What’s in a surname (or, for that matter, in a name)?

Update: I am writing this update on 17th May. I realized that my post might be taken as a bit preachy or an academic one. But I did not intend to say that anyone should follow what I did. Nor was it an academic post. I had not done any research about the usage of […]

surnamesUpdate: I am writing this update on 17th May. I realized that my post might be taken as a bit preachy or an academic one. But I did not intend to say that anyone should follow what I did. Nor was it an academic post. I had not done any research about the usage of names in Hindi or in Indian culture. All that this post contains are simply the thoughts that came in my mind and on which I contemplated a bit. Thanks to everyone who sent me comments on this text!

I was talking with a good friend the other day when she said that her surname is “Sharmabut she is no longer using it. I asked if I might know the reason behind it.

“I feel that the surnames widen the caste bias and this is why I do not like to use surname”, she obliged.

I was glad to finally have found a fellow Indian who has stopped using surname because s/he doesn’t want to be seen associated with a “higher” caste. I too had stopped using my surname (which is coincidentally also “Sharma“) when I was in 4th standard. At that time, in schoolbooks, I read about the caste system and the persecution meted out by the higher caste to the lower ones. That was for the first time that I had become sensitized about my own caste. My family is a liberal one and I had never got to learn anything caste-based from them. In 4th standard I suddenly started to feel as though my surname was a show-off and that my “lower” caste classmates were distant from me (this was not really true but nevertheless I felt so). I wanted to feel equal -not higher and not lower. So, when I went into the 5th standard, I requested my parents to get my name registered in school as “Lalit Kumar” instead of “Lalit Kumar Sharma“. Kumar is a sort of neutral surname, it does not really reflect on one’s caste (or at least I believe so). I was happy about what I had done. I felt as though a burden was off me. I felt relieved. I felt equal to other classmates as far as caste was concerned.

Many of you might be wondering why my parents and the school authorities did not object against my act of surname dropping. The answer is simple: They did not care.

I have related this incident several times to my non-Indian friends. They all had heard about Indian caste system and wanted to have a first hand account of what it is like now. I would explain it all to satisfy their curiosity and to proudly mention that India is slowly but steadily becoming caste free. But my friends would invariably ask me which caste I belong to. At this point I would tell them the incident that I mentioned above. And they would feel utterly nonplussed and surprised as to how come someone can drop his family name! For them family name is something that can not be changed even if you return to life after a Near Death Experience.

IndiacarpenterI belong to a worker class (blue collared) family. In the past, our family professions have been carpentry, masonry and stone sculpting. As per my experience, Indian worker class doesn’t have the luxury of happily chatting with family members about what name would suit the newly born baby. They are all worked up with making the ends meet. Illiteracy is another big cause and consequently their vocabulary is extremely limited. As a result, in the past, babies used to get random names drawn from objects in parents’ immediate surroundings -like fruits, vegetables, sweets and even household utensils! I have known a number of people who are two or three generations older and their names are quite amusing. Take your pick; Katori (Hindi for bowl), Angoori (Hindi for grapes), Imarti (a sweet), Jalebi (another sweet), Barfi (yet another sweet) Murali (Hindi for flute), Kela (Hindi for banana)…. and the list goes on!

I heave a sigh of relief and admire my good luck that the better sense had prevailed on my parents and I was not named likewise (by the way, the meaning of my name is “beautiful”). Thankfully my grandparents were also careful in naming their children. My father, uncle and aunts -they all got names with beautiful meanings. This is the evolution of human nomenclature and here the simplest ones disappear first. It is all about the survival of the most sophisticated ones. During the course of time, names drawn from simple objects were replaced by the names of deities. And nowadays even the deity-based-names are making way for highly Sanskritized names. The more incomprehensible the name the better it is; this appears to be the mantra of baby naming convention that is in fashion nowadays.

Now let’s go back to the surnames. As I said, in families like ours, in olden days, choosing a name for the new born baby was not a big deal. But some name was required -or the baby wont respond to a call. So, a random name was given and the task was considered finished.

If someone would ask those parents “OK, Katori is a… er… nice name; but what about her surname?”. The parents would probably reply “What surname? Well, I could spend my entire life without a surname then why does Katori needs any? Rubbish!”

However, in some cases parents did realize that a particular single name did not “sound” nice. For example, calling someone just Kela acoustically sounds strange in Hindi. The remedy for such cases was the endowment of a second name to the baby. Please note that this second name IS NOT a surname. It is just the second part of a two-part name. It does not imply any family connection.

And, thus, Kela would become… Kela Ram.

My grandfather was a person with golden heart. But his parents didn’t know about it when they named him Dhan (Hindi for wealth). And because Dhan alone doesn’t sound nice -so he was made Dhan Singh. Now, why Dhan Singh? There is no answer to this question. This name was simply “chosen” because other candidates did not “sound” as good to my great-grandparents’ ears.

This was how names were conjured up in past. Here, I have talked only about people at the level of my family in terms of wealth, social stature and education. In past, the better off and better educated families were not so indifferent about names and surnames. But the worker class, the poor people mostly were.

Lalit Kumar is a web explorer and founder of www.TechWelkin.com. He loves finding useful things on Internet and knows how to put them together to create a bigger solution. He is passionate about technology, languages and literature. Sign-up for email newsletter for receiving technology tips.


  1. anusha subramanian says

    Okhay…So I have different and intresting case of mine…Where from my birth only i dont have any surname…Because I apparently got to know that our community has stopped using it! My name is Anusha and the surname if would have existed when I was born would have been Anusha Iyer. But now people have started using it again! and my name is S. Anusha and Anusha. S sometimes & Anusha Subramanian manyatimes! I know how embrassing it becomes before people with surname…and while filling up any form because Subramanian is my fathers name! and is neither my second name cos I am registered as S. Anusha from my school Days:)

    Good to see and read your article…Because in my case this is big issue to be debated:) and even intrests me a lot! Goodluck!


  2. anupama says

    …..i was always Anupama……. my parents named me so… without a surname!!!!!!!
    now here in sweden i'm registered as Anupama Anupama 'coz u hv to have a second name……..
    people really wonder here why i don't have my family name attached to my name!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    good flow of thought on a interesting subject…….

  3. Bharat Sharma says

    Dear Lalit ji,

    Surnames and names is a topic of immense interest to me. It is not really valid now in metros due to intermarriages, but maybe one generation back when fewer people married out of caste, one could draw out a demographic sketch of a person on the basis of surname.

    When Sangh (RSS) was first started in 1925, caste system was rampant and the first few swayamsevaks were all Brahmins. So they started the practise of dropping surnames. If you have been to any RSS Shakha, you could kind of spend your life and not know other people’s surname since you will always be Lalit ji !!

  4. sarwat m. jamal says

    Really you picked an unique item. Who cares about names! How many people in India would like to delete their surnames clicking and shining thier names.
    Katori, Imarti, Kela are not the names whom we might call tipical, I know some names, Sannate, Bhakuree, Chikhuree, sanaee.
    I liked your article and I like you too because you dared to cut the surname from your names, the item which is always a thing to have proud.

  5. Lalit Kumar says

    Dadu (rakesh dewan ji),

    Thanks once again for the thoughtful comment!

    I do not really think that Katroi had ever been a name given for a purpose. I believe such a name would be given completely randomly. Katori was (and still is) a very useful utensil but its invention is prehistoric and I guess no one was named Katori at that time :)

    Your suggestion of reading Rangey Raghav is interesting. I will surely read the book!



  6. Abha says

    Quite an objective, well described, informative and an interesting write up….
    Its a treat to read you!

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