An Indian lyric: Singhing in the Punjab

There are probably infinitely more Singhs and Rams in India than there are Smiths and Joneses in the United States, England, and Wales. The driver for a New Delhi tourist company insisted that for future reference he should be remembered not as Singh or Mr. Singh but Mr. Bawa Singh. "Otherwise you will not locate me," he said with a slight rolling motion of his head that is characteristic of some Indians.

The reason, he explained, is that he is one of 13 drivers in his company. "They are all Singhs -- seven are Sikhs and six are Hindus."

Which illustrates a useful rule of thumb in India: Every Sikh is a Singh, but not every Singh is a Sikh.

For instance, former Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh is a Sikh. The tip-off is the beard and turban, which automatically classify Sikhs.

Then again, Charan Singh, the last prime minister, is not a Sikh. He is clean shaven and wears a white cap, which was one of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's trademarks. Charan Singh, incidentally, is a Jat. Jats originally were warriors and now are predominant as farmers and landowners in the north.

For a reporter to call a Mr. Singh at the government's External Affairs Ministry is a lesson in bureaucratic frustration. The Singh you get is not the Singh you want. Even the addition of an initial may not help.

"Mr. S. Singh, please." Pause on the other end of the telephone. "Mr. S. P. Singh, or Mr. S. N. Singh, or Mr. S. K. Singh?"

For anyone wanting to call this ministry in New Delhi, be warned. There are no fewer than 15 senior officials listed in the phone book as Singhs. How many more are secretaries or teawallahs goodness knows.

When Mrs. Gandhi announced her first list of new Cabinet ministers, it included no fewer than three Singhs: Rao Birendra Singh (agriculture), Bhishma Narain Singh (parliamentary affairs), and Zail Singh (home).

I've got Zail Singh's name down pat. For one thing he has the shortest name. Besides, of the three he's the only one who wears a turban and beard -- another Sikh.

Deciphering Singh nomenclature becomes even harder in the Punjab, homeland of the Sikhs. Recently there was a great to-do over who will be the state's new chief minister. A local newspaper reported the deadlock thus:

"The supporters of the chief minister as well as those of the Dal chief were not happy at today's decision. Mr. Ravi Inder Singh, Mr. Parkash Singh Majitha, Mr. Narinder Singh Raja, and Mr. Arjan Singh Litt wanted the election of party chief to be held immediately." Sikh rules dictate that Singh has to appear somewhere in the name.

Then there are the Rams, such as leading politician Jagjivan Ram, the most prominent untouchable in the country, who recently challenged Mrs. Gandhi for the prime ministership last month and lost.

Of the 252 candidates fielded in the recent election from the state of Rajasthan, noted in the past for its maharajahs, no fewer than 48 -- almost 25 percent -- were Rams. The Hindustan Times headlined the story "Ram, Ram!" Incidentally, the story ran just below another Ram story -- "J. Ram: no question of leaving party." That J. Ram was Jagjivan Ram.

But the word that runs off an Indian's tongue faster than he can say Singh or Ram is "achcha." Basically achcha means "good" or "correct," but depending on the intonation or circumstance it means practically everything from "yes, maybe, all right," to "go ahead, will do, I suppose so."

Achcha, Mr. Singh?

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