It’s been over a year that Ilangovan Geeta, a 50-year-old government service employee, changed his last name. His wife, Geeta Ilangovan, says that it happened quite spontaneously.
“He just woke up one morning and announced that my name was going to be his surname from now on,” she chuckles.
But for Ilangovan, the decision meant much more.
“I have been writing and speaking about the need for gender equality, especially on social media. I had been thinking of doing it for a while… This was my Valentine’s Day gift to her,” he confesses sheepishly.
While not everyone was surprised by his decision, Ilangovan has witnessed some hesitation from others from using his full name.
“When we go to speak at a public event, they refer to Geeta on stage by her full name. And if I am going after her, they say ‘Ilangovan’ and then falter. I have to tell them that my name is indeed Ilangovan Geeta,” he says, amusement apparent in his voice.
Geeta and Ilangovan
In a society where women are still questioned if they keep their last names from before marriage, for a man to take his mother, or wife’s name, as a surname is almost unheard of.
TNM spoke to four men who took the unconventional step. While three took their wife’s or mother’s name as last name, one decided to give his daughter his wife’s surname.
Each of their stories has something to say about the society we live in.
Facing institutional hurdles
Karthikeyan Hemalatha, a journalist, took his mother’s name when he was 15.
Karthikeyan’s parents separated when he was in Class 5. At the time he did not understand why his mother was changing his and sister’s last names on all official documents, but he neither resisted nor had a say in the matter.
Now, however, the 29-year-old feels that it was the right decision to make, even though it was a lot of work and required many visits to government offices.
He adds with a chuckle that many people assume he is a woman because of his last name.
While none of his friends or family have raised an objection to this, he has had some run-ins with authority.
“My PAN card still has the name of the man my mother was married to,” he says. “I tried to tell them that I do not want my his name as the last name. But the government officials did not listen, they insisted it was mandatory.”
On another occasion, Karthikeyan was at a police station for a minor driving-related offence.
“Seeing my surname, the constable kept asking me my father’s name. It was probably his way of trying to intimidate me. But I held my ground and told him I did not want to give his name.”
Institutional hurdles are also a reason that Ilangovan and Geeta have not changed their names on official records. Both of them concur that it is a lot of work and believe that the initiative is more important in a social context. They use their changed names on social media as well as in their professional lives. Geeta, who is a writer and documentary filmmaker, uses ‘Geeta Ilangovan’ as her credit line. And Ilangovan has a book published under ‘Ilangovan Geeta’.
Shedding caste and patriarchal influences
For Venkat, a scientist from Hyderabad currently working in Pune, giving his daughter his wife Bharathi’s surname was an easy choice. It also came from their unanimous desire to disassociate from Venkat’s family, who did not want anything to do with their inter-caste marriage.
For Venkat, the reasons were two-fold. “I wanted my daughter to carry neither the baggage nor the racist overtones that my last name stood for. I also grew up witnessing the ugly patriarchy that my mom had to live with, that denied her and her children equal treatment as compared to her male siblings or their children,” he says.
Bharathi explains why she too was keen on this: “My husband’s is a Brahmin surname. My daughter was not going to be a Brahmin as I am not one, nor are we going to raise her as one. Besides, people always mistook me for Brahmin due to my fair skin while I grew up. It was a pain for me to explain that I am not one, followed by who I am and then deal with their reaction. I wanted to avoid that for my daughter.”
Venkat’s family was not in touch with them at the time and hence were indifferent to this decision. Bharathi, who is one among four sisters, feels that it would have meant more to her family if they had a boy child.
And because their daughter carries Bharathi’s last name, people often assume that it is Venkat’s as well. Some men would not take being addressed with their wife’s surname after a ‘mister’ but Venkat has learnt to ignore it in a casual context.
There have been some awkward incidents though.
“Once, we went for a medical check-up to a hospital in Hyderabad as part of obtaining an Australian visa. The man looked at the paperwork a couple of times before questioning my relationship with Bharathi and our daughter,” he narrates. “Actually, it was a rude ‘who the hell are you?’ directed at me.”
Another time, Venkat and his daughter were in transit at an airport in Heathrow when an immigration officer suspected him of trafficking!
“The official asked for her birth certificate to establish we were related. My daughter’s US passport does not bear the names of her parents and Bharathi was not accompanying us at that time. The officer said later that she was ensuring that this wasn’t some international child trafficking case,” Venkat says.
A way to ensure gender equality
Apart from personal reasons, for Ilangovan it was also practising what he preached.
“Many women are socially compelled to take their husbands’ surnames. This cannot change overnight. So, in the meantime, I believe husbands can start taking their wives’ names to ensure some sort of parity,” he reasons.
He also believes that while he, as a man, is identified by his achievements and not his surname, it is not the same for women who may be reduced to so and so’s wife.
Ilangovan’s parents are also followers of Periyar, who worked to eradicate caste and gender discrimination. “My father was happy with my decision,” he says.
A sign of love and commitment
After Ilangovan changed his last name on social media and wrote about it, he says that as many as 25 of his male followers followed suit.
One such man is 29-year-old Sethupathi Uthiramani, who took his mother’s name as his last.
Sethupathi’s parents are farmers who live in his native village. He grew up witnessing his mother being a matriarch. And while he resented it as a child, he realised after college that his mother wasn’t unnecessarily bossy or controlling.
“She had studied till Class 5 and was more educated than my father. She had to take charge and run the household. I had newfound respect and admiration for her,” Sethupathi says.
His parents did not care much about him taking Uthiramani’s name as his last name.
“They are very simple people who do not care much about feminism or social media,” he explains.
While Sethupathi has not changed his name officially, he intends to do so eventually.
“I will take my girlfriend’s name once we are married. And when we have children, I will change my surname on official records as well,” he says. “We have been together 10 years. There have been times where she has supported me financially as well, even though we aren’t married.
Sethupathi and his girlfriend, Umadevi
But is he doing this out of obligation, in exchange for her financial support? Sethupathi’s answer is a vehement ‘no’.
“It’s just my way of showing gratitude and commitment for her love and companionship,” he says.