The beautiful reason these young parents refused to give their child their surnames
“This was our gift to her”
There’s often a lot of head scratching involved when it comes to picking the perfect baby name. To-be parents seek counsel from loved ones, try peering into the infant’s soul through their eyes to see whether a certain name ‘fits’ and even turn to name books, popular culture and sentimental reasons (remember baby girl Chandler?) for inspiration. They’re usually looking for first names, because family names, as ‘family’ denotes, are already bequeathed to you.
Bestselling novelist Shubhangi Swarup and media professional Nikhil Hemrajani had no such problems. In a move that surprised their parents, the head nurse at Breach Candy Hospital and even the cab driver who was adamant on finding out Swarup’s ‘caste’, they decided to wipe the slate clean for their newborn baby girl. She doesn’t share a surname with either of her parents — her name is Kalika Swaraj.
A rose by any other surname
Kalika has a number of meanings — ‘kali’ as in flower bud in Bengali; ‘kali’, as in kaal, the temporality—the perception of time, and ‘Kali’, like the goddess. Hemrajani says he really liked the flower bud association.
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Swaraj on the other hand, was born out of a jovial conversation where the couple were combining their names in jest. It turned serious when they realised that Swaraj (meaning self-governance, or self-rule) was a happy portmanteau of both their names and stood for what they were trying to achieve by giving her this surname — freedom. Says Hemrajani, “The idea behind the last name is something Shubhangi and I had discussed for a while before Kalika was born. We were very wary of the concept of the surname. In Europe or America, a name is just a name but here in India, they are loaded and so full of prejudice. Apart from this, it was also a question of whose surname she should inherit, and the hyphen is a very messy solution. We decided we wanted to give her a new surname. Swaraj may be a bit lofty but it’s a great surname to have.”
Says Swarup, “We were tired of the caste, religion, community and gender connotations of a surname. The mother or the father’s surname comes with a lot of baggage — it is how people try to size you up in India and it gives your religion away quite often, and we don’t follow any particular religion. People think it’s commonplace information, and even cabbies ask you what’s your caste. I didn’t want her to have that.”
When it came to the barriers — legal or familial, Hemrajani clarifies, “Legally it’s permissible to give your baby any surname you want. I can change my name too. Legally it’s all allowed, it’s just the people who do the paperwork sometimes have their own cultural biases which come in the way.”
Their parents (all four of them) were a little bit surprised at the unusual moniker of their grandchild but were on board when they realised that this is truly what the couple wanted. When asked if either of them ever felt wary about not attaching their own names to their baby, Swarup says, “We aren’t insecure about our parentage. Our influence goes beyond a mere surname.”
Hemrajani’s mum is Muslim, and father Hindu. He’s clear that while Swaraj may be a Sanskrit term, as is Kalika – it has nothing to do with the script or the political parties it’s often associated with. The name they had all picked out if she were a boy? Waaris.
How will you explain this to her when she’s old enough to understand, I ask, and Swarup replies, “The personal is political. Look at the current polarising climate, every battle is not fought at the border. I was having this conversation with a cab driver and he asked about my caste. When you don’t tell them, they think you’re hiding something and I’m not going to do it to my child. Giving her this surname was our gift to her. She’s a free human being and she can do with it all that she likes.”
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