Call Me By My Name (Not Surname)

Social Commentary

Call Me By My Name (Not Surname)

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

 

W

hat’s in a name? Apparently, everything.

Last Wednesday, I woke up to news of Union Minister Anantkumar Hegde claiming on Twitter that there was a “deliberate attempt” on his life. Apparently, a truck hit his convoy in Haveri district of Karnataka. Instead of waiting for the preliminary report like a responsible representative, the esteemed minister who is known for his enthusiasm for constitution rewriting, shouted through the virtual megaphone that someone was trying to kill him. (This morning, he upgraded to receiving a death threat.)

Oh, who in the name of Sirsi Marikamba’s he-buffalo, would try to kill this doctor-beating, constitution-rewriting, Muslim-vote-rejecting pious Hindu man?

Why did this man think this was an attempt on his life? Aren’t accidents quite common on highways? Especially in Karnataka? (Travellers of Shiradi Ghat, you know what I’m talking about.) How do you decide an accident is an accident or an attempted murder?

It’s all in the name, saar.

Naseer was the name of the fortunate soul who got the opportunity to hit the minister’s convoy with his truck. Naseer, you said? Inherently murderous name, thinks the saffron brain, despite the Haveri Superintendent of Police’s comment to the contrary. At this point, Hegde was still unaware that the truck’s owner was the brother of a BJP block president in Koppa Taluk. The poor minister even had to cancel his press conference, where his conspiracy theories would be broadcast to the persecuted Hindus across the nation. Che! What a missed opportunity.  

Why bother having a constructive conversation about the follies of the driver as to how he was on the phone, driving on the wrong side of the road, when you can accuse him of assassination attempt based solely on his name and the religion it alludes to?

***

Discrimination is a difficult business in India. Unlike the west, where skin colour can lead to effortless racism, skin colour tells you nothing here. You need to pester the person to give their last name. (Like this redditor found out, as I was in the middle of writing this article – apparently you can’t even peacefully jog without divulging your caste.)

Nimma surname, saar?

If you’re lucky enough to have a neutral surname, that doesn’t serve as a caste marker, then get ready for some top-class jaasoosi, especially if the seeker of your surname also happens to be your landlord.

When I was a young child, my mother would leave me with a family who would babysit me, as both my parents used to work. One day, a man who was living in the same building as the said family, asked me the question: “What’s your surname?”

“Gubbacchi,” I answered – sparrow in Kannada. I must have been around 10 then, without the slightest idea what surname meant, so I gave him the “pet name” my teachers had for me. I still remember his befuddled look and the question that followed: Where are your parents from? It took me a decade and more to realise that geography too can be helpful, when you’re doing caste-jasoosi.

The name, which is used as a tool for discrimination, also has the potential to become a weapon against the same discrimination – when you know how to use it.

As children of intercaste marriage with a secular upbringing (I do know my parents, Mr Hegde, thanks for your concern), my brother and I were privileged enough to not care about caste within the four walls of my house. But, the outside world was a different ball game altogether.

From my brother’s classmates questioning him for not wearing a janivaara (janeu) despite having a father with a Brahmin surname, to me being policed by the priests for not knowing that you shouldn’t accept theertha-prasaada using your left hand, we were always on the receiving end of not being able to represent our castes (or rather religion) right.

Of course, these religious inadequacies of children were always blamed on my mother, because she was not an upper-caste woman. Her maiden name – which she never changed – made sure of that. Isn’t it almost magic, like a double-rainbow, when casteism and sexism can be witnessed at the same time?

There’s a sigh of disappointment that follows when they learn a little too late that the matriarch of the new family moving here, does not have the same surname as her husband’s. When my mother bought a farm in the coast in a predominantly Brahmin village in her name, the neighbours started circulating stories of ghosts haunting the farm house, preying on her fear of living alone.

Even now, when I live in the so-called tech city and my neighbour, I discover new miracles every day – my neighbour does not eat at our mutual neighbour’s wedding, because they’re from a lower caste.

***

There’s a story about the hegemony of naming, I hear often. How the same name can manifest in different ways depending on your caste. To illustrate, if you approach a priest to name your baby, “Somashekhar” would be the kind of name he’d recommend for a Brahmin child, while “Somanna” for the “lower castes” and “Choma” for the supposedly lowest. Depending on your caste, the priestly middlemen will bestow upon you a name that follows you around for the rest of your life. It is as if there’s a Heisenberg principle for naming: when you name something, how you perceive it also changes.

If you have somehow miraculously escaped the clutches of caste-hunters whose subtle casteism comes out in the form of “vegetarians-only” to-let boards, now the state wants to know your surname. Don’t want to reveal your surname? No, you cannot have a passport without expanding on your initials. You might be a child of intercaste marriage, who does not want to privilege one surname over the other. Tough luck, we will just copy your father’s surname. After all, most government forms don’t care about your mother’s name. No one cares if you belong to a family of independents with four different surnames.

Is it enough then, if you aim to ban surnames like some suggest? Don’t the first names themselves – without the aid of suffixal surnames – end up telling your life story anyway? Isn’t that what happened to Naseer two days ago, whose negligent became a case of attempted assassination? Aren’t the names we choose, or rather have access to, determine who we are going to be? Hence, it is a political act when actors like Parvathy drop their surnames and academics like Kancha Ilaiah add one. Both owning and disowning a name can be asserting your right to not be perceived through a certain discriminatory lens. The name, which is used as a tool for discrimination, also has the potential to become a weapon against the same discrimination – when you know how to use it.

As for me, I think I should go back to telling people that my surname is Gubbacchi and leave people to chase their own tales.

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