high on them, I do not enjoy them. Whereas there is little pollution in Colombo — the sea breeze helps — and there are even pavements in a lot of the city.

There is not all that much to explore. But still, like Calcutta, Colombo has retained many of its fine colonial buildings. My favourite is Galle Face Hotel, which, if I remember right, was founded in 1854. Its waiters, in their colourful livery, used to look equally ancient and stately; but this time I found they had taken off their splendid uniforms and had become quite ordinary. Still, dining on the lawn with waves breaking on the rocks just below is one of my favourite pastimes.

Colonial in India means British; but the Ceylonese have a more diverse colonial heritage. Their courts are located in a Dutch building called Doofthoof or something equally weird. They used to have descendants of the Dutch called Burghers. I did not notice any in this trip; maybe they have flown off to Canada and Australia as have our Parsis and Anglo-Indians. Before the Dutch, the Ceylonese had Portuguese rulers. They could not pronounce Ceylonese names, so they gave them all Portuguese names like da Silva and Fernandez. An excellent idea: if the British had only thought of turning all Subrahmaniams into Sydenhams and Khandeparkers into Skippers, it would have saved independent India so much paper. They did turn Bandopadhyays into Banerjis. But the excellent reform did not stick; today, all the Laws and Shaws are gone.

Even though the British and the Portuguese are gone, their idea was good. It needs to be worked on and modernized. The purpose of a name is to distinguish between people. If people have the same name, the whole purpose of having a name is defeated. After I was named Ashok, so many parents took to the name and gave it to their sons. Today, every third criminal caught in Delhi is Ashok. This is intolerable for an original ruffian like me. Names ought to be patented, and their reuse without permission banned.

If it were banned, what would all the parents who today plump for Ashok and Subrahmaniam do' They would have to go to a centralized name registry and get a name that had not been used. Since all the names of the billion Indians have been used already, they would no longer be available. So new ones would have to be found. Maneka Gandhi would no doubt get on the job, and expand her book of names. But even if she neglects her cats and works day and night, I do not think she can cope. There are supposed to be 330 million gods and goddesses in the stomach of a cow. I do not know if their names are known. But even if they were, they would be insufficient for India’s population. What we need is not discovery, but invention.

Luckily, there is a simple solution. There are 28 clearly distinguishable consonants and six vowels in Indian languages (for Bengali convenience, I am combining all variants of s). There are 796,594,176 sequences of four consonant-vowel combinations. That is a bit less than the population of 1,030,000,000 of today. So let us add a last silent vowel like the k in Ashok, and we get 22,304,636,928. That should be enough for any future Indian population unless we turn into rabbits. So I stipulate that all male names should end in o, and all female names in aa (or vice versa, as amongst the Japanese). That reduces the inventory to 7,434, 878,976 — over seven times the present population. In fact, we could afford to give people a third name. But the third name should be a sign of distinction, and should be sold for a big price — the longer the name (that is, Subrahmanian), the higher the price. That will make taxation unnecessary.

This system would be worthwhile only if it were applied to the existing population. So, for instance, Laloo Yadav can retain his name; but no one else can be Laloo or Yadav. Atal Bihari Vajpayee could become Ato Labih or Beho Rivaj or Haro Japai. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could become Budho Devobh or Dhado Bhatach. Shankar Subrahmaniam can become Shano Karis or Neko Rasoob or Roso Uber. I can become Asho Koday or Shocko Desai. So everyone would have plenty of choice, and those already born can capture all the best names.

That shows how Serendip can affect one’s senses. But let me come back to my subject. I expected the prime minister of Sri Lanka to be an embattled man, after President Chandrika Kumaratunga dismissed three of his ministers and fractured the peace process. He did not say much, but he was anything but embattled. Without naming her, he placed the full blame on the president. And he said that very soon there would be developments that would end the status quo. What might they be' He was too wily a politician to say. But since my visit, Kumaratunga’s party has formed an alliance with Jana Vimukti Peramuna, the Buddhist extremist party that was once its bitter enemy. I believe Wickremesinghe will do nothing. He will wait for the president to step down next year; and in the meanwhile he will wait for the new alliance to develop fissures. While the polity remains divided, there is no chance of renewed war, and the ceasefire will hold.

So those who share my love of Ceylon can go ahead and plan a trip. Last year I recommended the Citadel on the bank of the Mahaveli in Kandy. For those with children, I would recommend the Mahaweli Reach. It too is on the river, low-rise and placid; but it is bigger and closer to the town. Another equally tranquil resort hotel is Sigiriya Village, close to Sigiriya, one of my favourite sights. It is a rocky outcrop standing out of the surrounding plain; on top are the remains of a palace. When one gets up the sheer walls, there is a breathtaking panorama of the surrounding forest. But my favourite hotel is the Kandalama. This hotel is stuck into a hill and festooned with greenery, its rooms have sheer glass walls, and they look on to a beautiful lake. It is a great place for birdwatching — or just for doing nothing.

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