April Fool Ladies: After all What’s in a Name?

April Fools’ Day seems the perfect day to write this blog. I am also inspired by today’s The Ideas Page article in the Indian Express by Karla Bookman, “Hello, I’m wife of”. Most of us ‘married’ women have experienced this regularly, being addressed as “wife of”! Most of us don’t think about it and many revel in being addressed as such.

When we got married I made a conscious decision to retain my maiden name. Our marriage being a mix of cultures, there is no way in which one can associate me with my partner unless one was aware in advance or was told so. When I introduce my partner in formal more academic/ business gatherings I have got into the habit of saying “and he happens to be my husband”! A few days ago a male friend remarked “why happens?” “Well, happens right? Among many other of his qualification, this happens to be one!” Figured out it is also a good way to play April Fool, or just fool!

My partner’s doctoral supervisor on hearing that we were married (or getting married, can’t remember, it was so far in time) said, “Oh, that is wonderful, but for heaven sake don’t write any joint papers!” Amazingly good advice, we thought and took it to heart. Being in the same profession with similar qualifications, this was an effort. But it has proved the most useful way to retain my identity as a person and as a professional academic.

In this patriarchal society, all good things are attributed to the male counterpart. Any joint work, even if the wife slogged on it or even wrote the entire paper, she would be considered the assistant to her ‘better-half’. I have seen this in the case of many couples who have chosen to publish jointly. We decided my work would be mine and I would stand or fall with it! 

I checked with the lawyers and discovered that it was very much legal and in fact, if one took the partner’s name one had to prepare an affidavit (or some legal document) stating that the two names belonged to the same person. But, that is more than the government Babus can swallow.

When I applied for a passport in Gujarat, I insisted that I would apply in my maiden name. I already had three degrees in this name. Why should I change it? In the early 1980s, no travel agent in Ahmedabad was willing to help me apply for a passport on my maiden name. I said “OK, then I don’t want one”. Later after our daughter was born I decided to apply for a passport including my daughter’s name. I went by myself, with no agent. I was able to file the application after some argument with the concerned Babu. But sure enough after a few months (it took that long those days) I got a letter from the Regional Passport officer requesting me to see him for an interview.

We thought through this, and decided that I would argue that this, my maiden name, was my professional name and any invite from abroad for a conference or fellowship would come in this name. I went armed with all my degrees, by now four, the marriage certificate and our daughter’s birth certificate. Fortunately, the passport officer was from South India. The scribbling on my papers was apparently made by the Babus lower down the chain. He took one look at it, I made my case. He said that is Ok and signed it off. Obviously he was used to the South Indian P.T Usha version of women with no husband or surname attached! Good luck for me.

Every time I have struggled with this, the driving license, the ration card, but miraculously the Aadhar Card was amazing! No questions were asked, no father, no husband’s name, just mine and my eyes, my fingers and my face!! Good for you Mr. Nandan Nilekani!

The story of my ration card of the old days is worth telling. In those days it played the role of the Aadhar card of today, your identity. As I got married my very organized South Indian parents deleted my name from their ration card in Madras and send me a deletion certificate in Tamil, with a translation in English! I appealed to my North Indian parents-in-law that I needed one of the same for my partner, but no way. Finally, five years later, after our daughter was born I decided to proceed without his deletion certificate. So I gathered all the papers, Marriage certificate, Birth certificate of our daughter, etc and submitted to the concerned office. Imagine my amazement when the ration card finally arrived in the name of my partner, with no mention of my name!! It counted one spouse and one child, that’s it!! How easily I was dismissed even after all the work I did at retaining my maiden name and the formalities for the card!! Patriarchy at its best! Who was the April Fool this time?? Yours truly of course!

More than a decade later, of marital bliss and a couple of years in the US as a post doc, I had got used to being my own self, with my own name! Then my partner got a job at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, (IIM) Ahmedabad. It was here that for the first time I was referred to as “spouse”! “What kind of a creature is that?” I thought. In this prestigious institute, there is a category of Faculty (the superior one), staff, faculty spouses, staff spouses, faculty children, staff children, faculty dog and staff dog!

When a ‘Faculty’ walks down the street on campus with his faculty dog tied to the leash and crosses the ‘Staff’, similarly walking his staff dog, the ‘Faculty’ turns his head one way, the staff turns the other. And most interesting sight is, the faculty dog turns up his nose in one direction and the staff dog in the other!!! Obviously, it is April Fools’ Day today Ladies!!

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