“Now, I ask Ms Binny to please come up to the dais,” the discussant at the conference called out as my neck-hairs cringed uneasily, partially at the enormity of the hall and partially because in one clean sweep, she had inscribed my father’s identity on me. Well, that’s the practice, isn’t it, you may ask – but for me it was the erasure of a huge part of my lineage, my identity on my mother’s side. Yes, the name on all my certificates ranging from my birth certificate to voter’s Id is Malavika Binny and has been so for the last 23 years of my life, but it does not feel good when all my acclaims and activities(good or bad) when they are quoted by others are associated with only one side of my roots!
Whoever decided that the children should be named after their father must have been cunningly ingenious, in one stroke, you settle the paternity issue while cleansing out any maternal claims (if they ever existed at all!)The power to name is a fundamental power, it is also the power to define and legitimise! The power to acknowledge and possess! The namakarana (naming) ceremony was one of the most important ceremonies in the life-cycle rituals mentioned in early Indian textual sources with the child being given a name by the father in the presence of a Brahman priest. In the case of Catholic Christians, they are given their official names during the time of Baptism by the priest. The rituality and the customs associated with the naming ceremony maybe different from culture to culture, but the practice of naming and the presence of a legitimizing authority remained seminal in bringing up the child. I also think that the process of naming is also a strong liminal marker, when your coochie coochie woo/cutie pie/kunjuvava/appu becomes a John, Rasheed,Harsha or Neethu. The ‘it’ turns into to a person. It might also mark for a lot of us who do not possess gender neutral names, the marking of a gender.
I am not sure when this practice of attaching the father’s name or the father’s family name started, the farthest that I can think of is Janaki and Vasudeva named after their fathers, I don’t think they even mention the parentage of Gargi, Maitreyi or Lopamudra,but again, these could be clan names! But the most beautiful story is of Jabala and her son asking for his father’s name and she replying that he would be known as Jabala’s son. Later on, it is of course the father’s clan name which gets associated with the child especially the son. But there are also exceptions like the Satavahana rulers like Gautamiputra Satakarni, Vasishtiputra Pulumavi etc who used metronymic names. The reasons quoted by historians range from emphasis on certain martial alliances to an attempt at distinction.
Coming back to the issue of the legitimizing authority in naming, in the modern times, it is the state which often assumes the role. I know quite a few friends who had to be named on the first day of school admissions as they demanded a name to fill the form up. So, now the school(or the Board it is under) which will ultimately give you your matriculation certificate, lovingly referred to as your first ID proof will give you a neat and organized form which has columns for the student’s name, the father’s name, mother’s name, the age and so on. I remember vainly searching for the column for the mother’s name while filling up my sister’s admission form. I recently heard that at least in the Central school forms, they ask for the mother’s name, but the situation has not changed for the schools under the State Boards.Oh and the next question was ‘ Father’s occupation’ followed by the address. This put me in a fix as it was on the behalf of my mother’s job that my sister qualified for the admission. It appalls me to this day why in most govt-forms only the father’s occupation is asked. Do they presume that all mothers are non working? Or does it not matter at all because after all ‘it is the father who is the breadwinner!’
Another pertinent issue I think which needs to be mentioned here is the changing of the woman’s surname when she gets married. I still have not figured the logic of that one out yet! It is as if the moment you get married, you are disinherited from your family, disowned from the parental roots and disavowed from your lineage and your whole identity is re-formulated. In certain Christian denominations , the daughter is given the father’s name while the son gets the family name as the surname as the daughter’s surname will be changed at her marriage and it is of course the son who should carry forward the proud legacy and the ‘name’ of the family! Well, if it is the son who should bear the name of the family, I am not sure why the daughters have to bear the burden of ‘keeping the good name ‘ of the family. Was it to show that the woman no longer has any claims to parental property? Well, if it was, why do we still follow it when the daughter’s right on parental property has already been acknowledged? Then again, it seems to be a Sisyphean task, after all if your surname is your father’s name ad you replace it with your husband’s name, it is just moving from one patriarchal lineage to other. No offense to all my sisters who are proud of their hyphenated married names, but I am not sure how that exercises helps!
This brings me back to the issue of using your surname to refer to you, especially in citation practices, so even feminist scholars such as Kumkum Roy, Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser,Uma Chakravarthi,Alice Walker etc will be referred to as Roy,Butler,Fraser,Chakravarthi,Walker etc.In the Indian case, it is not only the issue of the father’s name but also the caste quotient in the surname which requires further problematising.We have learnt to be politically correct in using terms in so many different contexts, why haven’t we even started pondering on how we should be called?
I think we must take a cue from the great Valmurikal Samaram (literally the movement for cutting of tails referring to the shedding off of caste surnames like Nair, Nambootiri, Thiyyan, Chovan etc.), which went hand in hands with the Temple Entry movements in Kerala in the 1930s.Well,as for me, I prefer to go with just my name, no tails attached ;a name which neither credits nor discredits any of my identities
Malavika is a research scholar at JNU, New Delhi where her research deals with negotiating gender through material culture and space.