What's in a name?
#1
Sometime back, an Annoyed Picard meme was shared in the Nirmukta Facebook group with the text, "How the f*** did Jesus find guys named Peter, John, James, Matthew, Andrew, Philip, Thomas and Simon in the Middle East?" Such a smart alec meme is readily outsmarted. First off, there's a duplication in the list for it was Simon who was later awarded the epithet of Peter. All of the names, as listed, are only latter-day anglicizations of Hebrew-derived and Greek-influenced names (eg. Hebrew Ya'aqov --> Greek Iakobos --->Latin Iacomus --->English James; Greek Andreas ---> English Andew). The fact that Simon (with a Hebrew name) and Andrew (a Greek-derived name) are said to be brothers, has been seen as evidence of some degree of Hellenization and cosmopolitanism in the Jerusalem of the time, given the influences of several empires from the Babylonians to the Romans. As the video This Land is Mine by Nina Paley illustrates, the history of the Middle East is one of immigration, alas, often by fighting rather than floating populations. The smacked-down meme still leaves us with an uneasy reminder, of the proneness of netizens to make assumptions about the ethnic antecedents, personal histories and political leanings of persons just on reading their names off a profile page. Staying with the Middle and Near East, here is an earlier Nirmukta blog-post titled Consciousness-raising and names, cautioning readers against making such assumptions.

Just in time to stave off any smugness that may have resulted from seeing through the naivete in the meme, I happened to remember a mea culpa moment where the sound of a name was enough to unspool a made-up biography in my head. When I first encountered 'K Anthony Appiah' in the notes section of Amartya Sen's 'The Idea of Justice', I had in spite of myself thought, "Appiah! Sounds uncannily Tamil to me! There's even an initial prefix, perhaps standing for a native village. Maybe from Tamil Nadu or Sri Lanka...". Later, even when I saw the full name 'Kwame Anthony Appiah' flashed while watching the documentary The Examined Life, I was thinking, "Kwame? Maybe it adds up...There were many Tamil-speaking immigrants in African colonies since colonial times and perhaps he's of mixed heritage." I had to only watch that documentary a few minutes longer to disabuse myself of my fanciful and baseless out-of-Tamil-Nadu theory regarding someone who's a Ghanaian-American philosopher of Ghanian-English parentage (whose work on ethics and philanthropy is discussed in the forums here.)

Let us now move from the Middle East and Africa to Indian names where stakes are larger and more varied than having one's nationality occasionally wrongly guessed while traveling abroad. Some workplace and marketplace situations arising out of name-related stereotyping, listed here without the intention of making an insensitive comparison but only to illustrate the staggering range of severity from minor annoyance to downright harassment, range from the mild nuisance of lifestyles assumed from names to demonstrable hiring discrimination based on names printed in CVs.

The impact of names in the social milieu of India, characterized as it is by limited social mobilization and constriction to caste-locations, has been discussed threadbare elsewhere in the forums, unfortunately more truculently than trenchantly given the sensitive nature of the issue. Speaking of surnames and social mobility, a strategy besides erasure that has been experimented with in some Indian settings is reshuffling, as in the example in this TOI news item courtesy of the late Marathi poet and translator Dilip Chitre.
Quote:Since surnames identify, dalits have resorted to the practice of 'upcasting' their names or taking on Brahmin surnames. Like the boy who used to deliver our milk has taken on Chitre as his surname.
A case study of how constriction to a caste-location seems to defy even radical lifestyle redesign, going well-beyond truncating or altering names, is available in this autobiographical piece by Navayana founder S Anand (and also in an account by a forum member here that is similar in intent but nowhere as close in fervour). Quoting from the account of S Anand (who, incidentally, acknowledges flipsides and ambiguous outcomes of name-changes):
Quote:Not that a conscious rescripting of the ‘personal’ makes me cease to be a brahmin. For all effective purposes, I shall remain one. I cannot erase the unearned privileges being born in this caste have given me. I believe caste will continue to function for me not as an originary identity but as a social location that I cannot often exit.
Fast forward some nine years from that anguished post to the present day to Navayana's publication of Dr. Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste, and the 'no exit' situation Anand laments is on display in the hostile responses to the publication that emerge from and are directed at caste-locations viewed as static, and at their construed occupants, here S Anand and Arundhati Roy.

