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September 24, 2018

What’s In A Name?

Text by Megha Shah. Illustration by Dhwani Shah

In modern relationships, we often need to reconcile our attitudes towards our monikers, before we figure out our feelings towards each other, finds Megha Shah

“We’ll just give our kids your surname,” my husband announces. We’ve been married six months, and christening our future progeny has already begun to throw up all sorts of quandaries for me. How do we honour both sides of our families? Should we create a hyphen? Should we pick a surname based on what sounds better? My husband, who has either just revealed himself as a feminist or simply wants to get on with this conversation so he can get back to watching the game, has decided it would be best to settle on Shah.

“But how’s that fair to you?” I press him. “I suppose it isn’t,” he considers. “But after centuries of patriarchal naming, this would just be a step in evening things out. Besides, a name is just a word,” he adds esoterically.

Is it though? I can’t help wondering. Or is a name linked fundamentally to identity? A sort of phonetic fingerprint that although may have brought one much grief in school (‘Maggi noodles’ and ‘Barso re megha megha’ were the most popular bastardisations of mine), becomes a matter of pride when asked to part with. I’ve kept my last name, even though I realise it’s a moniker that represents only the male half of my father’s side of the family. Yet, when enthused relatives broke into a joyous chorus of ‘Mr and Mrs Choksey!’ as I climbed down the steps of my wedding mandap with my husband or when the receptionist at our hotel wished me good morning the next day, I didn’t correct them. Because a woman choosing to keep her maiden name post marriage is not just a technicality but a political statement — a rejection of the strongest, gendered social norm that we enforce and expect. And I wasn’t in the mood to make political statements first thing in the morning.

To me, changing my name just hadn’t seemed like an option. I had lived with the same one for 30 years, and used it to author several articles. Besides, Choksey kind of reminded me of chop suey, the only dish in the otherwise-brilliant Chindian cuisine I find disappointing.

While modern women around the world are grappling with the rules of the marriage name game, because of India’s particularly strong patri-centricity and deep-rooted emphasis on tradition, Indian women, today, are often caught in an especially confusing in-between purgatory. My friend, who sports a tattoo and who studied about the suffragettes and other freethinkers and dissenters with me in college, went from being Jyoti Lalwani to Vedika Duhalani post marriage. “It’s a common practice amongst the Sindhi community. When they match the horoscopes, if the names don’t fit, the woman must change her first name to something more astrologically compatible,” she explains.

Her friends, who refused to cooperate when she announced she was to be called something else from now on, continue to call her Jyoti. But an outright rejection of her new appellation would be rocking the boat with her husband’s family in a way that doesn’t seem worthwhile to her. So she remains in a perpetual state of two-names, like a superhero, with an alter ego that doesn’t quite feel like hers. “There’s a constant conflict in my head, why did I let this happen?” But she finds her perks. Whenever she maxes out her free trial on websites as Jyoti Lalwani, she makes sure Vedika Duhalani gets herself an account.

On the other end of the socio-onomastic spectrum is Kolkata-based Shantanu Ghosh-Kolte*, born Shantanu Kumar Ghosh, who added on his wife Sheetal Kolte’s* last name. “Sheetal suggested it as a joke when we got married two years ago. But it stuck with me. I’m as much her family as she is mine, then why should it matter which one of us changes our name?” he asks. “My family was a bit taken aback, but it still feels right to me.”

Shubra Misra, who got married in the ’80s, kept her maiden name after her marriage and insisted that her daughters inherit part of her identity. So now 29-year-old Sharanya Misra Sharma lives with two surnames. “I’m proud of it. I believe it represents a powerful idea. Also I realise that my name is unique.” And sometimes, not having a Google doppelgänger can outweigh the blank stares, spelling errors and jokes about length. “People have asked me what I would do if I married a man with an equally long name,” says the Gwalior-born education consultant who now lives in Ranikhet. “Sometimes, I feel like I’d want to assume his name for sentimental reasons, but I probably won’t change mine. I don’t need to do that to prove my commitment or love to anybody.” And how would she name her children? “I can’t decide. But one thing is for sure, I don’t want them to have a three-part surname (two of hers and one of his) — that would not be convenient at all.”

Like many other utopian impulses, principled-but-unwieldy hyphenated names face practical constraints. They can get tedious and eventually stop being sustainable as generations pass. In my quest to find the perfect practice of naming, following my husband’s provocative suggestions, I heard of a few women who kept their own hyphenated names when they married, but gave their children the father’s surname. This has given rise to a generation of children, like my neighbours, Aalia and Mayur Hari, 6 and 10, who often have to explain, ‘‘Mala Kansara-Shroff is our real mom but she kept her name.”

While many women are trying to find a comfortable corner outside of the mainstream, for some same-sex couples, it’s about finding a place within. Thirty-year-old stylist Prayag Menon and 32-year-old photographer Porus Vimadalal are one such example. After marrying and settling in Toronto, Prayag changed his surname to Menon-Vimadalal, “It felt good — we feel like we are a part of the same team. Especially if we have a child later; given that we are a same-sex couple and cannot have a biological child together, it’s nice if all of us carried the same name to signify a sense of family. This need also stemmed from the fact that when we lived in India, our relationship was not recognised,” says Prayag. They settled on Menon-Vimadalal because it “felt better; aurally and visually”. Porus chose not to edit his name, since he has a middle name and adding to it would make it uncomfortably long.

For many, it seems to be a pursuit in finding a compromise between emotion and practicality. I’ve met people who said it would be too complicated to change their professional or social media identities. Others felt it would be too difficult to have a name that’s different from the rest of their family. One couple I spoke to have considered morphing their names into a hyphen-less amalgam.

To process my particular case — my husband’s breezy suggestion about continuing our family with my surname — I turned to my friends, all progressive and liberal. Each one was supportive, yet one by one fell into dubiety — what if people think my child doesn’t have a father? Or what if this lessens my husband’s significance in the child’s life? — solidifying an underlying fear that this one choice could make my future progeny a symbol, instead of just a little kid.

Is there a perfect way to name out there? Is it possible to find a way to name that’s fully inclusive? One that represents all parties and families, rejects patriarchy, yet finds mainstream acceptance and still functions practically, as names are meant to? I haven’t found it yet. For now, I continue to be known as Mrs Choksey to hotel receptionists, while my Facebook page remains firmly titled as Megha Shah.

*Names changed.

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