By Aakash Ranison Jun. 18, 2019
I inherited my surname from my father, a man who left my mother and me when I was 12. By changing my last name to my maa’s name, I have chosen to pay tribute to her. It’s an act of defiance against social norms, which insist we carry our father’s family name into the future.
In Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks very fondly of surnames. “There are people who say, ‘Well, your name is also about patriarchy because it is your father’s name.’ Indeed. But the point is simply this: whether it came from my father or from the moon, it is the name that I have had since I was born, the name with which I travelled my life’s milestones, the name I have answered to since the first day I went to kindergarten in Nsukka on a hazy morning and my teacher said, ‘Answer “present” if you hear your name. Number one: Adichie!”
Odds are that you will relate to Adichie, that you share the last name with your father. That you proudly stood up in class when it was called out. I did too, but each time I heard mine it made me shudder a little. The surname for most people ignites some sort of pride or power; for me was a reminder of a father who never was, and wanted no part of my life. So, I decided I didn’t want his name anymore.
It was August 2015, when I was on a cycling trip from Chennai to Bangalore, that I started thinking about my surname: Mishra. I inherited it from a man I last saw when I was 12, the man who had made my mother – the person I love most – suffer. So why should I wear my last name as a badge of honour, or at all? If I were to have a social address, shouldn’t it be something to do with my mother, who single-handedly raised me?
My mother was 19, when my grandfather picked my father as a match for her. She had no say in the matter, married off to a man who was practically a stranger. Soon it all started going downhill. My father was abusive. He expected my mother to not only to take care of him but also a son he had from a previous marriage. He did not have a steady source of income and when I was born, all four of us lived in a tiny flat, paying rent with borrowed money.
She had no choice but to return to the hellhole where my father set the rules.
After years of enduring the torture, my mother left home and decided to go back to her parents’ house. But my nana, stuck in his patriarchal ways, told my mother that “she wasn’t his responsibility anymore”. She had no choice but to return to the hellhole where my father set the rules. The years that followed were filled with misery.
When I was 10, I remember waking up a number of times in the middle of the night to the sound of my mother crying and my father beating her up – with his hands, sometimes with a broomstick, one time with his slipper. I wanted to stop him every time but I was so scared I could not move. So I’d wake up and ask for a glass of water, hoping that I would serve as a distraction and the beating would cease. It did not until, one day, when my father abruptly left and took his other son with him, leaving my mother and me to fend for ourselves.
Bereft of any emotional support, my mother suddenly had no financial support either. With no educational backing, finding a job was not easy, so she took up whatever came her way. At a jewellery store, she worked as an attendant. She’d wake up in the wee hours, do the household chores, walk eight kilometres to work to save money on commuting expenses and return home by 10.30 pm.
Over the years, the jobs changed, but her reality, her struggles remained the same. She endured it all with a smile so that she could provide for me, give me the best that she could, fill up my childhood with fond memories.
Growing up, not a single day went by when I didn’t think of all that my mother gave up for me.
I remember one evening vividly. We were watching Kasautii Zindagii Kay, and both us were fascinated by a night suit that Mr Bajaj wore to bed. The idea of having a separate pair of clothes for sleeping was a luxury. My mother dreamed of a life like that for me – of comfort and freedom. And she’d give everything she had in her to make that dream come true. The next day, she bought me a night suit, shelling out a huge chunk of the salary, and continued to walk to work.
Growing up, not a single day went by when I didn’t think of all that my mother gave up for me. But along with that came those horrid memories of my childhood. I was reminded of my father every time a teacher called out my name in the classroom, every time I wrote my name on an examination paper, every time I put down my signature on an important document or signed up for something. Mishra wasn’t just a harmless moniker, it was a loaded identifier that haunted me everywhere I went.
I realised the burden of that surname on that solo cycling trip I took three years ago.
Mishra denoted everything I am not. It bound me to a religion, a caste; it dictated what I should eat, whom I should pray to, and whom I should marry. And this was contradictory to the values my mother imbibed in me. She brought me up without the restrictions of religion, she did not confine me to boundaries.
And though I lived life on my own terms, I still felt shackled. There was something that stopped me from feeling free. And on that day in August, after I’d covered 40-odd kilometres, I found some answers. I was cruising on the highway, when I started thinking about a book I had just finished reading: Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. It urged me to keep questioning myself. I started by asking myself the first question you ask when you meet someone new: What’s your name? Aakash Mishra, I thought to myself. And when that played out in my head, I winced.
No one knew me as Mishra ka ladka, in fact they knew as Rani ka beta.
Aakash is the name my mother gave, but why was I inheriting my father’s surname when I never related to it? A surname evokes a sense of belonging but I did not feel like a Mishra at all. That was not my identity, I thought; I was carrying the weight of a wrong name all along. No one knew me as Mishra ka ladka, in fact they knew as Rani ka beta. That was the moment I realised that to be myself, I needed to shed my last name. I realised that I have only one identity without which I am nothing: I am my mother’s son. I am Ranison. That would be my last name and I wanted to world to call me by that.
There was no hesitation, or cringing anymore. The official paperwork would take its own course, but I was itching to tell maa that I no longer was Aakash Mishra. In fact, I never ever was Aakash Mishra. I was always Aakash Ranison, it just took me some time to realise it.
Back from the cycling trip, when I met my mother, I told her about my decision. She didn’t say much, she never does. She nodded in agreement and then I said it aloud to her for the first time with my chest swelled with pride, “Mera naam hai Aakash Ranison.” There was a twinkle in maa’s eyes and she smiled like she’d never smiled before. And that’s when I knew I was ready to travel my life’s milestones with a name just like Adichie. I just needed to get it right.
Aakash Ranison is a climate activist and a full-time travelpreneur who explores the essence of life by hitchhiking and cycling. He tweets as @aakashranison