Viewpoint: A personal history of Indian brand names

Tata Motors Chairman Cyrus Mistry, left, and Tim Leverton, head of Tata Engineering and Research and Development, pose for photographers during the unveiling of Zica at a press preview of Auto Expo in Greater Noida, near New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. Image copyright AP
Image caption Tata Motors has decided to rename the Zica

There was a minor sensation in India recently when Tata Motors launched a car named Zica.

I was a little surprised by all the fuss.

On the whole, it has to be admitted though, that India is no stranger to comical brand names.

Millions of men across the nation have marched into drug stores and asked for Manforce condoms. Meanwhile, housewives have purchased Stay On power capsules for their husbands, in the hope that they will. We've been using Cock brand fireworks for years.

However, this does not mean that people from elsewhere can mock us. Every nation is home to some unfortunately named products.

If you live in England, you should know that your nation produces Heinz Microwavable Spotted Dick, and has been doing so for many years. Somebody must be buying it. Your finer supermarkets stock Original Breast Munchies, which can also be ordered online.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bollywood actress Sunny Leone has appeared in the ad for Manforce condoms

Meanwhile, people in Ghana are eating their French fries with Shitto sauce and washing it down with Pee Cola. You don't hear them making a fuss about it.

So what if the Indian car name sounded similar to a lethal virus? Who are you to judge us?

Rather than indulging in unnecessary mudslinging, this is a good opportunity to review the history of brand names in India, to see how we arrived at Zica.

'Shadow of the Raj'

You could even argue that it's important, because the history of these names, and their evolution, is in some ways the history of a nation's soul.

Our story begins in 1947, at which point we thought we were free. But it was not that easy. The British proved to be extremely hard to get rid of. Many of them lurked in the clubs, refusing to let others in. Others strode the chambers of commerce like colossi, until we plied them with gin and dragged them away after they fell to the floor, unconscious.

When we were young and vulnerable as a nation, their malign influence was strong.

Our favourite brands were biscuits and beverages, the sort which khansamas (cooks) served to their memsahibs, like Bournvita and Thin Arrow Root and Horlicks.

Time has passed, but the shadow of the Raj has lingered.

As we grew in confidence, we bought Indian-sounding Mysore Sandal Soap and Rooh Afza Syrup and Taj Mahal Tea, but a Raymond's suit was still better than a Dinesh.

Sometimes this rising confidence could breed unfortunate hybrids, like the Premier Padmini. It was an automobile launched in 1974, and marched us boldly into the 1950s. The only thing Indian about it was the Padmini.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Premier Padmini cars are still in use as taxis in Indian cities like Mumbai

Padmini was also the name of a popular actress, who shot through our lives like a comet, and dominated the dreams of many adolescents. As a boy I remember being highly embarrassed that our car was called a Padmini.

As we breezed into the 70s and 80s, still oddly confident, we felt strong enough to challenge the might of Coca Cola, and came up with Thums Up, as a result of which almost no one in India can spell the word "thumb".

Another local champion of the time was the Vijai Super Scooter, which ran on a mixture of petrol and kerosene, and sometimes made farting noises.

All this gave you the national perspective, but there were also regional peculiarities.

Image copyright CocaCola

In my native Bengal, most brands have always been edible. Food is a big priority, perhaps because history has taught us that you never know when it will run out.

My childhood was dominated by brands like Dulal's Palm Candy, Ganesh Brand Mustard Oil and Jalajog Sweet Curd, which was endorsed by poet Rabindranath Tagore: "After eating Jalajog Sweet Curd, I was extremely pleased."

Gastronomical and pharmaceutical go hand in hand, which is why stomach remedies like Gelusil, Digene and Pudin Hara are also part of our sub-national psyche.

As we moved into the 90s, the rest of the country, not as obsessed with stomachs, broadened its horizons.

We remained convinced that foreign was better than Indian, but our definition of foreign expanded beyond Hyde Park and Piccadilly Circus.

We embraced brands that sounded like they were foreign, such as Monte Carlo from the city of Ludhiana, Da Milano from Kapashera (near Delhi), and La Opala from AJC Bose Road in Kolkata (Calcutta).

An emerging subculture or subroutine was the "might be Japanese" category, with names like Onida and Okaya leaving just enough room for doubt. In this way, gradually, we got to know the world.

We now live in a bold new era, where old rules are meaningless and assumptions are questioned. Products of today have rejected the tyranny of grammar and logic. I live right next door to a Kutz and Kurlz, and there are several Bathroom Shoppees within walking distance.

The decision of Tata Motors to call its new car Zica has to be viewed in this socio-cultural and grammatical context. It was a bit of a boo boo, no doubt, but contextually correct.

There is no need to worry. No harm will come of this. Tata Motors manufactures fine products, as do all the other manufacturers mentioned in this article. Whatever name they choose to give their new vehicle, it will surely smell just as sweet.

Besides, we should not be so hasty in criticising names. We speak in many tongues. All names are open to interpretation, including our own.

In India, names like Chokalingam, Vellasamy and Terry Mardi are perfectly acceptable in some parts of the country, but raise a wide variety of questions in others. So try not to rush into judgment. Just be grateful your name is not Anal Singh.

Shovon Chowdhury's latest book, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, is set in a Calcutta occupied by China.

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