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The Curious Case Of Surnames


The curious case of surnames

My sister is married to someone with the same surname. I call it the curious case of Laishram vs Laishram because there are some members of our community who are piqued by the fact that she has gotten married to someone, perhaps, viewed as a brother -- simply because of the shared surname. Never mind that we come from two distinct backgrounds and lineages. So, when she had her house-warming party in a suburb of a town that has a sizeable Manipuri population, few people did boycott on the grounds that theirs is not ‘holy matrimony’!


I think Manipuris in general are a bit twisted in the head. Most Manipuri women call their husbands ‘tamo’ or big brother. And that is perfectly OK, it seems. I have friends from other communities married to the same surnames, say, a Das marrying a Das, or a Singh marrying a Singh. But they don’t ostracise their people.


Recently, a friend’s Facebook status said: ‘why on earth do women change their surnames and have hyphenated long names post marriage’. Subsequently, I read a report on the Age and The Times Of India debating on this whole issue of surnames. I am amused. Names and surnames are actually a contentious issue.


But it seems someone has been really wracking her brains on this one. In a survey submitted at the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference, Swinburne University of Technology senior lecturer in sociology Deborah Dempsey found that sharing the husband’s surname is the norm. Are we surprised? The report also says it is only in the Canadian province of Quebec perhaps that women are not permitted to adopt their husband's name at marriage, not even if they apply for at official name change. This is new to me.


The other interesting article I read was of five people in Japan bringing a lawsuit against the government claiming that the civil law forcing them to take their husband's name after marriage violates their constitutional rights. Japan is the only G8 nation that requires married couples to have the same family name. However in India, its Supreme Court has passed the landmark judgement that it would allow women to make a choice when it comes to their surname. Good move from a country where feminism comes in small noises.


My Facebook friend quotes five biblical reasons for a woman changing her surname after marriage, one of them being: “Unity: Scripture says that when you become married, you become one flesh with your husband. Changing your name to his reflects that fact.”He goes on to quote commitment, roles, identification, precedence, etc., as the other reasons. Interesting!


I am not religious and I am not a feminist. Frankly, I never thought about my name until now! Now that I am talking about it, I think I will remain the way I am and not become an Indira Laisram-Belcher. As it is, I keep teasing the man about belching. But jokes apart, I am a Kahlil Gibran believer and what he says about marriage holds true for me:


But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.


You can interpret the above lines in myriad ways. My understanding is that space and individual identity is important for sustaining any relationship. My name is tied to my identity. I do not believe in ownership and I do not believe that changing my surname will change anything about my marriage or my status. On the contrary, I am lucky I have someone who respects my choice! But as a Harvard researcher on the topic said, "There's an inner urge to bond - and (there are) crazy glues that bond people together. Sharing a name is one of them." To each his own.



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