What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Shakespeare should have asked Diego Maradona who has been regretting his from the time he understood what it meant.

The sky is overcast again. The umbrella, black and porous, is hardly a ray of sunshine on this dark and desperate day. 

The white shirt, suffering both the cold and the heat of a rough wash and more careful ironing, lies stretched “like a patient etherised on a table”. The line jumps into his head faster than before. While he loves this habit of his that tells him every day the way literature has become a part of his life, he cannot miss the irony of it sometimes. Today, for instance, Prufrock –like, he must make the visit; however, it is not he, but they, who will be asking all the questions. 

The tie is a bit of a letdown; there’s only that much a black ribbon stolen from the neighbour’s clothesline can pretend to be around his neck and down his chest. The borrowed grey blazer is exactly like the weather and his mood: foul. The sneakers finish off his bizarre appearance.

The 8 am to the university is as packed as its next shuttle will be. The smell of sweat and diesel summon the first familiar nausea like a falconer summoning his pet.  He hopes the questions are around his thesis: The Metaphor of the Falcon: the Beast of Prey and the Sensibility of Being in Modernist Literature and not around his more complex name. In fact his guide in a humorous parley had persuaded him to work on Luis Borges, the Argentinean short story writer, and the impact of his magical realism on Latin American Writings, “ It would be most facetious, don’t you think?” ; precisely, why he had refused to choose it, though he had secretly pursued studying and researching on Latin American studies.

After the first major halt at the central terminus, Maradona finds a seat. The lady sitting at the aisle moves a wee bit to let him shuffle and squeeze his long and wiry frame into the window seat. It would have been easier if she had moved to the window and given him the aisle; her bright red monkey cap and her brighter and belligerent muffler tell him why she doesn’t want the usually favoured window seat. He doesn’t want it either; the threatened rain is pounding at every half shut shutter in the bus. He yanks his down and settles down on the wet seat. It is better than another hour or so of standing.  

Nothing in his life is more difficult to handle than his mother’s idea of naming him after her favourite sports star. What was worse he had grown up to be nothing akin to the soccer God: his willowy, feeble frame and anaemic skin drew the attention of even those whose notice the name had escaped. After that it all spiralled down into lots of jokes in a place where soccer is like the heartbeat. That he sucked at even chasing the slowest kid down the bloc had not merited the grand title he bore like a blazing ignominy. What he cannot however understand is how it interferes with his getting a job .A doctorate from JNU should be more important than his name. But the degree near his name is of no consequence. 

The bus comes to a sudden halt. In these parts they call it “ staging” – a paradox, he notes, because nothing gets performed, only the conductor making sure no one has played truant . He sighs and sits back. He is glad he took the 8 am shuttle; he should be on time for his interview.  He looks at his doctoral thesis. He does not need to go through it; he knows it better than the astrologer-mother dragged him to, in the hope he would merit his name somewhere in the promising future- knew to read his hand. 

Mother is weird like that: soccer as passion, superstition for survival. If circumstances had been propitious mother would have been good in some sport if not football. Perhaps throw ball because in their growing up years he had seen many thing fly at him and brother: slippers, rolling pin, sauce pans and sometimes just words. Brother had fared better with a name like Marx; his stuck out, in ways, not even the metaphorical sore thumb can compete with. 

The last interview, Maradona, doesn’t want to remember it. But he must, “… aye there lies the rub”. He can place every quote; he can place every humiliation. Aye… there indeed lies the rub! It was his brother’s contact who had gotten him the interview slot. 

