NAGPUR, India (WOMENSENEWS)–"Remember who you are." At 10, I could only wonder at what my mother meant by telling me that.
I was a child like any other, and what did hanging upside down from a bar in the park have to do with who I was? I wanted to hang upside down like all the other children, but my mother firmly believed that "who I was" did not, or should not do it. In the end, mother won, as she always did.
As I grew up, the hedges of who I was kept growing thicker and thicker around my life, cutting off my access to more areas of experience. I was a Bose: a last name which signified that I was Bengali, and I was upper caste. And being a girl–a "Bose girl"–just meant that the pile of "should nots" kept growing higher on my plate.
At 11, I learned that Bose girls do not cross their legs while sitting with elders. Why? It was just so. At 12, I learned that a Bose girl does not wear skirts or pants, only "salwar kameez," the baggy trousers and loose knee-length shirts that cover the neck to the ankles. But why salwar kameez, which is, after all, a garment from Punjab in western India, and not the saree, which is worn in Bengal? That brought me to two more "don’ts" for Bose girls: They don’t contradict elders and they definitely don’t use book learning to argue with them.
By the time I was 24, the prison hedge was fully grown. A Bose girl only wore clothes chosen by her mother. A Bose girl only liked long hair. A Bose girl appeared before house guests only to serve tea. A Bose girl could get a job and earn, but she could not spend an evening with friends or manage her own money.
Escaped Into Marriage
Any resistance brought the standard answer: "You do whatever you like in your husband’s house." If that was what it took to be free, then all I wanted was to find a husband and escape to his house. So I did what a Bose girl does not even dream of doing: I walked out of my parents’ house without their consent and married a man who was from neither my caste nor my state.
My in-laws were ready with open arms and within a month of marriage–by which time I was also pregnant–I found out why. My husband was an alcoholic who had an alcoholic father, two schizophrenic siblings prone to violence and a mother who believed it was her moral right to leave the responsibility of "reforming" and "managing" the family to the daughter-in-law and spend the rest of her life doing religious pilgrimages.
Moreover, I was now tied to a new last name–Tambe–that was at the very top of the caste hierarchy. I was now a daughter-in-law, not a daughter, and the pile of "nots" became insurmountable.
The cherry on top was that my defiance of parental authority–to me a positive and independent choice–had labeled me with "runaway" status, permanently blotting my moral character. I was told I was to remain beholden to my in-laws for accepting and sheltering the "fallen" creature I was, despite the fact that I had a job, was earning as much as my husband and contributing more to the family.
In India the only crime worse than a love marriage is the failure to live it out. So for seven years I struggled–with a job, a daughter, sexual and financial exploitation, and violence–trying to keep on a face of normalcy and happiness and trying to live up to being a Tambe daughter-in-law.
Moving on After Marriage
In the process I went from utter bewilderment to hysteria to deep depression. After I nearly died from a bad case of meningitis, I knew it was time to do what I feared most: move on and face the world.
I moved with my daughter first to a rented house and then to my own house, dropped the dud desk job and rediscovered myself as a freelance journalist. After four years, I was my own person, living a reasonably successful life on my own terms.
It took me some time to decide what to do about my name. When I was first married and working for a newspaper, it had taken me almost a year to reconnect with my readers using my changed name. I told myself this time the result would have to be worth the trouble.
There were several options. I had a close friend, who was a tribal rights activist, who had stuck to the last name of her first husband because she was used to it, despite a second marriage. For me, the very idea was disconcerting.
I had once read a poignant article by an Indian female journalist who had divorced titled, "Hold on to your dad’s name because dad won’t divorce you." But I did not want to return to the fold of my paternal name either.
I was aware that in the heyday of the Sarvodaya movement in India in the 1970s–a reformist push to reduce inequality and social stratification, with caste restrictions a main target–many men and women dropped surnames that signified caste and replaced them with the first names of one or both parents, either in full form or as initials.
Took a Different Path
I had met quite a few of these women and heard their stories, a mixture of personal and socio-political concerns. A few people I know had dropped the last name altogether, content to be known by just their first names. But I was not comfortable with these options either.
Instead, I added a completely new name. Today my name is, as one German journalist wonderingly put it, "two first names instead of a first name and a last name." My first name, Aparna, attributed to a Hindu female deity, means "leafless." My new last name, Pallavi, is the opposite, and means "full of leaves" in Sanskrit, Bengali and Hindi.
Years earlier, a rare and understanding individual whom I regard as my spiritual mentor had given me a special, private name just for me–Pallavi–and explained its significance. It was like a gift because it always reminded me of the healing effect this person had on me.
At last, at 35, I had become free of the tyranny of the caste-based last name. My name is now fully my own, a name not conditional to whom I live with. A name signifying to me aspiration rather than a preconceived framework to live up to.
Two years later, I married again, with no name change. It was the first time I went through a significant milestone in life without significant changes in personal circumstances. It was a relief not to have to go through a pile of name-change paperwork. It was a relief to go on being known by my own name, to know that I will be known by my own name till the end of my life.
Aparna Pallavi is a freelance journalist based in Nagpur and writes on development issues. She was a recipient of the National Foundation for India Fellowship for the year 2007.