What names of animals say about us

Lions might live in prides but when you are a lion named “Akbar” and a lioness named “Sita”, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad finds little to be proud of.

It filed a petition, demanding a name change for the two lions brought to a safari park in Bengal from Tripura. Sita could not be in the same enclosure as Akbar, according to them. It was clearly a Lakshmanrekha violation of epic proportions. “Tomorrow a donkey maybe named after some deity,” complained the petitioner’s lawyer. In reality, a donkey does far more for humans than a lion but the poor creature still gets no respect.

The so-called Lion #LoveJihad became the subject of much social media hilarity, but a single-judge bench of the Calcutta high court eventually said it would be better if the animals were renamed. Justice Saugata Bhattacharyya said Akbar was a “successful and secular Mughal emperor” and Sita was worshipped by many and there was no point in creating a needless controversy.

“Mr Counsel, will you yourself name your own pet after some Hindu God or Muslim prophet?” asked the judge. “Can anyone of us think of naming an animal after Rabindranath Tagore?”

As a matter of fact animals named after icons, real or mythological, aren’t so unimaginable.

The media dug up stories of a tiger named Shiva in the Alipore Zoo who in 1996 killed a drunk man who snuck into his enclosure and tried to garland the animal. In 2000, another drunken intruder was killed by a tiger named Bob in the same zoo. While the incidents made those tigers notorious, their names were never held against them not even by Hindi films’ favourite gora villain Bob Christo. Meanwhile, Gir forest has been home to lions named Gabbar Singh and Osama bin Laden aka Atankwadi, as well as the siblings Karan-Arjun. India’s national parks have also dipped into mythology for names for tigers—Bandhavgarh had a one-eyed Lakshmi and Ranthambore had a Krishna.

Entire species have been named after real people. There’s a parasitic wasp in Ecuador named after Shakira because its larvae hatch inside a caterpillar and cause that creature to twist and shake as if its hips don’t lie. A British company paid $31,250 (around 26 lakh) to a conservation non-profit to name a wormlike amphibian with very rudimentary black-and-white vision that spends most of its life with its head buried in dirt after former US President Donald Trump. But some names have become far more controversial. Scott’s oriole, a bird in the south-eastern US was named by a 19th century army officer and amateur naturalist after his commander General Winfield Scott. Now it turns out Scott helped ethnically cleanse the region of the Cherokee people. The innocent oriole has to bear the burden of his sins.

Writers understand the power of names. In Mahesh, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s harrowing tale of rural poverty, Gafoor Miyan, a poor Muslim villager, is mocked by the Brahmin priest for naming his bull Mahesh. As he feeds the starving bull with the straw from his own roof, he weeps and says, “You are my son, Mahesh, you have grown old looking after us for eight years. I can’t even give you enough to eat but you know how I love you.” But his religion, his poverty and the drought prove to be insurmountable odds.

When Salman Rushdie had a cranky bulldog named Jaw-Jaw, short for Jawaharlal (Nehru) in his book The Moor’s Last Sigh, the Congress party was not pleased. Rushdie said the name wasn’t a diss aimed at the first Prime Minister. It was just meant to annoy the dog-owner’s family members who were Nehru loyalists.

But there was more trouble when the Shiv Sena discovered another character in the book, a megalomaniac ex-cartoonist named Raman Fielding who renames Bombay to Mumbai and leads an anti-Muslim mob. Henry Fielding drew comparisons with Shiva Sena’s founder Bal Thackeray, not least because both Henry Fielding and William Makepeace Thackeray were Victorian novelists of similar vintage.

The names we bestow upon animals often say more about us than about the animals themselves. In Aesop’s Fables and the Panchatantra, there are plenty of animals but they have no names. They are just elephant, rabbit, horse and so forth. A 2022 article in The Atlantic noted that in medieval times dogs were commonly given names that alluded to their physical appearance—Whitefoot or Sturdy although Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII, named her dog Gardiner after an anti-Protestant bishop she hated. But as animals became more and more part of the family as well as status symbols, their names tended to get more and more humanesque as well.

A company called FirstVet analysed the names of over animals buried at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York, which was founded in 1896. It found the most popular name for cats for over a century has been Tiger and for dogs, Queenie. FirstVet was surprised at how popular royal names like Queenie, Duke and Princess were in a country that threw off the yoke of monarchy. Nowadays according to Rover, a company that matches owners with dog walkers, there’s little to separate the dog’s name from the owner’s. With names like Max, Charlie, Bella and Lucy, the animal-human boundary has been well and truly breached.

When I met the famous ceramics artist Beatrice Wood or Beato in California, she was 102 and still full of stories about her great love for Indian craft, Indian men and Indian saris. She was such a character that I named my cat after her. Wood, luckily, was quite chuffed about it. When I got a nervous rescue chihuahua, I named her Panic. That made some pet parents at the dog park in San Francisco look at me askance as if I had burdened her with lasting trauma. Panic however lived a long and happy life with Beato.

When I was young, it seemed there was an unwritten rule in India that dogs got Anglicised names and cats more desi ones. Thus I knew of dogs named Snowy, Spot, Lucky, Bonny, Lancelot, Brownie, Goldie and, of course, the evergreen Tommy. Some said this was a colonised people’s way of getting back at their colonial masters. Tommy came from Tommy Atkins, old British slang for a common soldier. Long after independence, the habit continued despite the occasional Moti and Sheroo. In 2015, a man was arrested in Madhya Pradesh for procuring an Aadhaar card for his dog Tommy Singh, son of one Sheru Singh.

Cats, meanwhile, always seemed more swadeshi-inclined. My mother had a cat named Haridasi, our neighbour had one named Sonamoni. We did not question this cultural bias. When my uncle got a puppy and needed a name, I brought out my Enid Blyton books and drew up a long list. Eventually, she was named Judy. The cook called her Julie. She answered to both, as long as a treat was involved.

Times have changed. We are more aware of our cultural roots and colonial baggage. The street dogs in our neighbourhood are more decolonised than the dogs of my childhood. Our street favours spices and condiments—Posto, Mouri, Chutney, to name a few. Poor Aachar was killed by a passing car. Pepsi recently died of old age. But even now strangers sometimes tease poor Chutney by calling him Tommy because old habits die hard.

The names we give our animals clearly say a lot about our own likes and dislikes and dreams and aspirations. And our prejudices as well. “Sita” and “Akbar” might get new names and live out a happy enough life in the safari park, but once all the memes have faded away, one wonders whether the complaint sends a message for any real life human couple who might happen to have similar names.

Are they being told to remember what Mufasa told his cub Simba long ago in The Lion King—“Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble”?

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr

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