Swaminathan Ganesh and Murali Vijay and the Art of South Indian Patronymics

Most people not from South India have trouble understanding South Indian names. What sets South Indian names (talking primarily about Tamilian, Malayali and South Interior Kannadiga names here) apart is that they are patronymic, with the one’s father’s or husband’s given name ending up as your last name. There is no concept of surnames here, and names don’t travel generations. Sometimes you have the name of the native village or the ancestral profession as part of the name, but the latter was all but dropped from most names following the “anti-surname revolution” championed by Periyar EV Ramaswami (formerly Naicker) in Tamil Nadu.

Let me give you some examples of South Indian names before I proceed to propound my theory. Till the time I was twenty two, I was alternately known as “S Karthik” and “Karthik S” – the order of words in South Indian names don’t matter that much. “Karthik” is my given name. The “S” stands for “Shashidhar”, which is my father’s given name. Then, at the age of twenty two I happened to use my passport for the first time. And was faced with an employer who didn’t understand South Indian names, and so expanded my name to its “passportized form” – “Karthik Shashidhar”. My given name as my “first name” and my father’s given name as my “last name”.

Not everyone’s names are passportized the same way, though. My father, for example, had Shashidhar, which was his given name as his “last name” in the passport. His “given names” (as his passport described them) were “Gollahalli Suryanarayana Rao”, Gollahalli being my father’s native village and Suryanarayana Rao being his father’s given name. Notice that the word “Rao” was an honorific and not a surname and didn’t transcend generations. For the record, my father’s father’s father was Gollahalli Venkataramana Shastri and his father was Gollahalli Annadaana Bhat. I’m mentioning this here just to show you that till recently even words like “Shastri” and “Bhat” were honorifics added to one’s name based on one’s profession and didn’t transcend generations (my grandfather was ineligible for the honorific “Shastri” since he wasn’t a priest). Based on the names of my ancestors as I’ve written here, you might jump to the conclusion that “Gollahalli” can be seen as my family name, but then my father in his infinite wisdom decided that it didn’t deserve to be part of my name since 1. I’ve never been there and 2. It doesn’t sound good (it translates to “village of shepherds”).

Now that this short personal history is behind us, let me explain to you how patronymic South Indian names work. First of all, you need to take in to account that unlike most other parts of the world (primarily Europe) there has never been a law in South India that dictates what form one’s name should take (for example, in the 1930’s Mustapha Kemal (later Pasha) passed a law that forced all Turks to have surnames that transcended generations patrilineally). In agrarian economies where your entire network is not large, you don’t need too many words in your name to distinguish you. So most people simply went around with one name. Then, as networks expanded and people started migrating, they started prefixing the names of their native towns to their names – that was seen as some sort of qualifier. Then, for reasons I don’t completely comprehend, sometime in the middle of the last century, it became customary to add one’s father’s name as one of the words in your own name (notice how my grandfather and his ancestors did not include their fathers’ names as part of their names. But my father did). It could do with urbanization when from each town there was a considerable number of people with the same given name so adding one’s father’s name had to be used for discrimination.

Thus, by the middle of the 20th century, one pattern of South Indian patronymic names became dominant – among both men and women. <Village Name> <Father’s given name> <Own given name>. Like Gollahalli Suryanarayana Rao Shashidhar or Holenarasipura Ramaswamy Prabha. Things were not so simple, though, since a woman was required to change her name to include her husband’s after marriage. In rural areas, women typically used only one name so this wasn’t so much of a problem (my father’s mother still uses only one name which is her given name). In urban areas, where it was customary to have two or more words in a name, some women simply added their husbands’ given names as their last names while others decided to go the <husband’s village name > <husband’s given name> <own given name> format. It was all quite complicated. So complicated that many women in my mother’s generation (including my mother) decided against changing their names after marriage.

The problem with South Indian patronymic names has been that there has never been a particular format that has been allowed to settle. At all points of time in history, there have always been competing formats, and “regulatory”/customary changes have meant that each of these formats have died a quick death. This is the cause of much confusion. However, with increasing globalization and “passportization”, we seem to be getting somewhere close to some sort of a standard format.

As I mentioned a while earlier, I was forced to “expand” my name when I had to apply for my passport, since the passport form doesn’t recognize initials. Going by the way my father had expanded his name I thought I had filled up the application form to indicate my name as “Shashidhar Karthik” but my name ended up there as “Karthik Shashidhar”. While at that point of time it didn’t matter much, the advent of GMail has meant that I’m happy my name is not the other way round – since in conversation view only a person’s first name is shown.

Yet, there are people who have chosen to expand their names the other way, and this is more likely among people in professions where it is customary to refer to someone only by their last name. With most people not wanting to be called by their father’s names, they’ve ordered the words in the names (this needs to be done only when one gets a passport –  remember – and for most people that’s when you’ve decided your profession) in a way that their given name actually appears as their last name. For example neither of the cricketers Murali Kartik or Murali Vijay is actually named Murali – both their fathers are named Murali and their respective given names are Kartik and Vijay.

So, looking at what is now turning out to be a standard format South Indian name, how does one figure out what is the person’s given name and what is his father’s name? This is where some cultural understanding helps. About a hundred years ago, South Indian names were quite long (as is evident from the names of my ancestors I’ve published above). With time, however, names are getting progressively shorter. Perhaps a hundred years ago, the set of names given to boys in South India was disjoint from the set given to boys in North India, and the same was true with girls. With increasing globalization and national integration, though, this has changed rapidly over the last century. While some might attribute it to the so-called Nehruvian Hindi Imperialism, the flow has largely been one way, with more South Indians being given what were traditionally North Indian names rather than the other way round (the only North Indian I know with a South Indian sounding first name is Kumar Mangalam Birla, and his name can be explained by the fact that his mother is a native of Madurai).

