The Power of the Surname

By Santosh Desai,

The power of a surname is never more evident than in the case of the most famous surname in India. As if being Nehrus was not enough, Indira Priyadarshini's marriage to Feroze Gandhi, gave the family a surname unsurpassed in political import. The Nehru-Gandhi moniker conflates the two towering giants from India's freedom struggle, and showers an implicit legitimacy on the family. It is impossible to ascertain what role the surname plays in the tacit right that members of the family get conferred with to rule this country, but it is safe to say that it does play a significant if unconscious part.

And yet, just as some surnames radiate this mysterious power, in a more general sense, what value does this institution provide today? Everyone needs a name for the purposes of identification, but do all of us really need surnames in this day and age? It is easy to see why the institution was needed in earlier days, when society was organized on the basis of where one came from but what value does it have today when we are known not so much by our past but by our present?

The institution of the surname is a fascinating one for it exists as a form of social address, by virtue of which one is located in the social universe we inhabit. The name is who we are, the surname a sign of where we come from and what we are a part of. If the name is the house number, the surname is the name of the locality in which the house is situated. The surname tells us that we not alone, it reminds us of the fact that we are a part of a continuing chain of life and recalls that philosopher Alan Watts said about not coming into this world but out of it. In addition, depending on different customs, the surname provides others with clues about where we are placed in this world by way of occupation, our place of origin, the father's name and so on.

Today, in many parts of the world, the 'family name' has stopped conveying any meaningful information whatsoever. Does the name Smith in the US really tell us anything about the antecedents of the family? The utility of the surname was apparent at a time when clans grew beyond a certain size and a system of sub-classification was required. It helped anchor individuals in a larger collective and helped identify one's origins, which played a significant roles in key social institutions like employment and marriage. But now that the notion of a clan is no longer our primary mode of social organization, and given that the effective size of what we call 'family' has come down dramatically in a post nuclear family world, do we still need the surname?

Of course, in India, the surname continues to be quite useful in terms of the information it conveys. We can most often tell the caste and the origins of a person by his name and in some parts of India even identify the village he comes from. For all our current avowed aversion to the caste system, our primary identity continues to be driven by our caste names. And while there is a part of India where the surname is no longer used as a relevant piece of information and becomes an extended form of one's first name, there is a much larger part where the surname continues to act as the primary signifier of one's identity. The individual is part of the collective, a variation on a theme.

And while one could argue that the influence of the caste system will never wane till we attach family names to our own, it is worth noting that even in the West, the surname continues to be used in spite of its seeming redundancy. With the change in gender equations, we are seeing more complex surname architectures at work, with the rise in hyphenated surnames as more women retain their maiden names. Revealingly, we choose to live with this unwieldiness rather than question the institution of the surname in the first place.

The surname today gets used more as a device to erase the unique nature of an individual. We often summon people by the surname in places like a school, the military or an office. It somehow seems more appropriate to avoid the first name , for that signifies that one knows the individual personally. In these institutions, the individual is primarily a student, colleague or soldier rather than a unique human being. The surname becomes in this instance a counterpoint to the first name, and is used more as a mark of identification rather than uniqueness.

Perhaps for all the drive towards individualism, nothing terrifies us more than the idea that we are truly individual. To be alone in the world, to have come from nowhere and to leave behind nothing that we can put a name to is a thought of unbearable isolation. We need surnames because we need our past, not as a memory but something we live inside of. Our surname creates a little world into which we can snuggle up, however unconsciously. We need surnames because otherwise we would be nothing but individuals and that can be very lonely indeed.


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