Nominal matters: Issue 2
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.