By Manyam Seshasayee Rohini
My mother and father disagreed vehemently about my name before my naming ceremony.
They eventually settled on each having their choices as my official name and my home name respectively. The disagreement and its eventual conclusion is a story that made me. My official name is Manyam Seshasayee Rohini. It is not just a name; it is an address. It points to where my ancestors migrated from. It points to my father. His name points to the same place and to his father. And HIS name pointed to the very same place and to HIS father. You understand, I am sure. It is a super patriarchal name. But it is my name. It is not an easy name as my parents probably imagined, for what is an MS Rohini in a world where everyone’s names fall neatly into boxes of first name and last name? At 13, I succumbed to the pressure of making my name sound more like those in the herd. Disgruntled as I had been with how different and circus like my name had felt, I was satisfied. I felt better moving my initials to the end of my name. Everyone had their last name last, after all. And when I was in Class X and filling out forms for the board examinations, I changed my name to Rohini MS. Year on year, my parents had labelled my notebooks and written neatly on the labels: M.S. Rohini. Year on year, I had listened to people call me MS, Microsoft and other equally inane off hand things. Not anymore.
Then I moved to Kolkata, where ‘initials’ were completely unheard of.
What is your last name? M.S.
What? What is M.S.? What is your last name?
It’s very long… I would mumble
Even Facebook doesn’t allow “M.S.” because of the symbols, read full stops or periods, whatever your label for that particular punctuation. Also, Facebook doesn’t allow spaces so forget M S. It also thinks I am trying to dupe it when I enter MS, because that can only mean Ms. Even Subbulakshmi, that famous MS, would have struggled.
The idea of a maiden name, one waiting to be changed as soon as you get married, as if it’s just a standby does not sit well with me, today. But all my life, I drifted along sure in the unquestioned knowledge that all women must change their last names, after marriage. When did it change? When a friend told me her mother had changed even her first name. I was horrified. Well, that was alien. None of the women in my family had done that. It must be completely barbaric. I said so. Would my friend change her name too? Would she at least choose it? Did she not like her present name? Did she want to change her name now? My friend, nonchalant as always, shrugged. Then a teacher let it slip that she hadn’t changed her last name after marriage. Then everything shifted in my head. After all, there were too many certificates and official documents in my name. And my parents gave me this name, this whole name. Why would I change it?
What a novel idea.
The same teacher, somehow, knew about the structure of my name. Well of course, she said. Many places in the country have this structure, she said. How beautiful your name sounds. Rohini, who is Seshasayee’s daughter, who are both from Manyam, wherever that was. Even around the world, naming can be quite varied. I hadn’t ever heard of that before. Suddenly, my name sounded meaningful, strong, like home.
Now I notice things around names all the time. Increasingly, women are keeping their names. From Mallika Sarabhai to Sania Mirza to women I bump into. I started noticing other folks with initials. R.K. Narayan, V.V.S Lakshman, J. Jayalalithaa. I couldn’t imagine her as Jayalalithaa Jayaram.
But more I started noticing that there is a greater and greater homogenisiation in naming. It has already forced generations to forgo their traditional names for names that fit in. Our official documents should be inclusive, allowing for different naming structures. My passport only has room for my first name and my last name, in that order. I do not have a middle name. Maybe it should ask for a family name and let me decide how my name should be ordered. A logistical hiccup should not get in the way of fully acknowledging my identity.
I was going to say needless to say it should be every woman or man’s choice to have the name they want. But it’s not needless as all the confusion springing out of Narendra Modi’s announcement about maiden names and passports demonstrates. And I would really like the term maiden name to go away.
An astrologer commiserated with my parents because they had no son to carry the family name forward. Should I excuse him that he didn’t think to mention that a daughter certainly would – especially a daughter who had been named the way I had been?
Meanwhile here are some videos about name troubles.
One from Fry & Laurie:
And the other from the Ting Tings.
And of course, the minion version: