What’s in a name? A collection of myriad syllables that your parents thought sounded pretty strung together. In the Indian context, probably something with a hifalutin, deep meaning behind it, something that’s meant to dictate the way your life turns out. “Honourable” or “God’s gift” or something else sanctimonious and preachy.
What’s in a name? Everything, as it turns out. When you meet a person, the first thing you judge is their name. No, I’m not talking about how good or bad a name is (although those named ‘Doris’ must be pitied for the general lack of parental affection they must have experienced), but what people get out of your names. Because what people hear when you tell them your name isn’t the ‘hidden meaning’ behind it, but rather what’s out in the open. Your religion. Your caste. Your ethnicity. Everything that identifies you, except for everything that’s really important. Your name is the first basis for this distinction.
Take my name, for example. ‘Tanveer’. It’s an instantly recognizable Muslim name – my personal take on religion or the concept of God is completely forfeited because I’m easily slotted into the ‘Muslim’ category. Here, I’d like to differentiate between actually belonging to a religion and belonging to a religious community. You may not be a Hindu, but you will be identified as one, just as I, despite not being a Muslim, will be identified as one because I belong to the Muslim community and have a Mussalman naam to boot.
What’s in a name? Your caste, for one. How many matrimonial ads have you seen asking for people from a particular community? How many Sharmas have become offended at being called Vermas? How many Sachdevas balk at being referred to as Sachdevs, how many Pathans shrink from ‘Patnaik’?
How many times has a friend tried to divine where you’re from on the basis of your last name? You have your Chatterjees and Mukherjees, your Shahs and Patels, your Boruas and your Hazarikas. All of these names are easily associated with communities, identities, beings. Let’s slot them all into neat little categories. ‘Arrey, but he’s obviously a Bong, yaar.’
Look at electoral games in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Yadavs band together, knowing that their common surname also demarcates a common jaati. Names bear the heavy burden of caste, a few syllables deciding which way your life will go. Will you be a Chaturvedi or a Valmiki? A Singh or an Iyer? What are people going to think when they see your name on the dotted line, on the opening slide of your office presentation, on your air ticket? What are they going to think of?
Besides which, there’s another angle to names. Ms. Rais turn into Mrs. Bachchan’s, powerful women sacrificing their names to take on those of the men they’ve married. Their children have their father’s name. It’s even become a pop culture trope – ‘He will carry on our family name’. Our here meaning ‘father’s’. After a while, a collection of individual members of a family just become collectively known as the ‘Kumars’. Let’s have a common identity for everyone. And make sure that you get Papa’s last name right and tack on a ‘Mrs.’ in front of it.
Names are important. They define so much of who you are – first impressions, the way you react in a situation, everything. If I’m in a rural household, I will probably omit mentioning my last name for fear of repercussions. If I’m strolling through an area known for its restiveness, my identity is limited to my first name, which is more neutral and could potentially pass off for Parsi (and has, in fact, done so in the past). You learn to adapt to situations to ensure that you get past them, that the great barrier of your name doesn’t stop you from becoming the person you are. Sometimes, they can even be a stepping stone – as Mini once wrote, a simple change from ‘Saxena’ to ‘Gajendragadkar’ made all the difference. But after all, what’s in a name?