Because of this cultural integration, over the generations South Indian names have tended to get shorter, because of which you can generalize with a rule that in any given family, it is more likely that a son’s name is shorter than his father’s. So when you look at someone with “two first names” as their name, a general rule of thumb is that the shorter of the two names is their own name and the longer one is their father’s. Based on this rule it is extremely likely that Viswanathan Anand’s given name is Anand, and Hariharan Rahul’s given name is Rahul, never mind the order in which they are written.

We are however now reaching a stage where people with rather short (mono or bi-syllabic) names are becoming fathers and they can’t pick shorter names for their sons, so you have a situation where father and son have names of similar length. Perhaps this is the reason a number of people are resorting to rather unusual names for their kids these days (like Aarav, for example), without realizing that these names are going to become last names one generation hence.

My wife thinks that “Karthik” is a lousy last name, so there have already been many debates about how we should name our children (whenever we have them). I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem with South Indian patronymics is that the father’s name is used as it is and not modified like in other patronymic cultures which is the cause of all this confusion. Going by this principle, I think my kids should have something like “Karthikovitch” or “bin Karthik” as their last name.

As for the names in the title, Swaminathan Ganesh is a friend from college and I’ve included his name because it fails the “length test”. His given name is Swaminathan and his father’s name is Ganesh. For the record, his brother is Krishnamurti Ganesh, another name that fails the length test. I propose that “Swaminathan Ganesh” be the generic terms for individuals from whose names it is impossible to make out which word their given name is.

I’ve talked about Murali Vijay earlier in the post. It’s amusing how most commentators still refer to him as “Murali”.

From time to time I get phone calls asking for “Mr. Shashidhar”. Each time I almost instinctively tell them that it’s been a few years since “Mr. Shashidhar” (my father) died, and then realize they’re asking for me.

Search Phrases – February 2009

I don’t plan to make this a monthly feature, but will write this whenever I find enough funny search phrases to make a post on  them worth it. Googlers and google seem to have had a field day this month,

The top search phrase that has led to my blog is of course “noenthuda“. In second place is the fairly boring “blog.noenthuda.com” .  Third place is extremely interesting – top reasons marriage engagements break in pakistan. And I’ve got over 50 people who have searched for this phrase in the last month and then landed up at my blog! Now it makes me wonder what the top reasons are for marriage engagements breaking in pakistan.

Here are a few other gems from the month gone by.

  • gay in iimb (17 hits)
  • 3-letter word for pertinent
  • aunties in chickballapur (chickballapur is my father’s native place, for the record; it is famous for its extremely spicy chillies)
  • best english speaking course in north india
  • can we put the shoes and chappals near the entrance of the house
  • cricketers animal names
  • funny message for my cousin who wants to move back to bangalore
  • i am working in singapore what do i need to do to buy a car in delhi
  • i don’t know how to speak english but i know hindi can i work in delhi
  • iimb course to be on your own
  • job interview edition on savitabhabhi.com
  • karwar muslims
  • matha amritha, things she does
  • number of north indians settled in south india
  • societal influence on a bastard child
  • the true story of a man who learnt fluent spoken english
  • which indian breakfast item can be made with bread?

Ok that has been a very long list indeed. Much longer than I intended it to be. But it only reflects the brilliance of googlers and google in the last one month.

Why Breakfast is an integral part of South Indian cuisine and not in North Indian

I suppose the more perceptive of you would have noticed this – that breakfast forms an integral part of South Indian cuisine, while it is totally absent (apart from parathas) in the North. The more inquisitive of you would have asked yourselves this question, and would have perhaps asked some friends and relatives and acquaintances also. The luckier among you would have found some answers. I think I belong to this category, too. And I hereby share my theory with you.

The fundamental concept here is that South Indian food is predominantly rice-based while North Indian food is roti-based. Yes, you have the accompaniments – sambar and dry curry in the south, and dal and sabji in the north. But let us focus on the staple component here. Let us think back a few generations, when large joint families were the norm. Division of labour meant that most women would spend most of their time cooking.

Now, those of you who have cooked, or even observed someone cooking, would have noticed that the process of cooking rice is “scalable”. On the part of the cook, cooking 10 kilos of rice takes only marginally greater effort compared to cooking 1 kilo of rice. On the other hand, rotis are non-scalable. There are minor economies of scale in terms of time taken to get the stove going, but the amount of effort involved in cooking is directly proportional to the number of rotis to be made. Roti-making is thus non-scalable. Also, observe that roti-making is high-involvement. It requires the undivided attention of a cook. On the other hand, you can just set rice to boil, and go sing a song while it gets cooked.

So the funda here is that given the non-scalable process of making rotis, whenever there were large families involved, North Indian women would have to spend a large part of their time making rotis. The long and tedious process meant that women had little time left over after cooking lunch and dinner. Contrast this with the rice-eating South, where due to the scalable process, women had a lot more free time compared to their Northern counterparts.

Another thing we need to remember here is that rice is more easily digestible than wheat, and hence doesn’t “last as long”. Hence, the rice-eater will need to eat at more regular intervals as compared to the wheat-eater. The wheat-eater can easily survive on two meals a day, but this is not the case for the rice-eater. There is the need for that one extra meal.

So, people, this is why breakfast, which is an integral part of South Indian cuisine, is practically absent in the North. There was demand – rice-eating south indians couldn’t survive on two meals a day. There was also the requirement for variety, for one couldn’t eat the same thing thrice a day. And there was supply – the free time the South Indian woman had, thanks to the scalable process she adopted for making lunch and dinner. This explains why South Indians evolved such an excellent breakfast cuisine, while people in the North eat bread.