What's Not In A Name?
In South Asia names mostly emphasise our separateness
This was Juliet’s lament in Act II, Scene 2 of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, spoken while standing on the balcony and overheard by Romeo, who is standing nearby:
“Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. O, be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet…”
The issue here is not in the individual names of the two lovers, Juliet and Romeo, but that they belong to two inimical families, the Capulets and Montagues. Both, these names are fairly generic and do not tell more about the protagonists as the names in the Indian subcontinent do.
Most names in the region tell us more about the person than in most parts of the world. For instance we can usually tell whether an individual is a Hindu or Muslim or Sikh and more often than not the region that person hails from.
Muslims possibly being the exception to this norm. Because Muslims in India mostly have Arab names. This is something I have long pondered about. In the world's biggest Muslim nation, Indonesia, names unite their many cultural heritages. It's only in South Asia where they mostly emphasise our separateness.
Many Christians have Indian names and lose none of their ‘Christianess’ by doing so. Some have mixed names like John Dayal or Satish Jacob. Most don't give you a hint.
There was the late Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, a third generation Christian. He kept his religion a private affair but did not hide it either. His brother-in-law is an evangelist preacher. For all practical purposes he was a Reddy oligarch from Rayalaseema.
I can understand Parsis retaining their Iranian names; they zealously preserve their Zorashtrian identity as their bloodlines. Like Ratan Tata or Manek Madon or Zarir Byramjee. And sometimes adding to it by denoting an occupation. Or Dorab Sopariwalla or Darius Bandookwalla or even better, Cyrus Daroowalla.
Did you know that Chinoy came from the Parsis who warehoused the East India Company's opium for export to China? That’s why they are just 90,000 of them and declining.
Hindus usually have caste names suffixed and antecedents prefixed. If I did it the typical South Indian Hindu way, I would be Nagavedu Guruswamy Mohan Mudaliar. Nagavedu being the village, Guruswamy being my father, Mohan being me and Mudaliar being my caste.
In the military my father was Major N.K.G. Mudaliar. As a civil servant he became Major N.K. Guruswamy IAS. It told his story completely.
I went to St. Anns Convent in Secunderabad for my early - KG to class 3 - education and the nuns made me Mohan Guruswamy, like Johnny Walker. To some extent that defined me. The Catholic Church was Hellenising me.
Then I went to a protestant mission school. Most of my classmates who were from the districts and part of the church system had hybrid neo-Christian names like John Krupanandam or Anthony Yesudasan.
My class Hellenised Hindu antecedents were now clear. The post Independence native knew his place in relation to me. His name did not matter.
The ruling oligarchies often converted for power and kingdom. But the upper and middle castes largely clung to their Hindu orthodoxies and Brahminical traditions.
Most Muslims in the Indian sub-continent are converts, largely to flee the exclusion and tyranny of the Hindu caste system. This still continues as we saw in Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu.
I can understand a Mirza or a Khan or a Qureshi or Owaisi retaining a surname for it denotes a descent. But why does a julaha need to be a Ansari Ansari, and not be Bishambardas Kori or Ganganath Saliya and still be a Muslim particularly when on judgement day names do not matter?
Keeping wellborn names has its advantages. In 1920 the poet Akbar Hussain Rizvi, better known as Akbar Allahabadi very cleverly commented on the Viceroy's Council: "Islam ki kya zikr karun, Council mein bahut Saiyyad, Masjid mein fakhat jhumman."
Being a Saiyyad has benefits, but the question is why does the jhumman forsake his identity for nothing beyond filling up mosques? Particularly when crowding in mosques did not confer much.
As it did for Christian converts, who fled the oppression of the pernicious Hindu caste system, and got material benefits of superior schooling, and medical care besides access into a brotherhood of equality.
Lower class and caste (yes there is a caste system too) Muslims have the same socio-economic profiles of Dalits. The light skinned ones are the ones we see in Bollywood's Muslim socials, like "Mere Mehboob" or "Chaudhvin ka Chand" and not to forget "Pakeezah" in Raj Bhavans and the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In 1967 I heard George Fernandes campaigning against S.K. Patil, who in Bhendi Bazaar told his audience of the wonderful strides the Mussalman was making, alluding to Dr. Zakir Hussain being President.
George, who came a little later, was told about it. He promptly said "toh kya hua, Abdul Rehman thelawalla, thelawalla hee hai aur enke shasan mein thelawalla hi rahega!"
Merely clinging to an alien identity does not provide an escape from their wretched condition. Despite most of north India having an uninterrupted period of centuries of Muslim rule, the economic status of the vast majority of Indian Muslims is just a notch above our Dalits. When Partition happened most of the upper class Muslims who demanded political separation just took off leaving the majority behind.
In many countries, like China or Indonesia, the sizable Muslim communities have indigenous names. In Indonesia many Muslims have names from the Hindu pantheon like Vishnu or Rama or Ganesha and still lose none of their ‘Islamicness’.
Achmed Sukarno's daughter was Megawati Sukarnoputri, also a President of Indonesia. The first Ming emperor of China, Ming Taizu, was supposed to be a Hui, a predominantly Chinese Muslim nationality. Admiral Zhang He who commanded the Chinese fleet that visited Cochin in 1433 was a Muslim.
I would have liked to see a Shahjahan Singh or Ramnaresh Akbar becomethe king of India. Yeh na tha hamari kismet mein.
Mohan Guruswamy is a scholar and writer. The views expressed here are his own.