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Mar 14, 1995, 10:42:12 PM3/14/95







PARDON?" we say when we haven't heard or understood what someone is saying to
us. "Pardon?" or "Excuse me?"

Often enough, we say pardon or excuse me even though we're perfectly clear as
to what is being said but it suits us to pretend that we haven't heard
properly. In the army, of course, they're much more forthright about it. Their
equivalent of "pardon" is "say again?"

But there are occasions which are just too solemn or formal to permit us the
liberty of demanding whoever is talking to us to repeat what he or she is

Like the time when, in the mid50's, Prince Phillip, the British Queen's
husband, was in Bombay for a couple of days and Britain's Deputy High
Commissioner there had invited the local British big wigs to meet His Royal
Highness. At this presentation, the Duke, more polite than VIPs usually are,
would pause before each person and ask such questions as, "What is your name?"
or, "What do you do?"

Now this story may well1 be apocryphal. All I can say is that it was told to
me by someone who was himself present at this party - Bruce Nimmo of Burmah
Shell. The manager of a major British bank in Bombay was a Mr. Bergle, and
when the Duke shook hands with him he asked: "And what do you do?" .

Mr. Bergle, thinking that he had been asked for his name, answered: "Bergle,
sir," and then, quickly correcting his mistake, added: "I mean I'm a banker."

"What's the difference?" the Duke is supposed to have remarked.

True or not, the story brings out my point, that there are times when you just
can't turn round and demand: "Say again?" Indeed there are occasions when, your
not being able to say "Pardon?" or "Excuse me," can have consequences which are
not easy to rectify.

As, for instance, when Lily, the wife of a London architect called Edward
Forster, gave birth to a male child on New Year's day, 1879. The parents and
family decided to name the child Henry Morgan Forster. Two months later, the
baby was taken to a nearby church for christening. When the verger asked the
boy's father what the child's name was to be, the father, thinking that he had
been asked for his own name answered: "Edward Morgan."

It is said that when Lily heard the child christened 'Edward' she was
horrified. Later, after much "anxious discussion," the parent decided not to
change the name.

Anyhow, it was because the parents were too well-mannered to correct a
clergyman in the act of performing a sanctified ritual, that their baby was
given a wrong name. But for this contretemps, the man who later became one of
England's foremost writers, E.M. Forster, would have gone through life as H.M.

Another Englishman who was five years older than Forster and who became even
more famous both as a writer and a statesman, had a different kind of trouble
with his name. Winston Churchill, who had hitherto been a war-correspondent,
had just submitted his first novel, Saurolfl, to his publisher when he
discovered that there was another Winston Churchill who lived in America who
was a highly successful novelist.

With a degree of fusty formality that now seems archaic, the English Winston
Churchill wrote his American namesake, pointing out "the grave danger" of their
work being mistaken for each other's and suggesting that, to avoid mistakes
as far as possible, "Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published
articles, stories or other work, 'Winston Spencer Churchill,' and not 'Winston
Churchill' as formerly."

The American Churchill agreed to this arrangement and "all was settled
amicably," writes Winston Spencer Churchill.

Evelyn Waugh had a different kind of name trouble.

It seems that he was called 'Evelyn' "from a whim" of his mother's. Well,
even in England the name is given to both boys and girls, but in America it is
only given to girls. Waugh himself had to put up with a lot of ridicule over it
at school which he used to silence by pointing out that a famous British
soldier, a field marshal, was also called Evelyn.

At that, there were a few occasions in Mr. Waugh's life when his name was to
cause confusion about his sex. In his autobiography, A Little Learning, he
recalls how when he was visiting a military post "many miles from a white
woman," and to which a signal had been sent that "Evelyn Waugh, English
writer, was to visit them, the entire small corps of officers, shaven and
polished, turned out to greet me, each bearing a bouquet."

Like Evelyn and Hilary, we in India too have names which are given to both
boys and girls, but until a few years ago I had always thought that all names
ending with 'a' were special to girls. I give a few examples: Sharda, Radha,
Sunita, Amrita, Shobha, Manda, Pramila, Sudha, Indira.

So, a few years ago, when the Editor of The Statesman in Calcutta wrote a
letter to me which was signed by Sunanda K. Datta Ray, I took it for granted
that Sunanda was a woman. So every time I wrote to Mr. (as he turned out to be)
Datta Ray, I would begin my letter: Dear Ms Datta Ray.

Was he amused or annoyed? Mr. Datta Ray, for his part, never let on. Months
later, his name cropped up in a conversation I had with another newspaper
editor, Rahul Singh. "A very nice man," Rahul told me. "Yes, yes, I know him
quite well"


Scanned from an article in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, Sunday Nov 6, 1994

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