Who are you? X or Y? Your name or your family name? Or a mobile or an Aadhaar number? The masters of the crafts of literature and philosophy have tired themselves out for centuries asking in the Shakespearean fashion: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It is doubly significant that it is Juliet who expresses this profound thought.
Ours is a patrilineal society, in which women adopt the surname of their husbands, mostly. It worked in an age of lesser document fetish. A woman who gets divorced falls between the devil and the deep blue sea, either stuck with her exhusband’s surname or has to go through the pains of changing her name again. It is as Komarovsky sneers at Lara with: “A husband is a sticky commodity, my dear,” in David Lean’s film adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’.
While the man stays a man after marriage in terms of name and identity, the woman, to emphasise her domestication, becomes a wife. The derivation of her identity from her husband and the notion of attachment of glory, machismo and courage with the male-derived surname have always gone hand in hand, thus denying women an independent existence. Most application forms feature only an option between father’s name and husband’s name.
The overarching power of lineal identity can be gauged from the fact that in Christianity, the first name is the Christian name; and then there is the family name, which simply couldn’t be wished away by the fraternity of the brethren. In Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh created the all-inclusive order of the Khalsa, and designated men and women as Singhs and Kaurs, respectively, but it hasn’t had much effect, as casteism still pervades and people brandish their surnames with pride. Religion or any other reformist schools of thought has been ineffective in making a significant dent in the patriarchal systems. In Shashi Deshpande’s ‘That Long Silence’, Jaya feels forlorn on not seeing herself in the family tree prepared by her uncle. The time has now come to discard suspect notions, practices, and beliefs; and to interrogate the established ideologies that masquerade as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In a counter-trend, men adopt their wife’s surname after marriage. Italian artist Marco Perego adopted the name of his wife, Zoe Saldana, and became Marco Saldana. While this is a refreshing change and throws light on how women have always been changing their names, on closer scrutiny, it is hardly helping anyone’s case as the unnecessary name changing is a futile process. English actor Aaron Johnson opted for double-barrelling and became Aaron Taylor-Johnson after marrying filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood, who also changed her name to Sam Taylor Johnson. Now that’s a really hyphenated identity. The fusion of surnames is also getting popular, such as the meshing of Pugh and Griffin to make Puffin.