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.

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