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Don’t Ask Me My Surname!

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At some point in class 11, I realised that my name was unique. It wasn’t your run of the mill name and of course, that lent a sense of superiority to it that I still struggle with. There was no other ‘Preyansi’ around. At that point, I somehow thought that I could get away by just mentioning myself as ‘Preyansi’. No surname and the name was complete in itself. I would think to myself that if I just stuck to Preyansi, nobody would know that I was carrying Brahmanical baggage, the lineage that I had just started to despise.

I became an Indian voter and it was all over in my face. Preyansi suffix X suffix Y. Unfortunately, now that I have mentioned about the Brahmanical baggage, I must accept my surname. The name that I was born with was Preyansi Mani Tripathi. Boom! There it goes! ‘Tripathi’ – the one who has mastered three Vedas and such is the historical grace of studying the Vedas that you know this person belongs to the group classified as ‘oppressors’. Between the two suffixes, Tripathi would always stand out.

I gradually realised that while Tripathi was unambiguous and seethed of north Indian Brahmanical lineage, Mani was far more ambiguous. And so it happened. Subsequently, all my identity cards had Preyansi Mani engraved on them. In the north Indian world, I would get away with the assumption that I was a south Indian and no one would then try to assimilate me as a ‘UP wali’, ‘Tiwari ji’, ‘Dilliwali Sharmaji’ and so on. But it’s not that easy, you see! Whenever I introduced myself as only ‘Preyansi’, people would ask, “Aage kya lagate ho (What comes after that)?” And then, if they could not figure it out, they would ask, “Kaun se shahar se ho (Which city are you from)?” And after playing this game of 21 questions, people would eventually find a way to assimilate or discard you from their casteist/classist/ regionalist universe.

With my marriage, things got a bit more complicated. I was always clear that I would never change my prefix or suffix. Not for better astrological predictions, not for all my starry-eyed love. For the sake of imagination, I once dwelled on the idea of ‘Preyansi Choudhary’! What! Is that me? And suddenly I fell in love with ‘Preyansi Mani’ – the clarity of sticking to an identity that I inherited suddenly dawned upon me. In the world of chest-thumping loyalty to surnames, I have always felt alienated. But suddenly ‘Mani’ became my refuge to protect my feminist identity post-marriage. Despite the long lecture of the passport service officer of how things would get complicated for my children if I did not change my name to Preyansi Choudhary, I stood my ground.

Even today, I feel appalled at the idea of my friends and acquaintances on social media adding the surnames of their husbands. This step of indulging with their husband’s suffix makes me judgemental of their feminism (if they claim to be one).

Over the years, I have realised that symbolism is indispensable to rebellion. My quest to be Preyansi or Preyansi Mani and not be Preyansi Choudhary have all been symbolic of my search for an independent identity free from historical and familial baggage. Symbolism is important but it is only a surface level step. Questioning one’s identity is much more arduous and exhausting work requiring a great amount of patience and deeper sensitivity and courage to do away with layers of privileged conditioning. It is about navigating multiple identities and along the way taking steps to make it more inclusive, more empathetic, more conscious and letting go of most of the privileges that come with it.

Unfortunately, I can’t hide away in the garb of neutral ‘Preyansi’. Suffix or no suffix, I inherited a privileged caste identity, privileged class identity and, those privileges have also fuelled my privileged feminist identity.

Somebody can be a born Brahmin, but they need not be born an oppressor. This realisation has taken me away from a disempowering narrative to an empowering one. Of course, I have to do away with the Brahmanical baggage. And I have taken the symbolic steps towards it. However, being conscious of it also requires addressing oppression and exploitation in the daily life, in one’s home, among one’s friends, among one’s community and most of all, in one’s own mind and actions.

Next time you see someone, don’t ask or wonder about their surname. Just ask yourself, what have you done to let go of your privileges?

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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