Keralites and the penchant for using caste surnames

Caste surnames have once again become a topic of interest, with several recent discussions pointing to their resurgence in the state.
Rep image of people in Kerala
Rep image of people in Kerala
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At the end of Shashi Tharoor’s session with writer Meena Kandaswamy at a literary festival in Kerala recently, a middle-aged man rose from among the audience and made his point in a few marked lines. The gist of it, rendered in oratory Malayalam, was about the impropriety of Shashi Tharoor, a politician who continued to project his caste identity in public forums, writing a book about BR Ambedkar, who famously wrote the Annihilation of Caste, while renouncing Hinduism. Shashi Tharoor, Thiruvananthapuram’s Member of Parliament and prolific writer, had been speaking about his new book on Ambedkar, during which Meena Kandaswamy raised several questions including on the Sabarimala women’s entry that caused such furore in Kerala.

Meena Kandaswamy has in fact, reportedly, urged people of dominant castes to drop their surnames, including once on a Facebook post, saying how it reinforced generations of inequality.

Shashi Tharoor repeatedly said in all his answers – and there were several questions imploring him to talk about caste – that he was opposed to the caste system. He did not however explain his reasons for repeatedly invoking the fact that he is a Nair – one of the most powerful communities in Kerala. In his earlier book An Era of Darkness, he blamed the British for the caste system in India. But 75 years after the British left, India continues to grapple with its many manifestations. In Kerala, where social reforms against caste discrimination began more than a century ago, people, progressive or otherwise, continue to carry caste surnames. We try to find out why.

"All over the world, identities are getting consolidated, because of the critical, political and economic processes that are happening. People are drawing more boundaries – on how women should be, how a particular section should be. People also want to add their identities to their names more than before, particularly now, when othering has become all the more rampant," says Meera Velayudhan, policy analyst (gender and culture) with a doctorate in modern Indian history. She is the daughter of Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first Dalit woman to be elected to the Constituent Assembly of India in 1946.

Swapna Gopinath, assistant professor at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, makes a similar observation as Meera, about families reverting to the use of caste names. There was a progressive wave in the 1960s and 70s where many families dropped their surnames, she says. But the generation after that – comprising her own – is picking it up again for their children. She also says that caste surnames were not just used by dominant communities like Nairs and Brahmins and erstwhile aristocratic families, but also Ezhavas, counted as one of the Other Backward Classes (OBC). 

"You can notice it among the more well-to-do in Ezhavas, how they used to carry the caste name Panicker," she says. Interestingly, Panicker is also a sub-caste under Nair, along the lines of Kurup, Pillai, and Menon. Swapna says both are different, but there would be no way to know which parent caste they come from just from the name. 

"My father's generation had used these surnames, but when it came to their children – which is my generation – they abandoned it. It might have been the influence of the early days of communism. But a generation after that, people of my age group began adding these surnames to their children. It basically skipped a generation, that's all," Swapna notes. 

A quora thread also makes the same observation. “Most Keralites abandoned caste based surnames in 60s 70s and 80s (sic) and adopted their village names or first names of their parents as surnames. That was the time when people became more sensible human beings. Most kids born in my generation (in the 80s and early 90s) were given such surnames by our parents belonging to the revolutionary period. But sadly, all types of separatism are coming back as strongly as ever in Kerala,” writes a user called Mehere RV, attributing the reasons to 'delusional pride in belonging to something (so abstractly) superior', movies underlining this, and 'irrational minds' being more common than rational.

In a 1955 journal on the sociological significance of systems of names, Victor S D'Souza notes the various rules by which names were passed on from parent to child for various communities in Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. He adds a curious anecdote about how a Bombay magazine, which did not understand the surname system of Kerala, confused the Menon surname for being a family name and took a dig at the government of India for nepotism. “The fact that quite a few prominent persons of the name Menon were holding responsible positions in the Government of India prompted them to gibe that the Government of India was suffering from 'Menon-gitis', obviously imputing nepotism, on the assumption that all Menons are related to one another."

He goes on to clarify that Menon literally means a superior person and it was formerly a title in Kerala given to men of authority such as headmen and accountants but "now Menon is a section of the Nair caste."

Even within the Nair community, arguments often arise over which sub-caste is "higher" than the others. To someone unfamiliar with the caste surnames, it would be a task just identifying which is which. Like in the above example Swapna shared, a Panicker could be Nair or Ezhava. Nairs have further sub castes like Kaimal and Kartha. And Brahmins come with names like Namboothiri and Nambeesan. Members of erstwhile royal families often carry the surname of Varma. Then there are other dominant castes which fall in between, like Variers. 

"Some people carry the names merely as part of tradition, they let it remain since these are the names the parents had given them. There are many who carry these names but don't adhere to it or practice the customs of the caste or religion, and lead a secular life. Then there are others who drop their religion or caste surnames and then wear it on their sleeve that they don't carry their caste name, but in the depth of their mind, they have caste and religious consciousness. These prejudices would occasionally resurface. Merely dropping the surname is not good enough," says MA Baby, former Minister of Culture and Education of Kerala and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). 

