My family changed their surname to avoid discrimination. But it voided a piece of my identity too
“I often find myself missing the link my name would’ve provided to my motherland, slightly jealous of my cousins who still possess it”
People usually find it unbelievable when I tell them my dad is Nepali. He was 21 when he moved to the Punjabi-dominated Panipat to make it on his own, the same age I was when I found out my family name wasn’t actually my family’s name. My grandfather enacted a surname change to Singh to assimilate when they moved to India back in the 1950s in search of a better life.
There are a multitude of reasons why people adopt a surname change. The most common of them all is when women affix their husbands’ last names after getting married, or change their entire names.
Some, like my grandfather, have done it to escape discrimination or “fit in”, while others drop their last names altogether as they’re signifiers of caste. Some young parents are also refusing to pass on their surnames, like novelist Shubhangi Swarup and media professional Nikhil Hemrajani. (Read their story here.) All of these reasons, though, boil down to a simple word: identity. And how some of us are either forced or conditioned our entire life to give up on ours.
A rose by any other name…
When we asked our readers why they’d been through a surname change, 71% of them said their parents or grandparents had taken a different last name, while 36% said in a separate poll that they took their husbands’ surnames after getting married.
Kahini Iyer, a 30-year-old journalist, would have had Balasubramanian as her surname. But her parents decided on Iyer — simpler to pronounce — for both their daughters when they were moving out of India. After years of hearing more mispronounciations of the name than there are mudras in Bharatanatyam, they too decided to make the switch. “They often joke that they’re the first parents to be named after their kids,” says Iyer. Her fiancé, 35-year-old Shahdan Calcuttawalla, only acquired the name because his great-grandfather — an Iranian Zoroastrian — had spent a few years in the Bengali city.
Both Iyer and Calcuttawalla had parents or grandparents who swapped their surnames to adopt the culture of their new countries, like my grandfather, who became a Singh when he arrived in Uttar Pradesh in the 50s with his family in tow. Who wants to be a Malla Thakkuri (my family’s original Nepali surname) when you could be a good old Indian like all your padosis?
Psychiatrist Dr Natasha Kate explains an identity crisis can be brought forth if you’re forced into a surname change because of societal circumstances. Although hers carries “the history of my family moving from Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan and then post-partition India”, 30-year-old journalist Sara Hussain has been contemplating changing it. “Even if it’s just to rent a house, because I’ve been refused many times when they find out I’m Muslim, though not a practising one,” she says.
Discrimination was one of the reasons my grandfather changed our family name to Singh. My brother and I were instructed to never tell anyone we were Nepali and my father would scold us if we ever did. I resented him for it when I was younger. Where I felt deprived of my connection to my native country, he was intent on breaking his. It soon became obvious why; when I told someone I was Nepali and they would respond with “Welcome to India” or “Do you know how to make momos?” Or, “Are all Nepalis called Dhanbahadur?” Ironically, my dad was — before my family changed their name.
It was my mother who would assure us (after giving the bullies an earful too) when she cuddled us to sleep that there was nothing wrong with selling momos or chow mein as Nepalis were making an honest living through it. In spite of it all — or maybe because of it — I’m proud of my Nepali heritage and often find myself missing the link my name would’ve provided to my motherland, slightly jealous of my cousins who still possess it.
Alpana, a 29-year-old educator, also had a missing link to her identity like me, because her parents never gave her a last name. Though they never explicitly told her why, she suspects it was to save her from people’s prejudice that would surely come once they knew she was Dalit. Despite that, she chose to name her daughter Kayna Ranga — a surname that is distinguishably Dalit — because she doesn’t wish for her to hide or shrink herself down for the comfort of others.
She says, “We’re all born with a clean slate. Our parents paint over us with love but later on, sometimes society tries to hide some of our colours. But it’s eventually our own selves who give meaning to the art that has been done on our canvases. Not ever erasing. Just adding bits here and there to illuminate what we love. That’s what I want for my daughter.” Isn’t that what all of us want for our kids, too?