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Friday, Aug 16, 2002

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Much in a surname too

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

WHEN England's King George V changed his German family name to the English Windsor on the eve of the First World War, his cousin, Kaiser William III of Germany, sneered that he would go to the theatre to watch The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Surnames are the subject of greater dispute in China where the one-child policy is blamed for bringing to a head yet another problem of adjusting eastern custom with Western modernism. The resultant rows recall in extreme form the confusion and controversy over surnames in our own country.

Young Chinese on the verge of marriage argue over whether the solitary offspring that the law allows should bear his or her surname. Married couples engage in fisticuffs over the matter. Some even separate and divorce because they can't agree on their progeny's eventual name.

It is "a deep-rooted issue that goes back millennia," says a professor in Shanghai's Fudan university's sociology department, Mr Yu Hai. "But with the proliferation of nuclear families, the concept of continuing the bloodline with the surname as a marker is becoming weaker."

Actually, the problem does not arise because of the single-child norm which has been so spectacularly successful in Shanghai that 70 per cent of the graduates born after 1980 have no siblings.

The problem is caused by new notions of sexual equality which cannot be reconciled with the traditional usage of ancient societies such as China's or India's.

Both expect a son, whether or not an only child, to take the father's name. Similarly, the daughter would be known by her father's surname until marriage whereupon she takes her husband's and joins another family.

This accepted order of things explained the objections of orthodox Indians to the Hindu Code Bill which gave married daughters an equal share in the parental property.

The Chinese are even keener than us on a male offspring to carry on the family name because adoption (the principal reason why the Rani of Jhansi revolted in 1857) is not an option with them.

Nor does Chinese ecclesiastical canon allow daughters to perform funeral rites, as Hindu women can — a point that Dr Karan Singh backed with scholarly evidence to support birth control during his tenure as Union Minister for Health and Family Planning.

Education has been counter-productive by eroding the patriarchal principle. Young Chinese graduates may be open-minded about family names but not so their conservative parents.

The husband's father and mother insist on the grandchild adopting their name; the wife's family often demand exactly the opposite. Women with distinctive surnames are especially loath to give them them up. Moreover, many modern young wives see no reason why their only child should be known by the father's name.

India is not unfamiliar with one aspect of this dilemma. A number of highly-educated and well-placed professional women nowadays link their maiden name to the married surname in a gesture of egalitarian defiance.

Yet, this, too, is dichotomous, for true equality calls on the husband similarly to adopt the wife's name. I can think of only one couple, and that in enlightened journalistic circles, that has done so.

There are other complications. Much of South India still follows its own formula in which surname is not a factor. Many in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are dropping surnames that reveal caste. Sikh surnames are really clan names.

The British are pragmatic. When they first began to adopt surnames, the choice indicated a man's parentage, profession or place of abode.

Though primogeniture is the law of the land, there is no squeamishness about flaunting the distaff side if there is some material advantage in doing so.

Thus, Sir Winston Churchill was really a Spencer. For a while the Spencers who acquired the Duke of Marlborough's title and estates by marriage called themselves Churchill Spencers, then gradually turned it round to stress the Marlborough name of Churchill.Likewise, if Lord Mountbatten had had his way, the British royal family would have been Mountbatten. His impeccable argument was that when the present Queen married Prince Philip, she took her husband's name.

Shortly after ascending the throne, however, she ruled that she and her descendants would be known by her maiden name of Windsor, whereupon the chagrined last viceroy and first governor-general wrote for private circulation a book on the House of Mountbatten's short tenure of the throne of England.

Of course both Mountbatten and Windsor are adopted names. Neither can claim antiquity.

Both reek of convenience. Lord Mountbatten's father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, changed his German name when the king did so; Prince Philip adopted his maternal uncle's adoptive name when he became a candidate for the princess's hand.

The aristocratic former prime minister of France, Mr Valery Gistang d'Estaing, also used a borrowed name, that of a maternal ancestor who was of nobler lineage than his paternal line. He once applied for a large loan from the state. Sanctioning it, President de Gaulle reportedly chuckled, "Yes, Gistang is a good name for borrowing!"

In Singapore where I live, the Chinese print the surname first. I am quite used to being called "Mr Sunanda" but was surprised some years ago to see the Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, described in some of our major national dailies during his visit to India, as "Mr Tong".

But, then, Mr Ronald Reagan had once introduced Mr Lee Kuan Yew as his "good friend Mr Yew."

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