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Chapter 5
My name isn't the end of the story about my name. Whenyour name is Bob no one asks you, "How do you spell that?"Not so with Piscine Molitor Patel.
Some thought it was P. Singh and that I was a Sikh, andthey wondered why I wasn't wearing a turban.
In my university days I visited Montreal once with somefriends. It fell to me to order pizzas one night. I couldn't bearto have yet another French speaker guffawing at my name, sowhen the man on the phone asked, "Can I ‘ave your name?"I said, "I am who I am." Half an hour later two pizzas arrivedfor "Ian Hoolihan".
It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes soprofoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto ournames. Witness Simon who is called Peter, Matthew also knownas Levi, Nathaniel who is also Bartholomew, Judas, not Iscariot,who took the name Thaddeus, Simeon who went by Niger,Saul who became Paul.
My Roman soldier stood in the schoolyard one morningwhen I was twelve. I had just arrived. He saw me and a flashof evil genius lit up his dull mind. He raised his arm, pointedat me and shouted, "It's Pissing Patel!"In a second everyone was laughing. It fell away as we filedinto the class. I walked in last, wearing my crown of thorns.
The cruelty of children comes as news to no one. Thewords would waft across the yard to my ears, unprovoked,uncalled for: "Where's Pissing? I've got to go." Or: "You'refacing the wall. Are you Pissing?" Or something of the sort. Iwould freeze or, the contrary, pursue my activity, pretendingnot to have heard. The sound would disappear, but the hurtwould linger, like the smell of piss long after it has evaporated.
Teachers started doing it too. It was the heat. As the daywore on, the geography lesson, which in the morning had beenas compact as an oasis, started to stretch out like the TharDesert; the history lesson, so alive when the day was young,became parched and dusty; the mathematics lesson, so preciseat first, became muddled. In their afternoon fatigue, as theywiped their foreheads and the backs of their necks with theirhandkerchiefs, without meaning to offend or get a laugh, eventeachers forgot the fresh aquatic promise of my name anddistorted it in a shameful way. By nearly imperceptiblemodulations I could hear the change. It was as if their tongueswere charioteers driving wild horses. They could manage wellenough the first syllable, the Pea, but eventually the heat wastoo much and they lost control of their frothy-mouthed steedsand could no longer rein them in for the climb to the secondsyllable, the seen. Instead they plunged hell-bent into sing,and next time round, all was lost. My hand would be up togive an answer, and I would be acknowledged with a "Yes,Pissing." Often the teacher wouldn't realize what he had justcalled me. He would look at me wearily after a moment,wondering why I wasn't coming out with the answer. Andsometimes the class, as beaten down by the heat as he was,wouldn't react either. Not a snicker or a smile. But I alwaysheard the slur.
I spent my last year at St. Joseph's School feeling like thepersecuted prophet Muhammad in Mecca, peace be upon him.
But just as he planned his flight to Medina, the Hejira thatwould mark the beginning of Muslim time, I planned myescape and the beginning of a new time for me.
After St. Joseph's, I went to Petit Seminaire, the best privateEnglish-medium secondary school in Pondicherry. Ravi wasalready there, and like all younger brothers, I would suffer fromfollowing in the footsteps of a popular older sibling. He was theathlete of his generation at Petit Seminaire, a fearsome bowlerand a powerful batter, the captain of the town's best cricketteam, our very own Kapil Dev. That I was a swimmer madeno waves; it seems to be a law of human nature that thosewho live by the sea are suspicious of swimmers, just as thosewho live in the mountains are suspicious of mountain climbers.
But following in someone's shadow wasn't my escape, though Iwould have taken any name over "Pissing", even "Ravi'sbrother". I had a better plan than that.
I put it to execution on the very first day of school, in thevery first class. Around me were other alumni of St. Joseph's.
The class started the way all new classes start, with the statingof names. We called them out from our desks in the order inwhich we happened to be sitting.
"Ganapathy Kumar," said Ganapathy Kumar.
"Vipin Nath," said Vipin Nath.
"Shamshool Hudha," said Shamshool Hudha.
"Peter Dharmaraj," said Peter Dharmaraj.
Each name elicited a tick on a list and a brief mnemonicstare from the teacher. I was terribly nervous.
"Ajith Giadson," said Ajith Giadson, four desks away…"Sampath Saroja," said Sampath Saroja, three away…"Stanley Kumar," said Stanley Kumar, two away…"Sylvester Naveen," said Sylvester Naveen, right in front ofme.
It was my turn. Time to put down Satan. Medina, here Icome.
I got up from my desk and hurried to the blackboard.
Before the teacher could say a word, I picked up a piece ofchalk and said as I wrote:
My name is Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as– I double underlined the first two letters of my given name–Pi PatelFor good measure I addedπ = 3.14and I drew a large circle, which I then sliced in two with adiameter, to evoke that basic lesson of geometry.
There was silence. The teacher was staring at the board. Iwas holding my breath. Then he said, "Very well, Pi. Sit down.
Next time you will ask permission before leaving your desk.""Yes, sir."He ticked my name off And looked at the next boy.
"Mansoor Ahamad," said Mansoor Ahamad.
I was saved.
"Gautham Selvaraj," said Gautham Selvaraj.
I could breathe.
"Arun Annaji," said Arun Annaji.
A new beginning.
I repeated the stunt with every teacher. Repetition isimportant in the training not only of animals but also ofhumans. Between one commonly named boy and the next, Irushed forward and emblazoned, sometimes with a terriblescreech, the details of my rebirth. It got to be that after a fewtimes the boys sang along with me, a crescendo that climaxed,after a quick intake of air while I underlined the proper note,with such a rousing rendition of my new name that it wouldhave been the delight of any choirmaster. A few boys followedup with a whispered, urgent "Three! Point! One! Four!" as Iwrote as fast as I could, and I ended the concert by slicingthe circle with such vigour that bits of chalk went flying.
When I put my hand up that day, which I did every chanceI had, teachers granted me the right to speak with a singlesyllable that was music to my ears. Students followed suit. Eventhe St. Joseph's devils. In fact, the name caught on. Truly weare a nation of aspiring engineers: shortly after, there was aboy named Omprakash who was calling himself Omega, andanother who was passing himself off as Upsilon, and for awhile there was a Gamma, a Lambda and a Delta. But I wasthe first and the most enduring of the Greeks at PetitSeminaire. Even my brother, the captain of the cricket team,that local god, approved. He took me aside the next week.
"What's this I hear about a nickname you have?" he said.
I kept silent. Because whatever mocking was to come, it wasto come. There was no avoiding it.
"I didn't realize you liked the colour yellow so much."The colour yellow? I looked around. No one must hear whathe was about to say, especially not one of his lackeys. "Ravi,what do you mean?" I whispered.
"It's all right with me, brother. Anything's better than‘Pissing'. Even ‘Lemon Pie'."As he sauntered away he smiled and said, "You look a bitred in the face."But he held his peace.
And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with acorrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with whichscientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge.


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