Have you ever considered how misleading names can be? This first occurred to me in Nigeria. At the time I was 25 and The Times correspondent in Lagos. It was my first job but, much more than that, it was also my first home where, for the first time, I had my own staff. It was a pretty heady experience, until the thinly disguised anomalies inherent in my position became apparent.
“I’m your guard,” said a small, almost fragile man, who introduced himself as soon as I arrived. He was barely five feet tall. “It is my job to look after this property.”
“Good to meet you,” I said, attempting the sort of dignified air that would have come naturally to my parents. He seemed a bit small to be a guard. “What’s your name?”
“Big Joe,” he replied. That, he proudly added, was the precise name given by his parents.
I soon discovered that the only thing big about Joe was his appetite for alcohol. In every other way his name betrayed his parents’ failed expectations. Joe, of course, never realised this. No matter what he was told to do, his stock response was, “Big Joe understands”. Needless to say, he didn’t!
However, before you think I’m picking on him, poor Joe is by no means the only mis-named individual in history. The papacy seems to have had more than its fair share. Can you guess the name of the pope who commanded catholic priests to remain celibate? Innocent! Actually, there was even one who wasn’t a man but you’d never have realised that from the name, John VIII.
Of course, as a teenager I knew a thousand silly jokes about book titles written by the most unlikely authors. The ones I recall are Mud on the Roof by Hu Phlung Dung and Atrocities of the Russian Revolution by Nora Torratitzov. But I assume these are made up. Big Joe and the popes were for real.
All of this came tumbling back last week when I spent an hour and more with a man whose name is in almost complete contrast to his actual personality. This time, however, it was a person of importance and he rather liked the mismatch. When I pointed it out, he roared with genial laughter.
I’m referring to Prachanda, the Chairman of the Nepalese Maoist party, the victor of the recent elections and the most likely first president of the new republic he intends to usher in. Prachanda, like Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky, is his sobriquet. It means ‘the fierce one’.
Fierce, however, is the one thing Prachanda is not. He can’t help smiling. There’s always a clear hint of it on his face. And when he allows it to form fully — as he often does — his eyes start smiling too. In addition, he’s not very tall, tubby and has a sprightly walk. Consequently, his appearance is more that of a plump leprechaun than a forbidding guerrilla. His real name, of course, is Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
“People tell me that I am more Pushpa and Kamal than Prachanda,” he said, laughing loudly at his own joke. The contradiction in his names clearly appealed to him.
I can’t help feel that leaders who easily laugh and smile prove to be popular. They’re re-assuring. You want to believe them and you’re ready to give them time. Tony Blair was like that. In his early years they called him ‘Bambi’. I’m sure that helped when the burden of Iraq started to crush his credibility.
On the other hand dour, politicians soon become unpopular. That’s Gordon Brown’s problem and, who knows, maybe Manmohan Singh’s too. In contrast, observe Obama closely the next time you see him on television. He smiles a lot. It softens his face and makes him appear likeable. I’m sure that’s half his charm.
I think Mr Dahal recognises this. In fact, I suspect he uses his smile as a weapon. And I’m willing to bet that as president, he will be anything but prachanda!