What's in a name?

‘Surname’ or ‘Family Name’ or ‘Last Name’ makes little sense to those who do not have one.

Last week when I received a registered letter from my bank containing a “returned cheque”, I was rather surprised. But my surprise soon turned into amusement as the reason given by my bank was that there was a mismatch in the names.

 Someone had issued me a cheque with my full name with the first name being that of my father’s. Later, I found out the bank did not have my full name in its accounts ledger and that was the reason for the return of the cheque. I had to make multiple trips to the bank to sort out the so called “minor issue”. But this issue has hounded me right through my life.

My son and his family live in London and we generally visit them once every two years. While filling my visa form, I always find the starting point the most difficult, as it contains fields like first name, second name, given name, middle name, surname, any other names. 

Every time I have but no option to look into my passport and to ensure that there are no contradictions. The instructions in the visa form which says ‘Surname’ is the same as ‘Family Name’ or ‘Last Name’ makes little sense to me. The simple fact is that, I do not have a surname or a family name.

In South India, especially in Chennai where I was born, people are known by just one name – Sundaram, Kannan or Balaraman. The father’s name is always used as one’s initial. There is no concept of first name, middle name and surname.  When someone asks me to write my full name, I always wonder whether it is Varadharajen Desikan or Desikan Varadharajen? 

Well known sports personalities have used both the conventions. Ramanathan Krishnan and Krishnamachari Srikkanth had opted for the first one while their next generation, Ramesh Krishnan and  Anirudha Srikkanth, opted for the latter. In 1975, DRDO deputed me abroad to undergo some technical training. After successfully completing my training in the UK, I took a brief vacation (with due government permission) to visit a few nearby countries like France, Italy, Switzerland and Amsterdam. Since I had to be quite prudent with my limited foreign exchange, I stayed in budget hotels.  

In Amsterdam, when I checked in, the front desk manager asked me to fill some forms, which I quickly completed. The next morning when I came down the spiral staircase to go for my breakfast, I heard the receptionist at the desk greeting someone.

 “Mr. Nil, good morning, Mr. Nil,” and I just looked on and walked towards the entrance. Then the man at the door stopped me and directed me to the reception desk. When the receptionist again addressed me as Mr. Nil, I told him that I was not the person he was looking for. The confusion was resolved when he pointed to  the form that I had filled the previous day in which I had written ‘NIL’ against the surname column.

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