Next superpower? We can't even get our own names right...

The Himachal Pradesh police have decided that they will not use surnames in order to send everyone the message that when you wear the uniform of the law, your caste or class are irrelevant. The Indian Express, while reporting this change, says that the idea is to “foster a spirit of kinship and camaraderie that supersedes caste or regional identity.”

A noble idea, but the policemen probably don’t know what’s in store with babudom. Having only two names— Manmohan Singh, and not Manmohan Singh Kohli — may improve camaraderie, but they are getting themselves into a bind with our form-filling bureaucracy, which demands three names. Also, they don’t know our tele-callers. They address everyone by his or her first name, as though they were bum-chums.

Main Raghavan se baat kar sakti hoon? is usually the first thing I get to hear when a credit card salesperson calls me without a by-your-leave. It irritates me no end, not just because I don’t like people calling me to sell things I don’t want, but because Raghavan is not my name. It’s my father’s.

(My dad, I’m sure, is equally offended if you call him Jagannathan, for that’s his son’s name. To make matters worse, it is also his father’s name — for I was named after my grandfather. My dad probably feels hemmed in by a Jagannathan above him and another below him in the family line.)

In India, all rules about how to address people have been torn to shreds, thanks to the absence of a simple, universal naming convention. Reuters

Realising that I was probably irritated for some reason, the tele-caller tries again. “Mr Raghavan-ji, we have a very good loan product, in which….”. This irritates me even more and I usually cut the caller short, saying I am in a meeting. I may not be truthful, of course, for I may just be twiddling my thumbs, but I don’t like being addressed by my father’s name — and I don’t have the time to teach tele-callers how to call me. Teaching one is no use, for there are zillions of them out there waiting to get your goat, despite my hanging a “Do-not-call” sign on my mobile services doorway.

No Brit would address John Smith as Mr John, but in India that’s precisely what tele-callers do. They don’t know the basics of telephone etiquette: You don’t address people you don’t know by their first names. In my case, it wasn’t even my first name.

But we are all to blame in some way or the other.

In India, all rules about how to address people have been torn to shreds, thanks to the absence of a simple, universal naming convention. In the past, we had caste names. When some forward looking people abandoned caste surnames, they adopted village names.

It worked for a while, and if one truly identified with a village, it wasn’t such a bad idea. But once we moved to cities, even this became useless. I don’t see the possibility of calling myself Mumbai R Jagannathan. There are simply too many Mumbaikars to give the name meaning.

The problem probably began with the need to fill up forms — which we inherited from the Brits and now have taken to it like ducks to water. We fill out forms for everything — birth, death, bank accounts, demat accounts, loan accounts, passports, visas, mobile phones, property leases, employment, provident funds, voter cards, credit cards, PAN cards, mutual fund applications, broking accounts…There is not a thing you can do in modern life without filling out some form or the other.

So why doesn’t someone invent a digital form that is standard for all uses? Any institution which gets the urge to accumulate more forms can download it from a common rusting place on the web.

But, of course, before we do that, we need to reform the forms themselves. Or else, we will have a digital nightmare where mistakes are multiplied at random. All current forms start with the erroneous assumption that everyone follows the same naming convention. So we have Name, Middle Name (What is Middle Name in the Indian context?) and Surname.

Unlike the west, where the middle name is often something your godfather foisted on you and has no practical relevance, in India we have ended up using the father’s name as the middle name, with caste or village names as surnames. Yet others use the descriptor “Kumar” or “Kumari” as middle names.

This does not make sense, since Kumar or Kumari, in the Indian context, are often titles, or merely denote an unmarried status which you can’t carry with you for life. But we shall let that pass. If people think of it as a middle name, so be it. It’s their life.

Another form-filling Indian idiosyncrasy is the need for women to fill in their husband’s name. For a woman who gets married and retains her old surname, the bureaucracy thinks she’s probably living in sin. If she changes her name to take on her hubby’s, she will end up filling out a whole lot of forms telling everyone — banks, credit card companies, the lot…— she’s married, and hence the change. But every form will also ask for her maiden name, or her mother’s maiden name. For women, forms are double-jeopardy.

Some male feminists and plain old feminists think they are striking a blow for gender-neutrality by taking on joint surnames after marriage — a hybrid mix of their pre-marriage surnames. Thus they carry double-barrel surnames. This has only confounded the confusion. Double-headed surnames (Harinder Swaminathan-Singh) are fine in the first generation, but what about the second one?

What if a Swaminathan-Singh offspring called Jacky marries, say, a Jagannathan-Joglekar? Will the duo call themselves Swaminathan-Singh-Jagannathan-Joglekar? Most likely, they’ll call the wedding off. Even assuming they are progressive bravehearts, their progeny will be less forgiving. Most likely, he or she will jump off the nearest 30-storeyed building. Newspaper reportage on this suicide would have to avoid using the name in the headline for obvious reasons. It wouldn’t fit even in eight-columns.

The only sensible naming convention that would be acceptable from all angles — progressive and practical — would be the one where one’s name is a mix of the given name, the mother’s name, and the father’s. You would thus have three names – enough to mollify the form-obsessed babu – and you wouldn’t have to fill in other details like mother’s name or husband’s. To make it sex-neutral, we could even replace Mother or Father with “Name of first parent” and “Name of Second Parent.” This way even gays and lesbians need not be miffed and cry discrimination.

And one more thing. Since we all acknowledge that no one knows how another person wants to be called, forms should have two additional lines seeking the following details.

One, “How would you like your full name to be written?” I would thus have a choice of saying only Jagannathan, or R Jagannathan, or something else, if I have three names.

Two, “How would you like to be addressed?” If I prefer to be called Mr Jagannathan, my database would show it.

That pesky tele-caller would have a better chance of selling me her loan or whatever if she at least didn’t offend me by calling me by a name that’s not mine.


Updated Date: Jun 24, 2011 14:01 PM

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