From the moment we are born we are identified by our family, region or father - a time tested system that anchors an individual to the roots of his/her identity. Through life we carry the baggage of our forefathers, attached either as a suffix or a prefix to the name given us at birth. An identity that gets read every time a name comes up, a second nature to us that becomes ingrained in our subconscious. Unthinkingly we draw conclusions whenever we hear a name - she is a South Indian; he is a Punjabi; Bengalis; they are Christian; she must be Muslim.
Conflicting this age-old ritual of bracketing, confusing those who rely on tradition and upsetting the laws of society - is a merry band of individuals, who flippantly traipse around, identifying themselves by single names. They speak only of the self, giving not a thought for the breakdown of the system.
Imagine the disruption when in reply to the all important - what is your good name question one gets a cryptic, Roopa, as an answer.
Damn! Goes your brain, your conscious and your subconscious gets all tangled up; where is she from? Is she Tamil? Is she from Bihar? ; Rajasthan? ; Gujarat? ; Odisha? Or could she even be a foreigner from Nepal?
29 year old Shikha, who is known by her single name, related this incident “Someone I met recently asked me if I am a Punjabi, Bengali or a Haryanvi. When I said none of them, he advised me to put my last name in the official records so that people can tell which part of the country I am from. I couldn’t resist telling him that I don’t write my last name so that the people like him can keep guessing.”
A few years ago when 25-year-old journalist Richa was shortlisted for a campus interview, the names were being called out aloud. Richa says “Another Richa from my batch had made it. When it was my turn, a gentleman ended up yelling, “Richa… plain Richa!” It was a riot.”
In the case of journalist-turned-politician Ashutosh, just being Ashutosh doesn’t seem to satisfy the curiosity in others. “People think I am hiding my caste name so I must be from a lower caste. Sometimes they ask my father’s name just to find out my surname.”
Ashutosh says he finds it most embarrassing when people poke around looking for a second name but for 14-year-old Shawyong his single name gives him of living the teenager’s dream of being glib “Shawyong in Bangla means self and the self is solitary, how can it have an addition?”
The End Of History
Like Shikha, Richa, Ashutosh and Shawyong there are many who have just a single name and the reasons for that invariably stem from a dialectical conflict between social convention and individual libertarianism.
As a student of Lucknow University in the late 1980s, journalist Amitabh, now 48, was confronted with the socialistic ideals of a classless society. He says: “I came in contact with some seniors in and out of the university who were part of late Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. They had dropped their last names in pursuance of a dream of casteless society. The idea appealed to me also.”
Ashutosh was a student in Jawaharlal Nehru University 25 years ago during the uproar against the Mandal Commission recommendations for 27% reservation for backward castes. He felt he had to do something to register his personal protest so he dropped his family name. “I was very upset with the sudden rise of caste identities. It was my way of saying that every individual is equal and caste should not be a reason for perpetuation of inequality in the society”
Older than Amitabh and Ashutosh, another senior journalist of Delhi - Shailesh was impacted by the outburst of socialistic ideals of the early 1970s. Shailesh says: “My surname which reflects caste was dropped by my parents and my registered name is Shailesh Kumar. When I joined the students’ movement in 1974 I dropped Kumar and started writing only Shailesh, it was part of the movement against the caste system.”
For the younger lot the decision of having a single name may not have been theirs to begin with but they like the idea of being ‘different’. In her early years, Richa had questioned her parents as to why she did not have two names like all her friends. She was told a person did not need a family name to get around and she left it at that eventually growing up to love the 5 letters that denoted her. “There are also feminist undertones, I feel now, to not living with a name that is propagated by the men in a family. Today, 25 years (and a lot of research and thinking) later, I’ve concluded that I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Shikha who loves running and is a regular at the Delhi Half Marathon was born into a Hindu family but the singularity of her name has meant that the need for a religious identity is not paramount. “Not having a last name helps me dissociate myself from religious customs, beliefs and sentiments. I think I have learnt to appreciate that”
In the case of Shawyong, he got his name to avert a disaster. His father, a fan of the 1999 Hollywood hit Mummy, wanted to name him Ankhesenamun. His mother, more mathematically inclined, toyed with Epsilon, the compromise was Shawyong. “You could say my family is weird but then that is who we are.”
Last Name Null
One problem everyone with a single name faces is filling up forms or documentation. While somewhat surprisingly there are no issues with official documents like a passport or an Aadhar card, those with a single name can’t have a Google account and are not able to book an airline ticket unless they put in something in the box marked: ‘Last Name’.
Shikha says: “The online space is not kind to individuals with a single name. From social media websites, shopping websites to any site which requires a login or registration they have a mandatory field for ‘last name’. Many a times I had to give in and fill a non-existent last name.”
As Richa says “I live with three friends – a human and two cats. The cats don’t have surnames either and we get along famously.”
CALL ME SHOEJOY! The writer, Sujay Bhattacharyya, is an award-winning TV producer and documentary director based in New Delhi, who wants to be simply called Shoejoy.
From HT Brunch, November 13, 2016
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