Recently a friend of mine who finished a Masters degree from a prestigious university in the UK received an offer of employment from a firm that designed oil drilling equipment. One of the conditions of the offer was that my friend had to produce copies of his A Level, undergraduate and post graduate degree certificates. Within a day of emailing scanned copies of the certificates, my friend received a call from his future employer’s HR department which wanted him to explain why the name on his A Level and undergraduate certificates was different from the one on his passport and post certificates.
My friend hails from a town in southern India and his name is Srinivas. To use a turn of phrase used very often by western newspapers, like many others in southern India, my friend has only one name. It’s Srinivas. Period. His school records mention his name as R. Srinivas, the patronymic ‘R’ in front denoting his father’s name ‘Ramaswamy’. When the time came for Srinivas to travel to the UK for his higher studies, he applied for a passport. An Indian passport application form requires all applicants to have a ‘Given Name’ and a Surname’ and so Srinivas expanded his name ‘R. Srinivas’ to read as ‘Ramaswamy Srinivas’. When Srinivas reached the UK, he entered his name as ‘Ramaswamy Srinivas’ in his university records. People started calling him by his new first name, ‘Ramaswamy’. When they wanted to become formal, they would call him Mr. Srinivas.
To cut a long story short, it took Srinivas a great deal of effort to convince his new employer that he was both R. Srinivas as well as Ramaswamy Srinivas.
For the Christians of Kerala, names are usually a jumble of biblical and/or Indian names thrown together. The Indian name might be a given name or the family name. Not all names have family names on record (as in my case, which I am not too unhappy about since my family name ‘Purayidathil’ can be a mouthful) and when it makes an appearance, the family name may be at the beginning of the name. To use an example, the Indian defence minister A.K. Antony’s name may be expanded as “Arakkaparambil Kurian Antony.” The family name is “Arakkaparambil” and it appears at the beginning of the name whilst the Christian name Antony appears at the end. ‘Kurian’ is Malayalam for ‘Cyriac’ and takes middle stage. According to this Indian government website, A. K. Antony’s father was Arakkaparambil Kurian Pillai. However, in the case of A. K. Antony’s two sons, the family name “Arakkaparambil” does not make an appearance at all and the boys are named “Anil Kurien Antony” and “Ajith Paul Antony”.
To use another famous person as an example, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has only one name (Karunanidhi) but has three wives and a number of children. The Patronymic ‘M’ is installed in the beginning of the name to denote Karunanidhi’s father’s name ‘Muthuvel.’ All of Karunanidhi’s sons sport the initials M.K - M. K. Stalin, M.K Azhagiri etc.
It is not only Indians from Southern India who suffer from a need to have surnames. For a decade or so until 2007, Canada operated a rule which prohibited the use of ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ as surnames by individuals applying to migrate to Canada. The rationale behind such a rule was that there were too many Singhs and Kaurs in Canada and it was well neigh impossible to distinguish between them. Patel is supposed to be one of the most common surnames in the UK, even though ethnic Indians form only 1.8% of the British population and Gujaratis are outnumbered by Punjabis two to one.
The fact of the matter is that neither Singh nor Kaur nor Patel is a surname, as it is understood in the West. No, they are community names, as are names like Jains, Goels, Chopras, Mukherjees, Nairs, Menons or Sinhas. Most Indians don’t have surnames. Period.
It is not only Indians who don’t have surnames. Arabs too don’t have surnames. Instead, they have a chain of names and a father’s last name may not be the same as a son’s last name.
The Chinese have family names, but the family name comes first followed by the given name. Of course, the Arabs and Chinese, just like the Indians, tamper with their names so that they fit western templates.
Japanese names follow the western format since Japanese rulers have over the years forced their people to adhere to a strict set of rules for naming children. Thailand forced people to adopt a surname in 1913 and every family is expected to have a unique surname. It is also common for Thais to change their surnames frequently.
As the world becomes more inclusive and tolerant, I think it is high time countries all over the world ditched the notion that every name should consist of a surname and a given name. Every individual should be entitled to have a name of his or her own choice. Everyone must write their names in full and not have to break it up into given names and surnames. Forcing a person to change his or her name or tamper with it is a gross assault on the victim’s individuality.