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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Structure of Tamil Names

My name is Sivapuranam Thevaram, and my origins are in the northern parts of Sri Lanka. I usually identify myself as a Sri Lankan Tamil, strictly in that order. And that order is not negotiable. Equally significant, and not for negotiation, is the order of the two identifiers in my name: Sivapuranam is the one given to my father at his birth, Thevaram is mine. My brothers are Sivapuranam Thiruvasakam and Sivapuranam Thirumanthiram. Again, Thiruvasakam and Thirumanthiram are tokens my dad looked up in the phone book. The full name of my dad is Thirukkural Sivapuranam. So the structure, sliding across generations is: One Two, Two Three, Three Four and so on.

This structure doesn't match the convention of my friend John Smith: Smith is his family name and John, the given name. His brothers are Mark Smith and Peter Smith, dad is Andy Smith and grandfather was Adam Smith (no, not the same chap). Their structure is like a tree: A great grandpa Smith, followed by a hierarchy of junior Smiths.

Nancy, our research group secretary isn't phonetically gifted. "You guys got it all so long", she complains.

Where I come from, Sivapuranam Thevaram is called Mr Thevaram for formal purposes, and should he acquire titles, he becomes Dr Thevaram, Professor Thevaram etc. Informally, people close to him say "Hey Thevaram".

My friend John Smith, who is Dr Smith for formal purposes, is "Hey John", informally. "Hey Smith" and "Dr John", are wrong. Should he gain membership of the second chamber of British governance, he becomes Lord Smith, but should Her Majesty be minded to honor him, he will be Sir John.

In the UK, I maintain the habit from home. People formally address me as "Mr. Thevaram", and informally also call me "Hey Thevaram". It takes a bit of training, but in my ivory tower circles, people learn fast. Vincent, our technician, once said to me: "well, in the lab people may learn to say Thevaram, but if you were in a factory, they will give you a Christian name everyone can pronounce". That explains why several Sri Lankans I know, working in petrol stations, have on their name badges "Mark", "Anthony" etc. Once I have met three guys, working eight-hour shifts, all using the same "Jonathan" name badge. "Who cares, just part of the uniform", they explained, in an amazingly detached view of life.

My brother Sivapuranam Thiruvasakam took a different approach. He has declared Thiruvasakam as his family name and a truncated version of my dad's name as his first name. His work colleagues have learnt to call him Siva, informally, and Dr Thiruvasakam, in a formal setting. It gets odd when he is in the company of a mixture of Sri Lankans and Europeans at parties: Europeans calling him "Hey Seeeva" and the Sri Lankans calling him "Hey Thiruvasakam".

I myself have abandoned the convention for the next generation, naming my kids One Thevaram, Two Thevaram and Three Thevaram, using Thevaram as family name and One, Two and Three as first names. In a few hundred years, you will find a whole family-tree of Thevarams, with me at the root.

Despite going into extensive searches, and sometimes numerical calculations, to find these names and sticking to their structures, we are reluctant to use them. We use a lot of uncle, aunty, annai, nangi, master and sir as substitutes for names -- the supposedly polite way. My mom would never call my dad: "Hey Sivapuranam", saying "Appa"-- meaning father -- instead. That has changed a bit in my generation. My wife addresses me as "injErungo Appa", "Hey Thevaram" or "chaniyan" with roughly equal probability and in decreasing order of expressed affection.

Thinking about all this started from a conversation with a retired Jaffna High Court judge, whose name I forget, and the former principal of St John's College, Anantharajan (see, just one name), at the Jaffna YMCA, in 1976/77. Having won the village chess tournament, I got to chat to these eminent gentlemen after the prize giving. The judge narrated a story of a woman witness, asked to identify her husband:

"Who is your husband?"

"It is him"

"What is his name?"

"It is him";

"Just tell us what his name is"

"It is him, you know him";

"For the last time, I will jail you for contempt of court if you don't tell us his name"

"It is him, my daughter's dad, you educated people -- you already know him".

It was sweet of Anantharajan to include this schoolboy in their conversation, and to let him laugh with them. If you will permit me a distraction just to complete the story, this man Anantharajan was shot about nine years after that conversation at the YMCA. It wasn't clear to me how killing this wonderful school principal was going to help Tamils achieve greater political space in Sri Lanka. Is it to you?

So I asked!

I was visiting an aunt's place in London when a coupe of chaps turned up to collect money for their war effort back home. She gave them 25 pounds and they were about to leave with the contribution, when I casually dropped my question:

"Are you taking this money to kill more of the likes of Anantharajan?"

Faces turned red. Tempers raised high.

"Are you calling us murderers?"

"Your words, not mine"

"You don't know much do you, about his CIA connections?"

"What makes you think Anantharajan was an agent of the CIA?"

"You don't know, I say, it is this type of people through whom the CIA operates".

My aunt was as shocked at this logic as I was, but kept her cool and said something to ease the tension and make them leave. Later, I ask her to explain why she was funding them. "I gave the [bleep]s 25 pounds", she said, "Otherwise they will come back and harass me, or even threaten me; no big deal 25 pounds for me, look at my grocery bill". It was 120 pounds.

(Some will say why bring up this story so many years since it happened. Perhaps it is all water under the bridge. Or perhaps how we face up to this might be the determinant of the future we build for the next generation of Sri Lankans. I do not know, and I leave it as an exercise to you readers.)

Let's get back to the name structure. Though Thevaram wasn't phonetically difficult, Nancy, even after much practice, continued to complain it was too long. Vincent continued to wish he could call me Bertram instead.

Being the only Sri Lankan member of the group, I survived a couple of years with Thevaram double acting as my first and last names, claiming it to be the Sri Lankan way and an aspect of my cultural heritage I shall stubbornly stick to. But it wasn't to last long.

On the first day of term, Nancy comes running into our lab. She is almost breathless and looks terrified. "Guess what", she exclaims, "We have another one from your country". She takes a deep breath. "Oh my God, his is even much longer!"

Polgahawela Aarachchilage Junius Solomon Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela has joined our laboratory.

"Its OK, we can just call him Pol", I comfort Nancy.


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About This Blog

Velupillai Prabhakaran

The rest of the world might never understand the violence Velupillai Prabhakaran stood for, but its imprint on Sri Lanka is wide and deep. For 26 years, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had waged war with the government to win an independent homeland, or eelam, for the island's Tamil minority. The struggle claimed more than 70,000 lives--including, on May 18, Prabhakaran's. The government says he was killed, along with 17 of his trusted lieutenants, while fleeing an army ambush.

Prabhakaran, 54, was born to a middle-class family on the Jaffna Peninsula. Incensed by discrimination against Tamils and radicalized by a militant grade-school teacher, Prabhakaran founded the LTTE in 1976, a year after a group he headed claimed responsibility for killing Jaffna's mayor. By 1983 the guerrilla movement--which pioneered suicide bombings and the recruitment of child soldiers--escalated the fighting into a civil war.

At the height of his power earlier this decade, Prabhakaran led a de facto government that controlled vast swaths of territory and boasted its own systems of taxes, roads and courts. As the army closed in, he allegedly used thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields. By the final days, just 250 LTTE members remained. They died too, along with the dream of eelam.

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