The cathedral gleamed in the back .Something told him not to go past the enormous wrought iron gates; he did. Because who doesn’t like to be faculty in a place akin to Oxford and Cambridge in the South of India. He had studied, on his dying phone, the profile of every professor in the English department-his future department if all went well: Two Fulbright scholars, two postdoctoral scholars and the remaining, seven doctoral holders from all across the country. He saw a few Jadavpur’s, a couple of EFLU’s, and was glad to note the absence of a JNU; “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

Herrick is hardly his favourite; the Carpe Diem thought should have summoned something else:  maybe Shelley’s “Mutability”? But Herrick it had been which was a bad allusion because his prospective employers in their gray habits sat all around the long table in a wide arc. Maradona was not a pervert but all the dishonourable jokes his classmates made in his convent school days about the fathers and the brothers rushed to his mind. He quickly dismissed them and bolstered himself for the questions. Beyond the sisters, representing   the management and the faculty, were more faculty in an assortment of clothes: sarees, salwar kammezes, long dresses and trousers and blazers. He had never seen so many women in his life.  Any other would have been somewhat nervous, but to Maradona, keen on getting this job, it would not have mattered even if Martians sat on the other side.  After the customary questions which he fielded well the interview took the usual turn; not the way he had expected. 

“Dr Maradona, I assume you are from these parts”, the good sister, perhaps the principal, beamed.

When he nodded, she beamed some more, “Which church do you go to?”

“Church?”

Another sister from the far corner asked in a solemn voice, “You are a catholic, aren’t you?”

He was not. Maybe he should lie to get the job; he cannot go back to his current one. For one who   does not follow any particular religion, it would have been fine to say yes to the nuns.

 The sisters looked at him calmly. The one who had beamed had a kind smile. Someone in a blue saree spoke up,” Maybe, sisters, we can make an exception this time. His qualifications are, after all, extraordinary”

“Yes, Dr Jain. I agree. But the vacancy does not allow exceptions. You know it’s a special chair that only…” The sister did not complete her sentence, but turned to him and smiled, “Dr Maradona we are a heterogeneous institution. I do not want you to think we are exclusive. Our staffs are from different backgrounds.”

He could see that and nodded.

“However, the current vacancy is a special chair and your name suggested you were catholic,” she paused not knowing how to dismiss him.

The solemn voiced one cleared her throat, “Er… Dr Maradona…do you play the game? It would be good on the college profile if the occupant of the Rev. Thomas’ chair is also a soccer player. The management wouldn’t mind that.”

After that the job went, more proverbially than ever, downhill; “the blend of absurd, surreal and mundane which gave rise to the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’”.

Kafkaesque or otherwise he had to return to the current employment that is managing to pay for his rat- hole accommodation and certainly his square meals. Why not? He worked in the best Mexican restaurant in town. Mexico is not exactly South America; he had tried to explain to its owner who didn’t care so long as Maradona will don his No. 10 soccer shirt and serve the food in the Argentinean colours. When sheer hunger had taken him to respond to the restaurant’s “we are hiring “sign, he had not expected what would land him this job.

The bus has resumed its chugging journey across the city. Another half an hour and they would be there. Working at the Mexican outlet had been worth it because it had been one of the regulars, a literature major, who had told him about this fantastic opportunity. 

The girl came often once she knew what a wizard he was with Latin American Writings, a paper she was struggling with. His colleagues teased him about the girl. But Maradona was past crushing on girls; he was glad the girl came though. It gave him a brief respite from the constant smell and thoughts of nachos, salsa, and enchiladas.

“It is a good opening”, she had said, “and with your caste status etcetera you should be able to get in. It is your first good chance.”

“Actually second”, the last interview was still fresh in his mind.

And so here he was on his way to a glorious second offering; “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”.

The university campus lies sprawled before him. It is a good half an hour walk to the conference hall in the main building where the interview is to be held. The rain, thankfully, has stopped. He rolls up his trousers; it cannot get more Prufrock than this, he quips to himself, and makes his way over the big puddles of water. He finds the building quickly.

As he makes his way up the winding staircase he wonders why old universities in the country do not try and get a face lift. This one probably saw its last improvement in the heydays of Mountbatten. By the time he reaches the third floor the humidity soaks his shirt .He removes the ribbon and chucks it into his trousers’ pockets. He takes off his blazer too and waits in the corridors away from the turning that will lead him to the conference hall. He has another fifteen minutes for his interview. He continues to wait in the corridor. He hates to be way too early at interviews. All the nervous fellow contenders work up and confound his edginess. He has an active imagination; he will not feed it with unwanted anxiety anymore than it needs. He tries to calm his agitated mind with the possible questions on the falcon metaphor, but his mind returns to the one inevitable question: about his name. It is time. He slips on the blazer and walks into the corridor outside the conference room. 

