‘Hello, everyone” said the young lady brightly “ Let me introduce our guest. This is Rao. Let me know if you need anything else, Mr. BP” she said with a smile and away she went.

“It’s ok. What’s in a name?” asked the young lady when we were having lunch later. I had told her I preferred to be called “ Prem” or “ BP” but not “ Rao”.

“ It’s not ok” I said. “I’ll tell you why. Should I call you “Venkataraman”? Her face changed. “But that’s my husband’s name” she protested. ” My name is Veena.”

But you write your name as Veena Venkataraman, I pointed out. “Just as Veena is your name, my name is Prem. Rao is my surname or family name. For a formal introduction, it should always be “Mr. Rao” just as I would introduce you as Mrs. Venkataraman and not Mrs. Veena. For an informal introduction, introducing you as “This is Veena” is fine, “This is Venkatararaman” is not.”!

Confused? You haven’t heard everything yet. Names can be confusing to the uninitiated, especially in the South of India where there are many different ways of writing one’s name. In some communities like mine, our name is prefixed with the name of our hometown. My full name is Bantwal Premkumar Rao, with Bantwal being a small place near Managalore.

I saw Mr. K.V. Kamath, CEO of ICICI Bank referred to in Forbes as Kundapur Kamath. His name is Kundapur Vaman Kamath. His first name is Vaman. Calling him Kundapur at a cocktail party would be a faux pax as it is the name of a place.

Other communities in South India have their father’s name precede their given name. Calling Rajaraman Subramaniam “ Raj” may be wrong because his name may be Subbu. Raj may be his father who has been dead and gone for a long time. Celebrities, however, seem to be the exception. Krish Srikkant , a former captain of the Indian cricket team, has got used to the world call him Krish though Krishnamachari is actually his father’s name. In Maharashtra it is common to have the father’s name after your name and before your surname, like a “Sunil Manohar Gavaskar”.

In yet other parts of India it is common to have several initials precede your name, T.V.L.N.R. Murthy comes to mind. These initials frequently are names of Gods from the Hindu pantheon. In Kerala, the same name may come twice like a Mammem K. Mammem or a John.T. John. For the most part, names in the North of India are less complicated. You could have a Pramod Khanna or a Radha Biswas where their first names are easier to identify.

It is better to ask how a person prefers to be called. Also, if you are not sure of how the name is pronounced, it is courteous to ask rather than pronounce it wrongly. This is useful for names like “Mathizhagan”,”Ezhikutty” or “Thenmozhi”. His/her name is important to every person. They don’t like it to be mispronounced.

As always, I use a golden rule: when in doubt ask!

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