Naming things is not easy. It’s a huge responsibility, after all, deciding what something or someone will be called for the rest of their existence on the planet.
I started my career in advertising as a copywriter, fresh out of college. I remember one of the first jobs I was assigned was to come up with brand names for a range of children’s personal care products – soaps, shampoos and lotions. I started off with great enthusiasm. I was going to come up with a unique name that no one had ever thought of. No Bubbles or Suds from me, thank you very much.
But a week into the exercise, after about 1000 names were produced and rejected, my best, most creative and evocative offerings were rejected by the team: “too hard to pronounce”, “means something offensive in another language”, “too elitist”, “too commonplace”, “too childish”. I was at my wits’ end. Soon, the entire agency was coming up with names, and on one of the final lists I sent in, I will admit there was Bubbles, Bubblez, Suds and Sudz.
All of them were rejected.
Even today, when I pass a hoarding for a car, or app or candy, no matter how terrible the name sounds, I don’t judge. I know that before this name, there must have been thousands and thousands of perfectly good names rejected by the client and the client’s cat.
My own family has a long history of naming inanimate things. We would have contests as to who could come up with the best name for a new car or scooter or bicycle. At one point, we had a car called Sabapathy and a scooter called William. Why these names? I have no idea. It’s just that the minute the names escaped my father’s mouth, they just felt right. Of course our White Maruti 800 would be called Sabapathy. How could we ever think he was a Pazhani?
That’s the thing with names, any one of thousands of options could be right, but only one will feel right.
I spent the last week of 2022 in Madras with my family. We always visit with our dog Woody (a brown cocker spaniel named after the cowboy in Toy Story, a movie we have watched hundreds of times with our children.)
Every day, I would walk Woody around the neighbourhood, and we would always meet the local streeties. They would either be happy, scared or irritated when Woody walked by. When I was growing up, there was Shivamani, the Amazing Dog and Nity (short for Nityanandam, a dog with a perennial look of bliss on her face). These familiar faces had long since passed, and it was nice to see that the tradition of caring for the community canines was still going strong. Families, watchmen and sanitation workers fed them, petted them, and yes, named them too.
On one of our walks, Woody and I met a very excitable pup who followed and yipped at us for a good fifteen minutes, before the watchman of a neighbouring building called him for a meal. “Doi! Va da Doi!”
Now Doi is a common word that means ‘hey’. When I asked the watchman if that was the dog’s name, he very proudly proclaimed that it was. I was charmed both by the name and the lovely relationship the two of them shared.
The idea for my new picture book ‘What Do We Name This Dog?’ published by Tulika Books and illustrated by the wonderful Proiti Roy came from this pup, this watchman and this moment.
It’s my own small tribute to the people who make our neighbourhoods what they are – not just the people who live there, but also those who care for our streets, our homes, and the residents. And yes, that most definitely includes the four-legged ones.
I hope you enjoy reading about this stray dog who makes his home in a community and the people who embrace him and, yes, how they go about naming him.
In Menaka Raman's What Do We Name This Dog?, a dog suddenly appears on a street one day and decides to stay.
Proiti Roy's warm pictures offer a vignette of a typical Indian street.