A middle-aged woman sits at a wooden desk with a long list. She has ticked off nine other candidates; he is No. 10. How absolutely ironic!

“Good morning ma’am I’m Dr Diego Maradona”

“Yes please be seated.” Then continues in her broken English,” Previous candidate, should not take any longer.”

Either she does not know the Argentinean star or she has not noticed the jarring contrast because she has not looked up from her papers. 

Maradona waits.  Minutes pass. After half an hour the door opens and a dark young man in a crisp suit emerges with a twinkle in his eyes. He looks at Maradona and quite needlessly says, “That went well.”

“Uh-uh!”

The woman steps into the conference room. An attendant brings coffee in paper cups. Ten minutes elapse. He is called in.

A circular table made of old mahogany sits placidly at the centre of the room. Around it two men, one very short, the other of average height, and an elderly woman watch him take his seat in front of them . 

The girl, whose father worked in the university, had prepped him,” None of them have a qualification like you. They all passed out from the same university. You can bet on your degree that this second chance is the one.” There is however the matter of what lies next to the degree to consider. 

Some introductions are made which fall on his ears- deaf and clogged with nervousness. Questions are asked at a rapidity he had not imagined. He is glad of his drilling PhD viva at JNU; he answers these with the same vigour. Then suddenly it is all over. 

The short gentleman , probably the head of the department, who has been doing most of the talking in a shrill, squeaky voice , which on a normal day he would have tried to imagine in a lecture hall, has now taken over the proceedings. The vacancy is for someone who can teach Victorian and Modern literary works. It is hard to find someone who specialises in such a conventional area as that. So they are happy to note…

He hears nothing else because his heart is full of only one thing: he actually got the job. And not a whiff about his name or the football God! The short man with the squeaky voice continues, “So if you can wait in the department office four blocks from here we will get your appointment order ready. This might take some time. I suggest you go to our cafeteria, grab some lunch. The letter should be ready by then. You can commence classes from Monday.”

This was getting better and better. He hopes he has not slept off in the bus and will wake up to a nightmare interview. He has not; he can feel the all around happy handshakes. 

The next one hour he wanders the campus imagining Leslie’s face when he tells him he can keep his job and his No.10 shirt. He doesn’t how he must feel. A three quatrain poem from a tenth grade Gulmohar text book floats up; “Success is counted sweetest/ by those who ne’er succeed”. The rest of it comes to him like breathing. When he reaches the last two lines of the first quatrain a hundredth time, “To comprehend a nectar/ requires sorest need”, he has reached his destination.

  He is ahead of the appointed hour and wanders through classrooms, empty, because the term will commence only from Monday. He finds himself outside the department office, a small room adjoining the head of the department’s office, which one must enter through an old half wooden door, the kind you find in government offices and the secretariat. 

The office is empty and no one seems to be there. He stands outside, not at all impatient. His eyes wander to the name board outside the department. And he is about to burst out into a riotous laughter when the short, shrill voiced man ambles down the corridor.

“Please Dr Maradona do come to my office.”

It takes all his best efforts to stifle the smile.

The letter is ready; the head of the department seals it in a long envelope after Maradona, whose mind is racing with ironic laughter, has read its contents.

“Welcome aboard Dr Diego Maradona”

“My pleasure, Dr Amitabh Bachchan!”

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Citation:

  1. T.S.Eliot, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”
  2. William Shakespeare ,Hamlet , Act 3, scene 1
  3. Robert Herrick ,“ Gather ye Rosebuds while ye May”
  4. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
  5. William Shakespeare ,Julius Caesar, Act-IV, Scene-III
  6.  Emily Dickinson. “ Success is counted Sweetest”

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