Recently, there was a huge controversy over alleged caste discrimination at the KR Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts in Kottayam. Shankar Mohan, the director of the institute who was alleged to have been casteist with cleaning women and students, resigned after a month and a half of the students protesting over it. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, renowned auteur, resigned from the post of chairperson, after continuously defending Shankar Mohan and hailing his virtues. In the midst of the controversy, Adoor gave interviews, in which he spoke about dropping his caste name at the age of 20, while also criticising the women who "dressed up" to speak to the media, as if it is a given they are not expected to. 

"Dropping your surname does not mean you are dropping the caste. Adoor Gopalakrishnan spoke about dropping his caste name but his behaviour was casteist in the film institute struggle. He made anti Dalit and casteist comments in interviews. Dropping caste name therefore does not mean that caste can go away," Meera says.

In an article on Ala, a blog on Kerala, the author (describing herself as 'Shilpa, er, Menon’) wonders about the same question – if shedding the surname will make all the difference. But she methodically asserts how the caste surname will bring you privileges that you can't entirely be unaware of, growing up in that system. She gives snippets of conversations one hears in the family, to prove her point – how someone married below their caste status or how someone else doesn't look 'Nair enough'.

MA Baby also gives an example to show the privilege that simply came with a surname. A friend of his named Sharma was once late to reach the airport and the airport officials had at first refused to give him a boarding pass. But then they saw the name and said, “You are a Sharma, we will accommodate you.” Unfortunately, says Baby, our society is still so sharply caste-ridden.

Shilpa writes on Ala: "The glaring awkwardness of a second name that proclaims smug savarna (dominant caste) identity bears no comparison to the material risks attached to a surname indicating oppressed-caste status.”  

She also mentions stories that place this, like Sarah Joseph's Alahayude Penmakkal. In the book is a chapter called ‘Name that burns like chilli’, about an oppressed caste man called Koran changing his name to Raman and the young protagonist Annie thinking about changing the name of the place she comes from: Kokkanjara. She thinks of the times teachers at her school had looked down upon her and her mates who came from this place, where only dead bodies were dumped once upon a time. Both Koran and Annie are victims of casteism.

Even in films, many popular male lead characters came with a dominant caste surname, especially in the late 80s and 90s. Soubin’s character in Maheshinte Prathikaram makes a joke about preferring Mohanlal to Mammootty because Mohanlal does not appear as anything other than “a Varma, Nair or Menon, all top class”.

KPAC Lalitha, late renowned actor in Malayalam, acts scornful in the film Sruthi when she asks a woman her name and that woman replies, “Mrs Pillai”. Lalitha says, “I asked your name, not the caste.” The same actor would in another film, Devaragam, play a dominant caste woman who asks a domestic worker her caste, and on hearing her say, “human caste”, angrily retorts, “so you are a Communist.”

A few from the industry have made a statement by removing their caste names, even having to announce it in public so people stop using it. Actor Parvathy Thiruvothu had to put out a Facebook post to insist that journalists stop using her caste surname, when merely asking them to do that didn’t seem to work. “A surname is a social marker that will give you privilege and that is a fact that can never be downplayed. No matter if you choose to keep it or shed it, this aspect cannot be taken away. The shock and disbelief around it is what actually shocks me. We have lived as long as we have, and constantly seen the social marker oppressing and exploiting people and we continue to shrug our shoulders,” she says.

A couple of days ago, young actor Samyuktha also said during an interview that she should be called just by her first name, and that she had dropped her caste surname on social media some time ago.

A Sreedhara Menon's A Survey of Kerala History mentions the early decades of the 20th century witnessing the beginning of powerful reform movements in the state, the impact of which was felt by the dominant caste members too. The efforts of reformers such as Chattampi Swamikal, Sri Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, and many others systematically erased many of the outward exhibits of casteism, beginning with untouchability and non-entry of Dalits to temples and nearby areas. By the 1990s, it was considered to be in poor taste to ask a person what caste they belonged to. But still, the names did not go away.

If, like Swapna says, it skipped a generation, it somehow came back with all its force in later years. A reddit discussion about this gives another explanation. Many who decide to migrate to foreign countries choose the caste surname which are often much shorter and easier to pronounce than their family names, house names, or names of parents. Menon or Pillai for example is much easier as a surname than Kizhakkeparembil or Balagangadharan, someone points out. Another responds that this is not a proper excuse to keep the caste name if you don’t wish to.

Even with the resurgence of caste surnames, there are also a number of people opting for caste and /or religion neutral names for their kids. In the reddit thread, people speak about it being too late for them to drop their own surnames but they will definitely not pass it on to their kids. One user adds on a lighter note: “I will go a step further and give my kids fake upper caste names. I don't think there are laws against adding fake surnames, so I will go ahead with Elon Varma, Jay Namboothiri, Suraj Sinhji.”

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