Not all superheroes wear capes; some have super memory!


A few years back, my mother and I were out shopping on Commercial Street. We bumped into a girl who looked very familiar, and we had a short conversation. She left. My mother turned to me and asked me who that was. I had no idea. I didn’t know if I had studied with her in school or college, let alone remember her name!

Of late, this inability to remember names comes up often when I am facing a group of students at my workshop and I ask them to introduce themselves and then promptly forget their names, which makes the entire exercise redundant. I look at the sea of faces and then smile and admit that I may have forgotten their names. Some of them are quite sweet and repeat their names helpfully whenever they speak up in the workshop. But I can’t possibly expect everyone to do that. From a group of 40 to 50 students, I’m lucky if I can remember at least 2 names.

I’ve looked up about this online (where else) and the tips they offer are to repeat the name of the person loudly, or ask them what the name means (if it’s an unusual sounding name) or ask them to spell it out. I still doubt I would remember the names after doing all this but it’s worth trying. Another embarrassing situation I’ve been caught up in, is when an acquaintance at an event asks me to sign a copy of my book for them, and I don’t know their name. Most often these acquaintances are from social media like Twitter where some people don’t even use their own names but instead opt for handles.

It would help if I could at least remember the handles, but I’m awful at even that. In such instances, I look up and ask them to spell out their name, all the while feeling like such a fraud. And now that I’ve outed myself, I doubt I’ll be able to ask anyone how they spell their name without them thinking the worst of me. It also doesn’t help that I have pretty much an unforgettable and often unpronounceable name, which means that people don’t forget mine while I conveniently forget theirs. I learned today that it’s probably because of something called nominal aphasia, a form of aphasia where a person is unable to remember names. That doesn’t make me feel completely better but well, at least there’s a scientific reason for it now.

These days when we store names in our phone’s address book, we often tend to include a description of the people’s occupation (Like Rajesh Plumber, or Sunil Dentist) and that’s helpful so that we don’t end up calling the wrong Rajesh or Sunil. Recently, I didn’t realise I had the same two names on my phone and they belonged to two different people. One of these was a young cousin. I called up to talk to her and ended up calling the other person. The lady was surprised to hear from me because we were extremely casual acquaintances and I didn’t realise that she didn’t sound anything like my cousin right away. Then, it hit me. I’m talking to the wrong person. I couldn’t even pretend that I had dialled her number by mistake because I mentioned her name when we said hello. Suffice it to say that I had to pretend that I’d actually called to talk to her and then made some small talk which must have left her baffled no doubt. 

Recently, a student in the US (I think) lamented that his professor said he could recite the names of all of his 120 students before the semester ended and exams began. If he made a mistake, the students would not have to write their exams and he recited ALL the names like a pro, much to their disappointment. Now THAT is my hero.


Originally published in Sunday Herald here.



What’s in a name?


Judy Balan, author of the best selling novel Two Fates, Sophie Says and the more recent Nina the Philosopher series is a very good friend of mine. Since both of us are writers, we do talk a lot about the writing process and what works or doesn’t. One thing I’ve noticed about Judy is her fascination for naming her characters correctly.


I thought it would be fun to have a Q and A with her about this for both our readers. So here goes.

AW: As someone who would happily name her characters X, Y and Z if given the option, I find it to be one of the most taxing parts of getting started with writing a novel. Does the right name for a character matter much to you? And why? 

JB: Agree it’s taxing but yes, it’s extremely important to me. In fact, I can’t get on with the story if I don’t get the name right. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a great name. If I feel it doesn’t completely align with the character (and this is an entirely subjective, irrational process), I just can’t tell the story. Have you tried walking with a pair of fabulous shoes that are a size too small? It’s like that. 

AW:Okay, J K Rowling is a league apart in every possible way. She’s also one of the authors who has given the most interesting names to her characters except the titular character of Harry Potter. I’d love to hear what you think about this. 

JB: Oh, I had read in an interview a long time ago that she wanted a common name for the protagonist in order to make him relatable. Since she was writing for children, she wanted every child to see himself/herself as Harry. And I agree with that logic because Harry is so common, it’s almost like a non-name. Which means, you can easily replace it with your own. 

