From Saddam Beach in Malappuram to John F Kennedy school in Kollam, there are, in the state, a number of examples with strange and interesting stories.

The front part of a school with John F Kennedy written over it and a security guard standung underneath
Features Culture Monday, February 08, 2021 - 17:48

In a village called Ayanivelikulangara in Karunagappally, Kollam, is a vocational higher secondary school named John F Kennedy Memorial. It was founded in 1965 by Karanchery Ramakrishna Pillai, a man who wanted to promote international peace and brotherhood. Shocked by the assassination of Kennedy two years earlier, Karanchery named the school after the former American president. The school is still run by Karanchery’s family and has continued with Kennedy’s name.

All over Kerala you will find examples of such adoration for international figures, where people, places and organisations are named after a politician, a poet or a philosopher.

“He was aware of international politics, kept up to date by friends in the US who wrote him letters,” says Gangaram, grandson of Karanchery. “Moreover it is a symbol of universal brotherhood.”

When you ask around, you find examples pouring from the most unexpected corners of the state. A number of streets named after the Dutch in Kochi, a shop named after Castro in Thiruvananthapuram, a Baker junction in Kottayam, a furniture store called Che Guevara Sculpture in Kannur and a Kafka textile shop in Palakkad. 

There is in Malappuram a Saddam Beach, named so in 1991 during the Gulf War by villagers who wanted to express solidarity with the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. When he was executed in 2006, there were protests in Saddam Beach by angry villagers, against the US for America’s invasion of Iraq. Earlier, the beach was named after the 18th century invader and Mysore ruler, Tipu Sultan.

“Wherever in this world, when there are happenings we can be proud of, people take notice. Malayalis especially do,” says MA Baby, former Minister of Culture in Kerala.

“Long, long ago, before foreign invasions, Malayalis connected with people from other countries through maritime trade. Muziris, the ancient harbour in Kodungalloor, is believed to be one of the biggest ports of South India [dating back to first century BC]. We made connections with the Romans, the Arabians and others,” says Baby, momentarily drifting off to narrate the story of a Chera King (called Cheraman Perumals) who converted to Islam, went to Mecca and died there.

There are legends which say St Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ, first reached Kerala and India with Christ’s message before going to Europe.

“Through such legendary and commercial interests from very early times, there has always been an interest in international affairs for the people of Kerala. In one such phase, people began naming their children after international figures, for religious or other reasons. The A in my initials stands for Alexander. It could have come out of the respect for Alexander The Great,” Baby adds.

Bina Thomas, founder of Heritage Walk Trivandrum, puts this strange fascination of foreign names to colonialism, the babuism culture of an educated class that wanted to ape everything the British did and also as a reflection of an educated, informed society.

But she adds, “World view, however, did not directly affect the personal sphere of people or a household. I think there was a difference between what was happening outside and within the walls of a house. When it came to women's liberation and empowerment, or what happened within the walls of a house, nothing much changed. People were happy to talk about Castro or Che Guevara or the British system or adopt certain styles of their dressing. They adopt these names to show that they are extremely aware of world cultures and ready to innovate and accommodate. But it stops there. What was happening within their domestic spheres didn’t change much. That's the dichotomy we see.”

TP Sankarankutty, who was earlier director general at the Centre for Heritage Studies and a history professor, goes further into the past. To the time Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on a coast in Kozhikode, in 1498. “It so happened that Da Gama and his Portuguese halo made inroads into Kerala history and culture. We find in Kochi and Kozhikode several institutions, establishments and presses named after Portuguese persons. At the same time Afonso de Albuquerque, another Portuguese conqueror, was making inroads in Goa – there is a place and a railway station in Goa still named after him,” Sankarankutty says.

Similar effects took place when later the Dutch invaded Kerala. The Hill Palace at Tripunithura was first called the Portuguese Palace, then the Dutch Palace and later the Cochin Palace. Interestingly there is also a Tipu Sultan Hotel in Kochi.

Many streets in Fort Kochi continue to carry Dutch names, sometimes ambiguously so. Dutch author and cultural anthropologist Bauke van der Pol explains a few. "Actually only one street gives people some trouble: Petercellie Street. Some have asked me who Peter Celli was? A historical figure maybe from the Netherlands? The truth is Petercellie is in Dutch peterselie, meaning in English, parsley. So that corner where you find this street name was once the market area for fruits and vegetables. Another peculiar street name is Burg(h)er Street (Burgerstraat). This street name refers to the time when certain citizens in Dutch towns had the right to vote but also had to serve in case of emergency to defend the city.”

He adds, “Other street names in Fort Kochi are quite familiar in the Netherlands as well, like Rose Street (Rozenstraat), Lilly Street (Leliestraat), Prince Street (Prinsestraat). All these street names you find in all major cities in the Netherlands. So all these names are from the Dutch period in Fort Kochi (1663-1795).”

Later of course, it was the turn of the British. Roads, colleges and important cultural centres got named after British men and women. “There is a Kullen road in Alappuzha, named after the British resident of Travancore court during the reign of Swathi Thirunal. The town hall in Thiruvananthapuram was raised as an important cultural centre to mark the 60th coronation of Queen Victoria. The government college in Palakkad is also named after Victoria,” says Sankarankutty.

The VJT Hall has been recently renamed after Ayyankali, the social revolutionary of early 20th century Kerala.

VJT Hall which got renamed to Ayyankali Hall / Courtesy - Navaneeth Krishna S / Wiki Commons

Sankarankutty cites more examples – the Brennen College in Thalassery (named after an English philanthropist), the St Angelo Fort in Kannur (named after a Portuguese missionary) and the roads named after Martin Luther King Junior, American civil rights leader.

“Smaller roads where the depressed classes and Dalits live are sometimes called the Martin Luther King Road or the Martin Luther Road. Some of the small bridges too are named after him. There are also certain Residents Associations named after him. Not just international figures, there are streets and roads named after Indian icons too like Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji (late politician, historian and writer C Rajagopalachari),” Sankarankutty says.

The naming culture continues with greater vigour these days, he says.

MA Baby rattles off names of people he has come across, named after poets and politicians. There is among them, an artist called Pushkin (named after a Russian poet), the late filmmaker Lenin Rajendran (named after Russian revolutionary), and another artist called Socrates.

"In Tamil Nadu, I was once honoured during a meeting by a man called Fidel Castro. I took a photo and sent it to the ambassador at the Cuban embassy to say that Fidel Castro still lives!" Baby recounts.

Another Castro who lives in Thiruvananthapuram says it was his father’s idea to name all of his children after Communists. “He was a bus conductor who read a lot. He was also a staunch Communist and named us Castro, Che Guevara and Valentina,” says Castro, who works in the Department of Medical Education.

He has inherited his father’s fascination for international Communist leaders and named his son Fidel. Little Fidel Castro is now three and a half years old.

It is not just famous people, children are also named after ideas, Baby says. But that can be another story.

Also read: Kerala's chayakkada: How the tea shop has shaped politics, cinema and culture



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