It’s so long since I have read Anthony Trollope that I would be hard pressed to tell you what Barchester Towers or any of his other novels are about. But I do remember the names: the obnoxious Obadiah Slope; the proud and vulgar bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie; Mr Quiverful, impoverished vicar and father of 14 children. Thomas Hardy was another writer who used names as a proxy for character: you know, as soon as you come across Gabriel Oak in the first pages of Far from the Madding Crowd, that he possesses all the solid virtues of the best sort of country folk.
Yet these names seem restrained when compared with many I’ve come across in my travels. This afternoon I made my way to the fish market in St Vincent’s capital, Kingstown (population: 22,000), for a meeting with the leaders of the local fisherfolks’ organisation. The first man introduced himself as Winsbert Harry; the second as Lloyd Baptise; the third as Eldon O’Garra. I imagine their surnames were bestowed upon their ancestors by the Europeans for whom they worked. Last to arrive was a handsome, craggy faced, broad-shouldered man who introduced himself as – this is how I heard it – Ocean Victory.
“You mean ocean as in the sea?” I asked.
“It is pronounced like that, but I don’t spell it that way,” he replied. “It is spelt E-O-C-E-N.”
I said he had a fine name, redolent of hard work and the high seas. This seemed to please him.
All this set me thinking about the people I came across several years ago when I was writing about the Christian inhabitants – most belonged to the Khasi tribe – of the Indian state of Meghalaya. The first person I met on my arrival was the receptionist in the hotel where I stayed in Shillong. I thought I’d misheard when he introduced himself as Moon Rocket. I hadn’t; he had been born when India launched its first space programme. During the course of the next few days, I came across many other strange names. One of the Calvinist vicars who took me into the countryside was the Rev PA Chellam. As he called me Charlie, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t call him by his Christian name. That wouldn’t be a good idea, he suggested: PA stood for Peace Arrow.
I was chatting about this with the local Catholic priests one night – they invited me to dinner on several occasions – when Father George, head of the order in this part of India, said that the Khasi’s love for exotic names was sometimes troublesome. Was it kind, he mused, to name three daughters Sufficiency, Efficiency and Proficiency, as a local businessman had? The latter spoke fine English, being university educated, so at least he knew what he was doing, which was more than could be said for many of the peasants. “They tend to choose names for their bombast,” explained Father George. “Just recently, when I was baptising a baby girl, I asked the mother what she wanted to call her. She said, ‘Prostitute’ with a proud smile.” She’d heard the word on the radio, and she liked the sound of it.