Another Namesake

Mira Nair’s movie `Namesake’ is about a man with an odd name
(Gogol) for an Indian. I have my own situation to deal with.
My name is usually written as Sarada G. Rajeev.

To most Americans it is just another foreign-sounding name;
the first name vaguely sounding like a brand of tea.
(I have been asked if my family owns that tea company:
Indian, tea natural association.)

The real trouble starts when people of Indian origin hear the
name. They know that Sarada is a woman’s name. The more
well-informed will also know that it is in fact one of the
names of Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom. So what am
I doing with it as my first name? Also, why do I insist on
being called Rajeev? Contrary to modern American custom
where even presidents want to be known by the informal
first name.

The truth is, Rajeev is my given name. I would say Christian
name if I were Christian. But because of an odd custom in
South India-prevalent around the time of my birth- it appears
at the end of my list of names, so it has become my `last name’.
You see, most Indians use their caste or clan name as their last
name: why there are millions of Agarwals, Singhs and Patels.

My life in America would have been simpler if my
parents followed that tradition and named me Rajeev Nair or
Rajeev Pillai. For, Nair is my clan and Pillai the usual title
used by men of my clan. Nairs slightly higher in the totem pole
of castes can use the title Menon. If you can claim descent from
a teacher of the martial arts (Kalari Payattu), you can call
yourself a Kurup. But I would have been plain old Rajeev Pillai
or Rajeev Nair. My father was Gangadharan Pillai, his brother is
Chellan Nair. We use Pillai and Nair interchangeably, but Nair
has acquired a certain cachet these days. In spite of its
association with a hair removal product.

It was also the tradition to attach your mother’s and your
father’s name in front of your own, so I would more likely
have been S. G. Rajeev Pillai. The S. standing for Sarada
Amma, my mother and the G. for Gangadharan Pillai my
father. In our tradition, a man belongs to his mother’s
family and it is the oldest daughter that carries on the
family name. She inherits the ancestral home. The men
were merely caretakers of family property which is owned
by their sisters. The laws have changed but traditions change
more slowly.

In the late fifties and early sixties, it became politically
incorrect for people in Kerala to use clan names to identify
themselves. So like many
others, my clan name was chopped off and I became S. G. Rajeev.
Once that name goes on the Secondary School Certificate (High
school diploma) it might as well be tatooed on your forehead.
It continues on the Indian passport and from there to the US
Resident Alien card (green card) and later the US passport.

Thus Rajeev became my `last’ name. Now I have to explain to
every new friend why I should be called Rajeev and not `Sarada’.

And, to continue the confusion my children have Rajeev as their
last names! Some day they will have to explain why their last
name sounds like the first name of a former Indian prime minister.

At least Gogol was a great writer. My most famous namesake is an
Indian politician with a questionable legacy.

I can’t even say `My father was a fan’ of that Rajiv.

3 Responses to “Another Namesake”

  1. A. Meenakshi says:

    Hi Dr. Rajeev:
    This journal entry mirrors my explanation to the folks here as to why my first name is the last name, last name is first name… (Aiyakrishnan Meenakshi). I tell people how my last name could have been an ‘Iyer’ or a ‘ghanapaadi’…
    You write beautifully and with a good sense of humor, be it ‘practical vedanta’, ‘time to leave’, this piece on the namesake or your talk about Indian mathematics. I enjoyed every one of them.
    I intend to read Vivekachoodamani, having read your piece on ‘practical vedanta’.
    Best Regards,
    Meenakshi

  2. Rajeev says:

    Meenakshi,
    I was away at a SIAM meeting so wasn’t checking for comments on my web pages for a few days.

    Thanks for your appreciation. It always helps to know someone out there is reading what I write. It is like working on your garden. You would do it anyway, but it is good to know others like it too.
    By the way do you subscribe to this blog?
    –Rajeev

  3. confidential email says:

    The hierarchy of the south indian name system allowed tracking of ancestry via the mothers and fathers names, sort of like a unique identifier. The caste name by itself didn’t allow tracking of the actual parentage.
    Cheers

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