Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I Don’t Have A Surname. Do You?

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.

17 comments:

harini calamur said...

:) my surname is a village name - which my family left in my great - great grandfather's time.
i had the same issue when i went abroad to study some twenty years ago - had to have a lawyer attest that i was me :)
enjoyed the post !

Marunadan Thrissurkaran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Winnowed said...

Thank you Harini

Winnowed said...

Dear Marunadan Thrissurkaran, your comment got deleted accidentally - some glitch with the blog I think - I clicked on your name and your comment disappeared/got deleted. Nevertheless,thanks for commenting.

tsp said...

In the India I have experienced, surnames are often used to trace your caste. So supplying a firstname is often followed by the question - "Poora naam kya hai?"

illusionaire said...

I'm from Mizoram and my name is Vanlalruatkima. Just that. No first name, surname etc. And yes, its a big pain filling online applications etc. In School I had to break up my name to "Vanlal" and "Ruatkima". Then comes the etiquette of using "surname" first so I became "Ruatkima Vanlal" And then Middle name option came in and finally my name read: "Kima Vanlal Ruat" which may not sound strange to most of you, but to a Mizo, the name doesn't make any sense at all. Its like Anirudhha becoming "Dhha Ni Ru A".

paragdgala said...

Thats quite an interesting post! I do not completely understand the naming conventions used in Southern India, but it was nice to see that other non-Indian cultures also have similar issues.

What surprises me is that the concept of 'surname' exists in India, but not in US. 'Surname' is not a western concept (assuming that by west, you mean US, Canada and UK) All US forms have 'First Name' and 'Last Name'. 'First Name' is usually you only, and in my opinion 'Last Name' is something that identifies you and is shareable with your siblings at the least.

So for me, the definition of 'Surname' or 'Last Name' is something that identifies you. This identifier could be your family name, village name, community name, father's name, mother's name, caste name, clan name, some physical/mental/business trait of your forefathers (e.g. Longman, Daruwala), etc. The list is non-exhaustive, but you got the flow of my thought.

Marunadan Thrissurkaran said...

@Winnowed: no worries. I'd just commented about the Nair community of Kerala which is matrilinear and most of us born outside not carrying our family names legally. So many of us like me, have our parents, both with different family names (since they legally carry their family names), while we carry the first name, father's name, nair/menon/pillai/kurup (whichever subset we're from) format instead. And then there's also the confusion of which family do we really carry the name of, our fathers' or our mothers'.

Anonymous said...

Hi
This is a great post.My name is karan singh.I had to change my name to karan singh nigha.nigha denotes my caste .i didnt want to use this name as it denotes my caste and because it is from the lowest of the caste hierarchy it is usually frowned upon.
I didnt want to have my future certificates to have nigha so i changed my name again to karan singh having singh in the surname field..the ppl at th passport office said that singh is not a surnamebut i told them that i want to use it as surname...anyhow after few wrds with the lady at counter i submitted the application for my new passport..coz things are not easy if u dont have a surname especially while filling online forms like for GRE and TOEFL..this whole thing is really irritating .. a person shud be free to choose his name...

Anonymous said...

hi my name is MANOJ and that same i have in my passport. And i got visa for UK on same name but know mu university said that we can't register you becouse you dt have surname they register me as (MANOJ.)
I dnt know what to do if uk can give visa on MANOJ, university issue a admission later on MANOJ so what happen now. can anybudy help me regarding this matter.

Anonymous said...

An interesting read. What's sad is that many people in the west is completely ignorant about naming schemes in different cultures. They expect everyone to follow their naming schemes and refuses to acknowledge names that don't follow their naming system.

I'm Indonesian and most Indonesians don't have surnames. Even when their name consists of multiple words they're all part of the given name. When asked to supply a surname, they could either use one part of their given name as a surname or use their father's name as a surname. It's not uncommon to use different names on different documents.

jayashree venkat said...

Thanks for the article.Surnames have become a headache.I have not included my child's name in school with surname as it denotes my caste.[south indian]But in my husbands passport surname was "FORCIBLY"declared!And so also in election/voter I-card.Will this system not be CLARIFIED INTERNATIONALLY as the younger generation is talking about "ONE WORLD"?

Anonymous said...

A good article. I also read many comments. However, I cannot agree with many of you saying that one should be allowed to have anything they want for names. Whether we like it or not, we live in the computer age and 'last name' or 'family name' or 'surname' identifies you as a unique person when searching. Imagine trying to find a 'srinivasan' and come up with thousands of them. You wouldn't know which one is this person. When I went to the US (I am Tamilian) I had my father's name as my surname but then when i become a Citizen, I was allowed to change this and so I used my 'gothra' (I am Brahmin) as my surname and had my dad's name as middle name. I think now that we live in a globalized world, it would be easier if we all had a surname. To my friend, Karan Singh, your caste is NOT the lowest; if someone says so, then he is of the lowest. ALL CASTES are equal. It is just an identity.

Winnowed said...

Anonymous, you raise a very valid point. A first name and last name are essential from the point of view of databases. May be the government should make it mandatory for every child to have two names while applying for a birth certificate.

CM said...

Dude/Babe... read ur blog.. loved it.. i feel the same way about breaking my name into surname, firstname and all that crap... My name is sunil thariq period. everytime i fill an application i feel like abusing myself for splitting my name..

spazz said...

Great article and very interesting comments. I'm currently in the process of choosing a name for my child (expected arrival April 2013). Being a Gujarati with a simple name and Surname combination married to a Tamilian with no surname, it's a Herculean task! After reading some of the above am a little more comfortable with making a decision, eventually! So thanks :)

Roy Alex said...

Hi my name is jiniel I don't have surname to fill online application form so what can I do