Crossing caste lines, they cast off surnames

New Delhi: Upon entering the cold room and extending the formal niceties, Reshma, 30, introduces herself to her prospective employer. A pregnant pause and a puzzled look later she`s asked the indispensable question - `Reshma what`? That she doesn`t have a surname always has the same effect on people-a long reluctant silence.

In a nation where identity comes in a rigid two column template, where a mandatory surname box greets you in documents, where everyone inherits a last name if not a fortune, not having a surname is considered the greatest of all misfortunes.

But there`s a niche tribe which is happily shunning the excess baggage and sticking to strict first-name basis-in order to set a precedent for a casteless society or just to sound cool.

Or for no peculiar reason as is the case with Reshma, a PR professional. When she decided to get rid of her Rajput identity five years back, she knew it won`t be a cakewalk and a crash course in deep breathing will come in handy.

"It`s very difficult for people to digest that someone cannot have a surname. I have to do it day in and out, explain that I`m just Reshma and if they are trying to figure out my pedigree, they won`t get anywhere," Reshma, who migrated to Delhi from the freshly carved out Jharkhand in 2001, told reporters.

While on one hand the caste census has become a living reality, in a symbolic move 100 people on April 14 (Ambedkar Jayanti) gave up their last names in an event organised by the NGO Swaraj in Delhi.

"Everyone gave up their surnames and took up caste neutral names like Swaraj or Hindustani. Our idea is to create a casteless society," said Sambit, who heads the NGO which works for Dalit upliftment.

While many would dismiss the concept of a casteless society as a utopian idea, Bharat Bhushan, who has done away with the Sharma in his name and adopted a Bharatiya, is optimistic.

"Earlier, people used to address me as Sharmaji or Panditji knowing that I was a Brahmin. It doesn`t happen anymore. I feel more proud of my identity this way," said Bharat, who own an advertising agency.

Ask him what prompted him to take the extreme step and he does a little flashback. "I am from Uttar Pradesh and I`ve seen caste politics from very close. No one decides which family you are born to, it`s unfair to be in an advantageous position just because of your second name."

However, sociology professor Satish Deshpande believes there`s more to the act than just the token dropping of the surname.

"Mere dropping a surname is a very small thing if you remain conscious of your caste, you also have to give up the privileges... otherwise it doesn`t make a difference."

"Talk of a casteless society has to be serious. There`s a lot of humbug that is going in its name," the Delhi School of Economics professor told reporters.

However, 25-year-old Manish Sawarkar is unperturbed. He believes the act is the stepping stone to an ideal society, though it hasn`t been a smooth ride for him after he parted with the Mishra in his name.

"Some of my relatives were not very happy with my decision...there were taunts that I had disrespected my community. But thankfully my parents were very supportive," said Manish, who recently completed his masters from Delhi University.

While the likes of Manish have very consciously alienated themselves from their caste identities, there are some like Arunima who by default grew up without a last name.

"Most people of my generation from Bihar grew up without a surname because our parents thought better of it due to all the Mandal Commission things happening."

Though she has not faced any startling awkward situation due the singularity of her name, she had her share of problems while getting government work done.

"Getting the passport, visa made was a big pain. At immigration, they check my documents twice. My London School of Economics (LSE) degree even has my name written twice - Arunima Arunima - since they had to write something in the extra space," she says.

Apart from deciding whether you will worship Ram or Christ, one other thing that fate seals at the very birth in India is how much reservation you can claim at the important junctures of life- thanks to your caste.

Add to that the cosy relationship it shares with politics, and the idea of a casteless society sounds farfetched. But as EM Forster once said, "Ideas are fatal to caste."


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