Look, I don’t have a surname


Hi: I am Vivek.  If you insist, I am S. Vivek and I don’t have a surname.  If you wish to be formal, you can call me Mr. Vivek, which in my culture is quite appropriate.  My identity cards in the US specify my name as Vivek Srinivasan and I get quite a few polite letters calling me Mr. Srinivasan; which happens to be my father.  Much as I like him, I find it odd that he gets the credit for things I do.  For example, a local newspaper reported a talk I gave at Syracuse as ‘Srinivasan said this and Srinivasan said that’, which by any stretch of imagination is not me.

I used to wonder if I were the only person around having trouble with the surname business till I met a friend “N*” who now lives in Boston.  She has been quite insistent on not having a last name and does not even have an ‘initial’.  Indignantly her mail id reads as justN*@somemail.com.  When she applied for a credit card in the US the bank promptly printed her name as “Unknown N*” – not a joke here folks.  It looks like she is finally reconciled to taking a Surname now that she’s getting married, so that a relieved population can finally call her by a name that’s not her.

I’ve wondered for a long time about this obsession with calling names in a particular way.  Names come in a great variety.  One of my best friends has a name that’s quite a mouthful: Meenakshisundara Suburama Adiyanpura Ilayanambi Muthukumar Nadar.  The ‘X’ in Malcom X tells an interesting story of his times.  Some come short and sweet, like mine – Vivek.  Some seek to express and explain all about you, others don’t.  Some names seek to carry forward history, others to forget it.  Why reduce all names to a boring two part form when there could be so much variety and fun?

If I had a surname, it would have been my caste.  With the influence of strong anticaste social movements in Tami Nadu, many people have dropped their caste appellations from their names in the last few decades.  My name reflects this glad history.  I’ve been rather puzzled by an insistence that all names of all people irrespective of history, culture and choice should be at least two parts.  To some extant this puzzle was answered by the book Seeing like a State by James Scott.

James explained the rise of surnames as a recent phenomenon that happened when nation-states tried to straighten up their records (that were manual) in order to collect taxes, ensure conscription and raise other resources from families.  He says that this movement gained strength from 15th century onward in England and had its roots at different times in different societies.  Best of all was a case in Philippines, where the Spanish invaders wanted to regularize records.  In order to do so, one of its chief architects created a roster of Spanish surnames that families had to compulsorily adopt.  The roster had surnames that started with different alphabets for each province to make names more informative!

The days of this Spanish invader are over folks.  In the meanwhile something called information technology has come up using which we can build connections between people in rather interesting ways.  It’s time now to revert to a more imaginative system where a person should be allowed to specify ones name in any way we wish and specify how we wish to be called.  I hope the government will wake up to radical new possibilities sometime soon.  In the meanwhile, those of you who get in touch can call me Vivek (pronounced as the phrase “we wake”) and avoid the nasty business of attributing things I do to my father!


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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