What’s in a (sur)name?


Whenever people ask my baby’s name and I tell them what it is, they look at me as if I’m forgetting to say something. Then they look slightly uncomfortable and with an awkward ‘uhh…ok’ they quickly change the topic to how cute she is and start cooing at her. I’m of course talking about random people who either don’t know me at all or know me very little.

Seeing them feel uncomfortable over something as silly as a name really makes me want to laugh. My daughter doesn’t have a surname. Before I get into the whys and the wherefores, I’d like to tell you that people also feel uncomfortable by her name. And that really stuns me. And this has happened with people I know. So they know I am Hindu and sort of forget (conveniently or otherwise, I don’t know), that I married a Christian. My daughter, therefore, is bound to have a little bit of both right? Isn’t that what they should have expected?

She’s called Thea Nalini. We chose the name very carefully thinking about how both sides of the family will take to it. Unfortunately, though, one side of the family emphasises on the first name and the other side on the latter. So much thought put in the naamkaran didn’t come to much use. And I feel a tad bit bad about it because I thought Nalini isn’t an obvious Bengali name (and therefore shouldn’t have been a problem for his side of the family). And Thea is such an easy name to pronounce- it doesn’t change to sound something strange in Bengali (my elder sister’s daughter is called Adaa and a lot of people I know can’t quite pronounce it right and it ends up often sounding like the Bengali word for ginger, so most people refer to her as my sister’s daughter. No one really calls her by her name when she’s referred to in the third person). So, to avoid this situation, we chose a fairly simple easy-to-pronounce name, and my side of people aren’t still comfortable to call her by her first name. I guess because it sounds foreign? I don’t really know.

Anyway, I digress. Coming to the matter of the surname. I have always hated the fact that we all had to have a surname. I mean, what is its purpose really? It’s just to identify which part of the country you’re from and which part of the caste system you belong to.  All this fight over whose surname the child should use is so meh. Surname is like that identification number tattooed on cattle. And it defines us, which is what is so annoying. I mean opinions are formed (albeit subconsciously), without even meeting the person. The moment you hear a person’s name, you know that the person’s Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi. And if you don’t like people from a particular region, you’re automatically biased before even meeting them. If you know people from that region you also at some level end up registering that person’s caste. And why is this important? How does this help?Why do we need this kind of identification in today’s day and age?

So, as you can make out, I feel very strongly about this. But I didn’t know what could be done about this. The first time I heard that surname wasn’t that important for documents and stuff was when my elder sister had her children, they just gave them a name and a middle name. And that’s completely acceptable officially. I knew a lot of people who dropped off their surnames unofficially but didn’t know it could be a formal thing till I saw my sister do it.

My husband’s background is also quite unique. His mum belongs to a matrilineal society (where the child is supposed to take the mother’s surname since women are the material inheritors ) and his father, to a patriarchal setup. So the children, to find a middle path in this situation, didn’t take either surname; instead used their father’s name as a surname.

Since the trend was already set in his house, it wasn’t very difficult for me to convince him to this idea. We decided we’d call her Thea (her father’s called Theophilus) Nalini.

In a country where the majority is Hindu, random people automatically assume that I am one. Then they hear her name, and can’t understand whether she’s Christian or Hindu. And then they look expectantly at me to give a surname so that they can deduce without asking me the awkward question, and I give them none :D. And of course, people don’t ask even though I know they’re dying to. And what cheap thrills I get out of this!

We are a strange family where no one’s name matches the other ( no stamp on me please!) and I think (hope!) in the dark gloomy days that we live in, this is going to save my child from a lot of unnecessary bias when she grows up. And even if it doesn’t, she’ll grow to be her own person, not tied down by region, religion and caste to define her.


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