I have always had two names – two first names, two last names. Many people call me by the name my mother gave me, the one she had decided as a teenager to give to her future daughter. This is the name I share with a soulful melody in Indian classical music. The other name was important for many years; it was the name by which my schoolteachers and college friends addressed me. This name originally belonged to my father’s sister, the one who died young. The name my mother refused to accept, fearful of any misfortune that might come my way by making this choice. Torn between the wishes of wife and mother, my dad did what he thought was reasonable. He made both names official. And saddled his only daughter with dual identities. Although not born under the Gemini sun sign, I felt like that there were two parts of me; complementary, not congruent.
When it was time for me to get married, several years after my paternal grandmother passed away, there came a time to decide. I could choose to rearrange my names and take the same last name as my new husband. I was undecided. Dad stepped in again. I needed a passport to travel abroad to join my husband. With the brand new marriage certificate in hand, he officially changed my name again. My shiny passport had my picture but belonged to a stranger. The two first names switched places but stayed. I now had a new last name.
My new name marked my entry into a foreign country. Here I was a wife. As if that wasn’t strange enough, I was once again a student but now my graduate school classmates called me by the same name that I was called at home. With time, I grew into my name and life grew like a tightly wrapped shell around this central kernel of my identity. I published scientific papers, acquired a green card and later wrote freelance articles for local magazines. As far as my name went, my personal and professional identities finally merged. I was no longer the split twin. Years later, I checked the spelling on the document that the social worker showed me in the hours after DQ’s birth to ensure that the name I picked for DQ was spelt correctly. It was no surprise to see that our new family of three was united in one way; we bore the same last name.
The story so far is a standard one. A life defined by a name, a name conferred by someone other than me. I didn’t get to pick the name but I could decide what the person who bore the name did. Like many women before me, some who kept their maiden name, the ones who agonized about their decision to take on their husband’s name either at the time of the wedding or after the birth of their children, I lived within the confines of social mores, not over-thinking the consequences of my name in a future I could not foresee.
It has been several years since DQ’s dad and I divorced. I have continued to use the name that was on my first passport, the name that I had identified with in adulthood, the name that I have the legal right to hold on to, irrespective of my marital status. I kept the name for the same reason I had taken it in the first place, it was just easier to do so. As a single parent and the primary one, it marked DQ and me as a unit. As a career woman, it maintained the continuity of my professional credentials. Now that I am remarried, is my name an asset or a liability? Is it a possession that belongs to my ex or a reminder of another time, permanently etched to my identity?
Like GPS coordinates, my two last names pointed to my location on the planet for equal number of years. A name after all is a label; as personal as “sweetheart” that my husband calls me and as distant as “hey you” that a stranger in a crowd may utter to address me. But a name is more than a label. It is an inheritance from your parents that is uniquely your own. It is the primary way in which you respond to the world and the lens through which the world sees you. It defines you, shapes you and grounds you. It is the one right you take for granted, from the time you start interacting with society.
Over 25 years ago, author Anna Quindlen wrote about holding on to her maiden name after marriage “…. it so happens that when it came to changing my name, there was no consideration, rational or otherwise. It was mine. It belonged to me. I don’t even share a checking account with my husband. Damned if I was going to be hidden beneath the umbrella of his identity.” Although she felt left out when she had children who bore the same last name as her husband, she declared, “I made my choice. I haven’t changed my mind. I’ve just changed my life.”
A fellow blogger wrote recently about deciding to take on her husband’s name after having two children. “It will draw me, on paper, into the fold of our little foursome. We will be our unit. I don’t know why it matters to me that the world sees that. But for some reason, it does. I want the world to know we’re a little family of four. That means playing by the world’s rules. That means all having the same name.”
It is not so simple for me. Any change I make will affect the family. If I take on my husband’s name, DQ gets left out. If I go back to my maiden name, it adds more names to the family mix. Perhaps, I should stick with just one first name, like Madonna, but I am no celebrity. The hardest part of this dilemma is that it is one that only I can solve. The name by which I am known is mine alone and any decision that I need to take is a personal one. My father is not around to point me in any particular direction and HH has wisely left the decision to me. DQ does not have an opinion and Princess is unaware of my predicament.
The city I grew up in changed names a few years ago, the Anglicized Bombay was discarded in favor of the original Indian “Mumbai”. The city remained unconcerned – the population density, poverty, chaos and overall entropy continued to increase. Shouldn’t the new name have symbolized some change? An improved version, a makeover, a different avatar perhaps? Change happens as it inevitably does. The Bombay of my childhood and the Mumbai of today are different. The change had nothing to do with it’s name. The city evolved in response to external factors. It had grown, decayed, resurrected and renewed itself in many ways, undocumented by name boards, unsung by media. Mumbai remains a whirring, buzzing megapolis, filled with indomitable energy. It is a testament to the irrepressible DNA of the city that survives, unfazed by natural disasters and manmade terrors.
A name change generally signifies a life change. In my case, my life changed while my name stayed the same. I am not the same young woman who left behind her maiden name when she left her father’s home. I am no longer the sad, bitter person who struggled with building a life after divorce. I am not the single mom mourning the death of her parents. I am the resilient woman who survived and took a chance at building a new family. I am the optimist who can see the long term unity of this family with a mosaic of names. I am more than a combination of words. My personal identity is more than just my name. Like Bombay, my evolution will continue, unseen and unannounced.