RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: I don’t know Usha K.R.. I have never met Usha K.R.. I didn’t go to St. Xavier’s college in Calcutta with Usha K.R.. I do not work at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore with Usha K.R.. I have not read a single book by Usha K.R..
But, by god, am I glad that A Girl and A River by Usha K.R. has won the Vodafone-Crossword Award 2007 for best book of the year in the English language fiction category!?
There are a bunch of reasons why I could be glad that the prize went to Usha K.R..
For starters, I gather it is a book about the protagonist’s search for her roots, in pre-independence times, in Karnataka. For another, she apparently weaves in Kannada words like chapdi kal and tutus of mosaranna. And many reviewers think there are shades of R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao in the writing of Usha K.R..
If it’s good for them, it’s good for me.
Heck, no, I am not glad that Usha K.R. won the award for those lofty, literary reasons, it’s for something more simple: I am glad because she won it in spite of her name being Usha K.R..
Think about it.
How often do you see an Indian writer with initials make it big in recent times, and a South Indian at that?
All our English authors have short, sexy, staccato names with a clear first name and a clear last name as if they were brand-ambassaors for credit card ads—Salman Rushdie or Suketu Mehta, Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Nagarkar or Girish Karnad.
But namma Usha K.R. is different.
She is one of us, a South Indian with a name and a set of initials which probably denote her father’s first name and the ancestral place of birth. And who probably hits a nice little writer’s block when she has to fill up forms which have those daunting blanks for first name, last name, surname and middle name like the rest of us.
To be sure, we have had South Indian English writers with initials who have made it big before, R.K. Narayan and K. Raja Rao for sure, but also O.V. Vijayan and U.R. Anantha Murthy, M.N. Srinivas and H.Y. Sharada Prasad. And a few who did not write: M.S. Subbulaxmi and D.K. Pattammal, B.K.S. Iyengar and V.K.R.V. Rao, G.R Viswanath and B.S. Chandrashekhar.
But it all seems so long ago before the revenge of short names. Now, it all seems as if a set of initials in your name is a bad idea, a hurdle placed by your parents in the path to success/ recognition.
Our best industrialists (Mukesh Ambani, Sunil Mittal), sociologists (Ashis Nandy, Ram Guha), TV anchors (Pronnoy Roy, Barkha Dutt), cricketers (Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid), actors (Aishwarya Rai or Madhuri Dixit), models (Diana Hayden, Gul Panag) all seem cut from the same double-barrel name-generator.
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni says Yem. Yes. Dhoni in that Pepsi ad, it almost seems like a slur. And all those who cannot say Vangipurappu Venkata Sai call Laxman Very Very Special.
It may not mean much to Usha K.R. or to the judges (whose names, tellingly but not surprisingly, were Mukul Kesavan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Kai Friese) or to the fans of Indian Writing in English.
But one small literary step for Usha K.R. is a giant mental leap for South Indians weighed down by the length and contortions of their names. She has won a top award in spite of the initials (praise be to the judges)—and she wears a cute little bindi to boot.
That, and those gorgeous cheek bones.
(Ramya Krishnamurthy was Ramya K.S. before tying the knot)
Photograph: courtesy K. Bhagya Prakash/ The Hindu