Sunday, June 08, 2014

Nominal matters: Issue 3
Out of the *ina’petti – on Telugu surnames
(*iron case/ safe/ strongbox)

Remember the Telugu friends you had in school, even college, if you count the time after college in decades rather than months? What were their names? G. Lakshmi, P.V. Vamsikrishna, Y. S. Venkatesh, M. Sravanthi, K. Yadagiri... What did you know? The handle of the individual, and the initials that decided their position on the attendance register, especially with the Lakshmis, Srinivases and Venkateshes, who were always liberally sprinkled in every class. Not the castes, not the regions their families came from, not the occupations their ancestors may have practised. In fact, people who wanted to make a point of their caste appended the caste tag to their names, such as in N. Srinivas Reddy. When it comes to religion, given names are usually enough of a giveaway, so that would be one demographic detail quite public.

And what are your friends’ (same people!) names now? Lakshmi Gollapalli, Vamsikrishna Venkata Pillutla, Venkatesh Sarma Yalamanchili, Sravanthi Moovala, Srinivas Katikaneni etc… You may not even recognise old school friends trying to befriend you on Facebook, because you sat next to a V. Sreedevi, not a Sree Veera (short for Veeramachaneni, but more, some other time, on abbreviating surnames).

Telugu surnames have come out of the strongbox. And I don’t see any advantage of this barring the extremely rare opportunity to discover distant relatives. “I saw from that email that your name is Josyula. My wife’s family name is Josyula too. Where (etc.)…?Or, being identified, at a quiz club in another continent, as a relative of a minor celebrity: Me: "I am not a very seasoned quizzer. My brother got me interested in this. He has been quizzing for ages." The chap:"Your name is Josyula? Is your brother Krishnamachari Josyula, who was on Mastermind?" Me: (Aiyya baaboi!! Does this indicate that my brother is not a total waste candidate after all?) "Krishnamurthi, yes."
The main upshot of the exposure of surnames in a deeply caste-riven society is to make everyone conscious of such from an impressionable age.

There is a lot to be said for people going through at least childhood and adolescence oblivious to their friends’ ‘family background’, and ideally even their own. Surely ignorance of some tags permits more people to be weighed more on their own merit, rather than on advantages or disadvantages bestowed by history and contemporary society. Caste has a way of rearing its head when adulthood hits – in institution-hunts, job-hunts and mate-hunts. I’ve heard of college boys scanning the roster of incoming juniors to decide which girl to line-maaro, based on the surname – a distasteful, though pragmatic move. At least if things actually culminate in contemplation of marriage, one is less likely to have to face threats of disownment by family, ostracism of family, suicide or sulking of family members, and perhaps elimination of self and beloved.

Another significant change in the presentation of the Telugu name is the order: from surname-given name to given name-surname. It doesn’t sound all that comical when an initial is placed at the end of the name rather than at the beginning. But some names sound quite Yoda-esque when the surname in full is placed after the given name. Many surnames have prefixes that mean “of_”, as in the Hindi “_ke”. So a full name, modern-style could sound “Lakshmi Jos.. ke” instead of the smoother “ Lakshmi”. [This rearrangement of the order of the given name and surname applies to any traditional naming pattern, say the Malayali one, that is turned on its head by the new way.]

Why did Telugu surnames go from being modestly wrapped up in initials to having to be used in full in daily interactions? “Thank you for being on hold, Mr. Chilukapatchanulla. (You may be sure that I won’t put you on hold again, because I can’t put my vocal apparatus through another such workout.)” My thoughts spring to one reason – the computerisation (read Americanisation) of our lifestyles. Try creating an email/Facebook identity with the name J. K. Lakshmi – actually, please don’t try this! Even if you did, you would face a few stone walls. The only way I’ve succeeded sometimes is by entering “J. K.” as my first name, and “Lakshmi” as my last. Otherwise, I’ve had to bite the bullet and be Lakshmi K. Josyula. In some fora, I’m Josyula K. Lakshmi, which is a shade less painful, and serves to bridge the gap between L. K. Josyula and J. K. Lakshmi.

Note: Names here, except for mine, are made up. I hope they resemble actual names.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Nominal matters: Issue 2

Sisters [brothers-in-law]!

The Malayali woman’s full name is changing: For the most part, from X-il Y (say Puthenveettil Meenakshi) to YZ (Meenakshi Mahendran), where X=name of girl’s clan, more precisely, house; Y=given name of girl; and Z=given name of girl’s father/husband.

Kerala has, for ages, stood out from most of the rest of the country (with some exceptions in the North East), and in fact, from most of the rest of the world, by virtue of being a matrilineal society. A very noticeable declaration of this is in nomenclature. The mother’s family name is stamped on children, and it is actually the daughters who propagate it via naming posterity. The sons just hang on to the mother’s family name till they hang on to life. At least, this is how it has been, historically.

The trend among women over the past couple of generations seems to be to assimilate into the mainstream, through the nearest path – that of the Tamil neighbours. Malayali women are dropping their family-of-birth names and taking on their husband’s names. And, it’s the husband’s given names, not surnames (true to Tamil form) that are enthusiastically adopted.

The naming of the children is another fascinating matter: Often, people append the caste tag to the child’s given name, granting people a glimpse into the general community, but not the particular family, to which the child belongs. So, you find a Pallavi Warrier or a Suresh Menon, and are none the wiser about the clan. That’s one track, but there is another growing in popularity. In my observation, women of the previous (peri Indian independence) generation, probably the first to use the husband’s given name, stopped there, and gave their children the mother’s family-of-birth name. Their children went the next step to take on their husband’s given names, and confer this name on the children too. Thus, a K. P. Urmila converts to Urmila Manoharan, but her children fly the ‘K. P.’ flag for a while more. The ‘K. P.’ boys are not enabled to perform inter-generational transfers of ‘K. P.’, and as it turns out, their children get the given names of their fathers, rather than the family names of their mothers. The ‘K. P.’ girls too, however, jettison the ‘K. P.’ tag and provide their children with the given names of the husbands. Subsequent generations barely remember ‘K. P.’

Is this an exposition of the dwindling importance of lineage and the ascendancy of the importance of the individual? If so, why the importance of only the man?

A gradually growing number of couples outside Kerala is juxtaposing the surnames of the woman and the man, using this combined surname themselves, and granting the set to their offspring too. But this is usually with family names, not given names, and applies little or not at all to Malayali names. With given names in Kerala, a nascent trend is to append the mother’s and then the father’s to the child’s. Thus, a Jaya marries a Mukundan, calls herself Jaya Mukundan, and her children are Divya Jaya Mukundan, and Varun Jaya Mukundan.

Questions may arise about my name now: Am I shouting the mother’s family-of-birth name out from the rooftops, or certificates? No, I’m not. I’m a special case (but everyone already knows that!). My matrilineal-origins mother married my patrilineal-origins father and promptly sold out, in a very nuanced manner: She took my father’s given name, and gave us children our father’s family name. When I grew up a bit, and took stock of all this, particularly the consonance or lack thereof of my name and those of my cousins, on either side, I asked my father why we were named like we were. He said I was free to choose my mother’s family name, and could switch to it if I liked. But by then, I was so attached to my name that it would have been a wrench to change it. Also, I didn’t want to confuse the Nobel Foundation. So, I stick to my name, and comment on the alterations in other Malayali women’s names.