Sunday, February 5, 2017

Thoughts occasioned by ‘What’s your good name, please?’

The major part of this post was originally written for Quora, the question-and-answer website, to answer a follower’s question whether ‘What’s your good name?’ was acceptable. When I was about to paste here a link to the answer on (, it struck me that I could add some more perspectives. Hence this blog post.
What didn’t strike me at the time of writing an answer to the Quora question is the fact that “What is your good name, please?’ is the title of a memorable poem written by R Parthasarathy in 1975 – a poem in which Parthasarathy caricatured the syntactical oddities in what can be called bazaar English in India. This reminds me of two other Indian poets who used, in some of their poems, a pidginized variety of English, widely prevalent among not-so-well-educated people in India, in order to produce a humorous effect: Nizzim Ezekiel (e.g. ‘A Very Indian Poem in Indian English,’ ‘Goodbye Party to Miss Pushpa T. S.’ and ‘Soap’), and Joseph Furtado (e.g. ‘Fortune-Teller’ and ‘Lakshmi’), who had mocked, in some of his poems, the English of middle-class Indians long before Parthasarathy and Ezekiel did. But, in my opinion, “good name” in ‘What’s your good name, please?’ doesn’t deserve a pejorative treatment that, perhaps, the pidgin forms parodied in the “bazaar English” poems do. The world has come a long way since Parthasarathy ridiculed the expression in his poem four decades ago.
Though I have often come across ‘What’s your good name?’ in India, especially in the northern part of India, including West Bengal, I have never used it myself. However, “good name,” which is actually a translation of the Hindi “shub naam” makes perfect sense in the Indian cultural context. If an Indian wants to sound deferential while talking to another Indian, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t ask, ‘What’s your good name?’
Indians have little difficulty in adopting western tendencies in their own English, whether they make sense in the Indian cultural context or not. A good example is ‘I’m good’ in response to ‘How are you?’ A typical Indian understands “good” in the sense of the opposite of bad or, to be more precise, morally good in the context of human beings: ‘He’s a good boy.’ But the Americanism, ‘I’m good,’ in the sense of ‘I’m fine’ (which was the typical response till about the 1990s), is now firmly established in Indian English. As a matter of fact, you may not sound trendy if you say ‘I’m fine’! ‘I’m good’ is a la mode.
The disapproval of “good name” in the country of its origin itself has much to do with how English is taught as a second language in India. Grammar and vocabulary teaching in the English classroom in India is almost always guided by British or American norms. English teachers must graduate from the stage of passing an absolute veto on expressions which make perfect sense in the Indian cultural context (though they may not in English-as-a-lingua-franca contexts) to one involving teaching both forms or different forms to help their students communicate in an intelligent way in different English-speaking contexts. This calls for some cultural sensitivity on the part of English teachers.
Some of us, Indians, may frown upon “good name,” but we do sound deferential in various other ways. Why only Indians? Being deferential is an essential part of successful communication in any language, whether one uses a particular tone of voice or words to sound courteous or respectful or submissive. Let me share with you a real-life incident which will help you understand this better.
Sometime ago, a friend of mine, a young woman whose staple intellectual diet is Hollywood movies and American television chat shows, committed a faux pas. She was walking out of an auditorium in Vijayawada, my home town, after watching a cultural programme when she saw in front of her Krishna Rao (name changed), a retired professor of English, whom she had met a couple of times earlier. ‘How are you, Mr Krishna Rao?’ she greeted him in a chirpy voice. The rising intonation fell flat on Krishna Rao's face: what greeted her back was an admonishing look from the professor. ‘I only greeted him. Why did he give me a dirty look?’ the young woman asked me when she met me later.
Krishna Rao answered the question when I met him a few days later: ‘I am used to being addressed in a respectful way – as 'mastraru' or 'sir' or 'Krishna Rao garu'. (Both mastraru and garu are deferential forms of address in Telugu, a South Indian language. Incidentally, I have always addressed Krishna Rao as “mastraru”). But the lady mistered me: she called me 'Mr Krishna Rao'! I couldn't stand that familiarity.’ I would have shocked him if I had told him that the young woman, who is ten years my junior, and I are on first-name terms.
But Krishna Rao is far from being an exception. As likely as not, any other Indian of Krishna Rao's stature would have taken offence at being addressed as "Mr--". We may have taken easily to western social mores, but the old Indian practice of addressing an elderly or a respected person formally (sometimes even in the third person) is too deep-rooted to give in to western modes.
A young friend of mine carries this a bit too far: he addresses me as "your goodself"! Here is a sample: ‘If your goodself comes here at 10 o'clock…’ I won't be surprised even if he says, ‘Your goodself says in your goodself's blog post today …’ This deferential form of the second person is in effect the third person and springs from the belief not only in Indian culture but several others that the singular form ("you"), when used with reference to a respected person, is over-familiar and therefore vulgar. I am so used to this overcourteous form that I wonder whether I will take kindly to the use of the unadorned "you" with reference to me by the same person.

Getting back to ‘What’s your good name?’ Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian writer in English, has captured this practice so beautifully in her novel, The Namesake. In an interview to John Glassie, portions of which were published in The New York Times Magazine, September 2003 (Questions For Jhumpa Lahiri -), she uses the term “good name” several times and even explains that one’s “good name,” as against one’s pet name, is one’s proper name.

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