Josna Rege

165. What’s in a Name?

In 1960s, 1980s, Childhood, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, women & gender, Words & phrases on December 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm
Vogue's Book of Etiquette, 1948

Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, 1948

If you like-a me, like I like-a you and we like-a both the same
I like-a say this very day, I like-a change your name.
                                                                       Under the Bamboo Tree

Once, when I was about eight, I woke in the middle of the night crying my eyes out. Between sniffs, I explained to my anxious father, who had hurried to my bedside, that I liked our surname and didn’t want to lose it when I got married. Dad reassured me in soothing tones, saying that I didn’t need to change it, I could have a double-barrelled name. Satisfied with his solution, I went off to sleep quite happily, and gave the matter no further thought for another twenty years.

In the early 1980s, when it came time for me to get married, I raised the question of our surname with my husband-to-be. What tremendous change in less than a generation! He was even more amenable to negotiation than my father had been in the 1960s, even going so far as to suggest that he change his name to mine, since he liked it and besides, it was shorter and easier to pronounce. I didn’t think that he ought to do that, so we simply settled on the status quo, each keeping our own names.

Despite the rapid changes wrought by the Women’s Movement, I was in a small minority in deciding to keep my name, even in the United States, and certainly in England and India. All my female cousins changed their names upon marriage, and in India many changed their first names as well, chosen and conferred on them by their husband or father-in-law. (Whether or not they actually used those names is another matter.) Those who were medical doctors additionally acquired the distinctly Indian title of “Dr. (Mrs.).” And of course, many professional women the world over compromise by adopting their husband’s name while retaining their maiden names for professional use.

Some, though not all, of my relatives raised their eyebrows when I told them of our decision. I remember my cousin Kalyani asking me how people would know that my husband and I were related if I kept my own name, and that our children were in fact ours; my unconventional aunt Kumud, who had never married herself, pronounced me “as good as a son” to my father. Whatever I chose to call myself, many elderly relatives on both sides of the family simply assumed that I had taken on my husband’s name, and I didn’t presume to correct them. In fact, I rather enjoyed receiving their letters addressed to me as such, as I enjoyed answering to a traditional married name and title when phone salesmen called to speak to the lady of the house. Times had changed faster than feelings so although, in the event, neither of us felt it necessary for me to change my name, some part of me still liked the notion of adding his initial to my monogram.

When the birth of our child came around there was another decision to be made: which surname would we confer on him? It was an awesome responsibility. In this case, although a couple of my best friends had given their children their last names, I decided to return to the traditional practice. My husband and I considered my father’s solution of a double-barrelled name, but I thought that the Ukrainian-Indian combo looked and sounded ungainly, and didn’t want to saddle our son with it for life. In the end we gave him my husband’s Ukrainian surname, and I chose an Indian first name, taking a long time to find one that sounded right in combination.

Feminists will rightly note that, of course, in keeping my natal surname I was still maintaining a patriarchal practice, in that my surname was my father’s, not my mother’s. Indian feminists solve this problem by calling women, whether married or single, by their first names.

It’s tempting to dismiss these concerns. What’s in a name, after all, one might say, throwing up one’s hands and defaulting to Tradition. Still, I persist in believing that naming is important and has far-reaching consequences. I am under no illusions that my choice was better or worse than anyone else’s, but it was my personal solution to that nameless fear that woke me in the middle of the night all those years ago.

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  1. The same here…. and I am still stuck between the two names!!! Not sure what is in the name, in the end.

    • You are right, ultimately. Although I didn’t entertain the other side of the question, What’s in a name?, I didn’t mean to dismiss it. We make such a fuss about names and naming, but along with it goes a lot of posturing, or at least, performing an identity. In the end, if we are comfortable with who we are, it matters much less what we’re called.

  2. My mother held her mother’s last name and I took her name as well, Jones, because neither was married. For us it is a remnant of our Slavery, but I never thought of it in terms of matriarchy. My father’s name is Julius too, but his last name, Benbow, is kinda meh. I’m glad for it, Jones is better! Good Post!

    • I’m glad for it, too. I like Jones, and J__ J__ is a terrific name. Wow—Benbow: the Admiral Benbow was the name of the inn in Treasure Island where Jim Hawkins met the crazy Captain Flint! Slave names remind that all naming is about ownership and power; also about history, how it has shaped us but also how, even as we acknowledge it, it can’t define us in the present. (Am I sounding like a professor–sorry! Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

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