AW:Two of my favourite writers, J K Rowling and Rick Riordan hold the notion in their books that ‘names have powers’. On the other hand, we have Shakespeare saying, what’s in a name, a rose by any name would smell as sweet. What do you think? A name is a name is a name or is it something more? 

JB: For me, it’s more. But I also know that many of us don’t identify with our own names, especially those of us with a weird combination of names (yes, Judy Pavithra Balan was traumatic). So I like having some fun with this as well. In my second book, my lead character was called Sophia Thilagam but insisted on calling herself Sophia Tilgum. I’m not saying that a fabulous person can’t make a dull name dazzle, or an obnoxious combination of names sound cool. But I’d leave that job for people who want to write life-changing, path-breaking fiction. Also – just saying – Vera Mindy Chockalingam simply does not have the same ring to it as Mindy Kaling. 

AW: Is there any special name you like a lot? Please don’t say Yatan. Apart from that. 

JB : Ha ha. Funnily, someone liked Yatan because he said it looked like ‘Satan’ and someone else had trouble seeing him as this badass in the book because he knew someone named Yatan who was quite the opposite. As for favourite names, where do I begin! I love the name iola (I’ve used small i ’cause I don’t want it to be confused with Lola) from Hardy Boys. I wanted to name my daughter that but picked Kiara ’cause I thought the chances of people butchering this name would be much less. Couldn’t have been more wrong – she gets called Kyaara, Keera, Kyra and Keerai (which means spinach in Tamil). 

As for last names, I have a terrible weakness for names that include three consonants in a row or names that end with z next to a consonant. Like, Horowitz. Noticed that’s the last name of one of the creators of Once Upon A Time. Also, it’s combined with ‘Adam’ (another favourite) so that’s kind of like an ideal name in my head. Other favourites are names that include ‘owska,’ ‘vrski’ and such. Add an accent (` ~ ‘) to it and I’m weak in the knees. Yes, it’s almost a fetish. 

AW: How do you go about choosing a name for your characters? Crowd sourcing? Or Internet? 

JB : Facebook friends list 😀 I don’t usually find anything that works for the character but since my characters are Indian, I usually go there to see if anything clicks. But usually, the name just happens. On its own. And yes, I’ve crowd-sourced too! That’s how I got Ryan for Sophie Says.

AW: Do you feel that the name of the character has something to do with the reader’s expectation from the character? For example, someone named Anya comes across as modern and sassy while Anita is old school and frumpy. 

JB: Of course. If I’m writing a romantic comedy, I can’t name my sizzling male lead Murugusundaram. No matter how unconventional I might want to be, that’s just not done. Also, I’m yet to meet a sizzling Murugusundaram. 

AW: How much time do you actually spend over naming your characters? And do the characters adopt the name properly?

JB: I don’t start the book till I have the names. While I might know exactly what the character is like, I can’t get her voice right if I can’t get her name right. It’s a pain and this is how I end up procrastinating. 

AW: I recently finished writing a book and I changed the main character’s sister’s name. Now I feel like this character is a stranger to me. Has that happened to you? A character that you’ve renamed for some reason and now the world knows them with this name and yet in your head you still call him/her something else? 

JB: Nope. I couldn’t name a character anything other than what I call her/him in my head. I’d feel like I’m sending her out into the world under cover or something. Wait, that’s kind of cool, now that I think of it. It might be the closest I’d come to writing a mystery novel. 

AW: Which is easier? Male or female names? 

JB: Female. But then again, this is because of the Indian name restriction. It’s very annoying. 

AW: I find I’m fond of the letter R when it comes to naming my other characters. Don’t know why. Do you have any such quirks? 

JB: Yes. Vrski. Say it out loud and you’d agree with me. That purring sound it makes in your mouth makes it the perfect name to scream in a fit of passion. Vrrrssssskkkiiiii. 

Thanks for the funny and entertaining answers Judy. Guess everyone knows now what weirdos we are!

Judy’s second book in the Nina series is coming soon! Watch out for it as well as some, ahem, amazing books by her next year!