Two words, nine letters and the endless, infinite trauma of my name

I was born V. Amol, which eventually became Amol Rajan. Simples, right? Alas, it’s been anything but.

I always knew it would happen eventually – and yet, when I saw the email, it came as a shock. With a smack of recognition, I realised I could avoid this battle no longer. The reckoning was upon me. Finally I would have to explain how to say my name – and this time it was official.

The email was from the BBC Pronunciation Unit. They said they had received a query about “Amol”; and though I have explained it several thousand times, across many continents, this time was different. This time there was no room for error. The missive would go out to all and sundry who enquired from within Britain’s public broadcaster. Millions would hear the consequences.

My parents can’t have known, when they named me in Calcutta on the fourth day in July of 1983, the horror ahead. Amol Palekar was and is an actor of some renown, a kind of Indian Nigel Havers, and Amol was a reasonably common Marathi name for the time. It derives from the Sanskrit word for “precious”, and beat Parag and Ambarish in a highly competitive race.

But it’s been a bloody nightmare ever since. For starters, Amol Rajan isn’t really my name. Or it is now, but wasn’t when I came to this country at the age of three. My mum is from Pune, India’s ninth largest city, close to Bombay, where they use the same forename-surname construction as we do. But my father is Tamil, from near Kumbakonam, in south-east India. There, your official “name” is your second name, and follows your father’s initial and a dot. My grandfather’s name was Pattabiraman. My father’s name is Varadarajan. So my father’s name is P. Varadarajan. By this logic, my name is V. Amol. Get it?

My family knew this would baffle the British when we arrived, so we flipped it round, and I was known as Amol Varadarajan.

This proved too much for various authorities, who couldn’t understand my father’s signature, which looked for all the world like “P Varadarajan” – with good reason. So he split his name into “Varada” and “Rajan”, and the family took the latter. V. Amol became Amol Rajan. Simples, right? Alas, it’s been anything but.

It turns out you can pronounce Amol in far too many ways. Most common is “Uh-moll”. Wrong. Second is “Ay-moll”. Incorrect. Next is “Ammal” – like ‘Mammal’. Hopeless. Refined types go with “A-mowel”, which is quite something.

It is actually pronounced “Amole”. As I said to my colleagues in the Pronunciation Unit, if you saw a mole in your garden, you’d say “Look, it’s a mole!” That’s how you say it, exclamation mark and all.

The problems don’t end there. It turns out that if you spell out the letters a, m, o and l quickly, all human beings are hard-wired to recite “m, a, o, l” back to you, making “Maol”.

Plus I used to work at the Foreign Office. I’d ring people up, and what they’d hear was: “Hello, it’s a mole from the Foreign Office…” Cue much bafflement. “What, you’re a spy? And you’re telling us?”

I use the above joke whenever I’m hosting an event and nervous, or on TV game shows. I used it while hosting a dinner given by the Media Society to celebrate the career of Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, and it worked a dream.

My surname has caused a very different kind of problem. To a certain kind of English gentleman, the “Raj” in Rajan is so alluring they seem to think it should be my forename. On the radio, I frequently get called “Raj” by presenters and members of the public alike. Does the “Raj” in Rajan evoke images of manicured lawns and hot verandas, where gentleman of the empire drank gin on balmy evenings?

I once had breakfast with the eminent editor of a Fleet Street title. An hour later I called him about something. He picked up the phone and said, “Hello, Rajan!” He has since called me Amol, so maybe I am reading too much into it. You can hardly blame me for being pedantic though. After all, Amol Rajan is an anagram of Major Anal. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game