There is an additional layer of irony in such controversies when Ashis Nandy or Arundhati Roy are condemned as representing a 'Brahmanical intelligentsia', apparently unaware of the fact that Ashis Nandy was raised in a Christian family and Arundhati Roy, who gets her last name from an absentee father, was raised by Syrian Christian maternal grandparents in Kottayam. So often in comment-trail slugfests, 'Roy and Guha' are panned as 'Bengali leftists' and this is true of neither, since both parents of Ramachandra Guha are Tamil and his last name comes from a Ramayana character.

When I ask "What's in a name?" in the post title, it is not as a rhetorical question or with the intent of dismissing concerns in the divided society of India about vestigeal signifiers of privilege. It is just that those questions are better addressed keeping the discussion systemic rather than letting it be personalized, keeping in mind that names given to people maybe artifacts of where they were raised and what format was conventional in school-enrollment, and not as readily altered as screen-names or display-names, and therefore exactly grounds for imputing personal culpability of some kind. Pico Iyer says he cannot speak a word of Tamil, and it would be ironic indeed if someone is put off by the 'casteist label' in the author's name in a copy of Falling off the map, thus missing out on a read that endearingly humanizes unsung and globally marginalized communities. Anyone who's able to read this page has, at least via the conversations that the Internet enables, an opportunity to put into practice what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls for here, a cosmopolitanism that offers immeasurably more possibilities than that of Jerusalem in the early Roman empire where we began this discussion. These are possibilities of mutually enriching exchange too valuable to squander in name-calling, of names that are ours by accidents of history.
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#2
Hi Arvind,
I can understand the intentions of your rather dispassionate writing wherein you have asked to see work beyond the confines of their identities as that has the risk of missing and quoting from your own words:
//Anyone who's able to read this page has, at least via the conversations that the Internet enables, an opportunity to put into practice what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls for here, a cosmopolitanism that offers immeasurably more possibilities than that of Jerusalem in the early Roman empire where we began this discussion. These are possibilities of mutually enriching exchange too valuable to squander in name-calling, of names that are ours by accidents of history.//

i do not know where to begin with the fallacies as your premises which incidentally was posted at the end, seems to suggest...
by your own admission, infact Anand's that his brahminical identity will be something that he can never leave behind despite he openly doing so (even now in The Hindu where he was working earlier, people talk about his act of getting from his desk all of a sudden and removing his sacred thread proclaiming to the confused fellow staff-that he is no longer Hindu and he is Buddhist from then on!)...i do not know how he could have thought otherwise when he invited Arundhati Roy to write a 164 page "introduction to Bala Saheb" that this aspect of privileged identities will not be questioned? You are well aware that in India, caste is all pervasive and you cannot escape from its clutches even if you abandon your religion and take another or still abandon your religion completely...

That's why your sense of surprise at calling out Arundhati Roy's religion and Ashis Nandi's christian upbringing does not address this "invisible privilege" bestowed upon them by their accidental birth...

You must be aware that in India Ansari muslims have even lower socio economic profile than Sayyeds and both do not marry from a Muslim who is a butcher, how did you make this assessment that their Christian ie., Roy and Nandi's backgrounds makes them immune from caste bias...or will hijack the main agenda of dalit empowerment when they speak out for them...their defense is like how males think that by being a feminist and an activist of women's rights automatically reduces his male privilege...

By quoting another analogy of bharatnatyam which has its roots in Devadasi system has been usurped completely by the upper castes and has been seen as a "rich Indian art" without even acknowledging its not so brahminical roots is a real threat that dalits have been facing from the time their gods have been included in the brahminical pantheon and excluding dalits from the rituals...example Siva

Coming back to surnames according privilege, i will like to draw an analogy wherein a German humanist enters a Jewish conclave (because he has written tome on holocaust and is considered an expert in Jewish history) wearing Nazi uniform with swastikas stamped all over, i leave to you whether, you would still see it this way

//cosmopolitanism that offers immeasurably more possibilities than that of Jerusalem in the early Roman empire where we began this discussion. These are possibilities of mutually enriching exchange too valuable to squander in name-calling, of names that are ours by accidents of history.//

or see it simply as a person who refuses to acknowledge the absurdity of his ideology and his action and is drunk with privilege that he fails to see the obvious. To conclude, dropping surnames may not bring in a social revolution. but may serve an important symbolism which is vital for any social movement...
[fon‌t=Impact]K Sanjay Kumar[/font]
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