Until a century ago, South Indians appended their names with the name of their caste (yuck), which was handed down from generation to generation. Thankfully, sometime in the last century, many South Indians decided to give up their caste names. In the North, it was different, they had the system of surnames, much like in the West.
So all of a sudden, my father-in-law, Johnson Thangaraj Castename found himself with his first and middle names Johnson and Thangaraj and no other name to connect him with anyone else on the face of the earth. His father remained David Castename till his death. Instead of waking up to the storm that was brewing, my father-in-law gave his four children two names each too—one Bible name and one Indian name. The Indian names of the boys even rhymed: Gnanasekhar, Surendar, and Dhinakar, which was kind of cool. And his wife became a Mrs. Johnson, to take on her husband’s name.
By this time, in South India, the problem of not having surnames was circumvented by having an initial. So my husband Philip Dhinakar became J. Philip Dhinakar. The J was for Johnson of course.
When I married Philip Dhinakar, I could hardly wait to change my surname. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so eager for change, especially considering that my father had gone through so much to achieve a surname for the family and ended up with no son to perpetuate it.
So let me digress to tell you my father’s story. When my father, the ninth child, was born, my grandfather looked at him and said: This my son shall be named Bernard Wilson Gnana Baktarmitran. Gnana meant wisdom; perhaps the need for wisdom was felt so accutely in this family, that every other person had this name. Bernard stood for Bernard of Clairvaux, who penned O Sacred Head Now Wounded. But the name Baktarmitran was the one that my grandfather was so proud of, because he had created it. It meant “pious man + friend”. Because he was called Wilson, somehow my poor father survived his childhood and his name. When he was about to go to the United States to study, he felt it was phoney to have Western names. So he removed Bernard and toned down the Wilson to a W and became G.W. Baktarmitran.
Many years later, and after I was born, when we lived peacefully in Calcutta as the Baktarmitrans, we came across many people with their names beginning with Bhakta, and my name-concious father felt that if he changed the spelling of his name, just a wee bit, to Bhaktamitran from Baktarmitran, he would at least share the beginning of his name with others. So it was that by the time our family left Calcutta, when I was eight, we were the Bhaktamitrans. Bhatkta was a known name and Mitran was a known name. Still, we were the only ones on the planet with this compound name, and with no male heir, the name was doomed to blaze across the sky like a shooting star and fizzle out in due course.
I was the youngest daughter-in-law to become part of the Johnson clan. All I knew was that I wanted to take on one of my husband’s names. So I could be Mrs. Philip or Mrs. Dhinakar, and I chose the latter. We daughters-in-law sometimes referred to our husbands as the Johnson family but we ourselves were Mrs. Gnanasekhar, Mrs. Surendar, and Mrs. Dhinakar—three different surnames. For our husbands the Johnson was dormant in the initial J. But not for long.
To their horror, they found that when they applied and got their passports, their initials had been expanded and they all ended up with Johnson as their first names—three brothers named Johnson.