Short story submission by talented and up-and-coming Maldivian writers
For children, mindless cruelty is a vast field of blossoming lilies in which to run gaily laughing, sliding down gentle hills in a stupor, unencumbered by adult empathy. Classroom, the great amplifier of this cruelty has the effect of concentrating the attacks towards the only grownups around in the form of nicknames. The brunt of these verbal projectiles are of course borne by teachers, supervisors, headmasters etc. Childhood being a domain of chaos, there is very little sense to who is dubbed but a crude relationship exists; the more you told them what to do, the crueler the nickname, even though sometimes bystanders too become casualties.
I remember the South Indian principal assigned to my school in the late months of Grade 7, the gentlest, most affable man who had lived, we found out later, but who nonetheless had made the unforgivable mistake of showing up. On that balmy morning the boys were all sniggers as a singular phrase was passed along the student ranks- hammerhead. The man, tall by Maldivian metric, had a head vaguely resembling an inverted triangle. The top of his wiry hair cut to a perfect horizontal. Now why hammerhead and not nailhead? The boy who’d coined it explained it was because ‘the head was asking for a hammer’.
Few weeks into the reign of Hammerhead, the school’s groundskeeper/landscaper/one-sick-leave-away-from-being-the-science-teacher had told me sincerely that the new principal was perfect in every way except you rarely saw him at the mosque. “Thedheh beybe” I had replied knowing full well that hammerhead was a devout Catholic. Pedantry is no option when you see an uninvited punchline approaching.
After Hammerhead came Principal Candyman who, when the morning sun rose above the trees on the adjacent graveyard, and the golden light warmed his face, squinted and bared his teeth, lips parted a millimetre, the crater-sized pores on his face visible from a mile. A vulgarly captivating sight.
Lowest form of the practice goes after the appearance as in the case of Turtle (Velaabe when in vicinity), the warm economics teacher who had short, stout arms which when at rest didn’t point downwards but arched on his rotund sides.
Not all were deducible from the physical. Bulky was a tall, lean commerce teacher who had said the words “bulky goods” thrice within a 35-minute period, grating on someone’s ears one afternoon.
Style guides often recommend using words that sound like what they mean. For instance, with a word like ‘chubby’ you know what you’re getting. Same with ‘moist’- a much derided word which I champion unabashedly. Some are unyielding enemies of this spirit, like the word pulchritudinous – a ghoul of a word, a real piece of shit, which OED defines as ‘beautiful’. I don’t buy it. Anyways, my third principal was named Jabrahath (‘Jabey’ for short) for his encyclopaedic knowledge about seemingly every subject on Earth. See what I mean? You can see Jabrahath in your mind’s eye. Jabrahath is a vast warehouse of dusty tomes stacked to the remote roof. The etymology. The composite is more than the sum of individual parts. Root being Abrahath, the infamous vandal of Scripture who marched elephants to destroy the House of the Lord. Abrahath implies heft. Abrahath is heft gone rogue. You cannot imagine a baby Abrahath. No, he had to have been born a 30-year-old giant, wearing ancient golden ornaments. Principal Jabey too was a big man but what was Abrahathic was his brains.
The most prodigious nicknamers take the art to the street, to their neighbourhoods. The bare-chested, sarong-wearing elderly man across the street is Countdown (google ‘album art of Countdown to Extinction by heavy metal band, Megadeth’), corner shop-owner is harda (no idea) and the family friend who is just Body.
Before writing this I spoke to my niece and nephew who are in primary school to see if the tradition continues and sure enough, sharing a classroom with these poems (Mishka, with her perpetual pigtails and Alyan who sees through all adult lies) are units called Huida (the Chinese company he had once said made his bathroom basin), Vampire (slightly longer incisors) and Cyclops (one eye bandaged for a school week).
When children become adults and the moderating forces of maturity kick in, the nicknames are shorn of their sting and irony, becoming overly indulgent. An adult named Khadheeja can ask to be called Rizu and not raise sufficient eyebrows. A 30 year old man could roam the streets calling himself Rocky, abusing people’s good will.