The first thing you do when you move to a new country is get an official ID there, right? That is what we did when we got to India. And right away we discovered that the Indian government is differently-abled when it comes to people’s names.

As the quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet goes, “What is in a name?  That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet says these lines when she tells Romeo that she loves him, and not the name that is associated with him. But while they may call you “Tinku,” “Bobby,” “Rinki,” “Pinki,” “Chottu,” or “Rani” at home, you have an official name which identifies you amongst the  nearly 1.5 billion other people who inhabit this earth.

India law mandates that I pick one spelling for my name and stick with it. I am “Lakshmi,” not “Laxmi” or “Luxmi,” and if I do want to change the spelling, I have to swear an affidavit in the presence of a legal authority, and publish the change of name in a newspaper.  This is the letter of the law in India. But reality, as with most things Indian, is far from what it is on paper. And that is what struck us first when we came back to live here.

The truth is that though the Indian government mandates consistency in nomenclature, its own officials are not so particular, and tend to tamper with people’s names and initials at will. My husband, P.M. Aiyappa of Vihara Marg in Mysore, out to get his first official ID in India, was issued a driver’s license as P.M. Ayyappa of Vinaya Marg. As it happens, there is a Vinaya Marg in Mysore, and if there is a Ayyappa residing there, he had better pray that his namesake doesn’t drive rashly. There is more anecdotal evidence: once a Ragaja Gopal found her railway ticket given to Rajagopal, an N. Nagaraj keeps getting water bills addressed to M. Nagaraj, and a Mr. G. Ramamurthy has all his utility bills coming to his house under the name Mr. G.

Ramaswamy. There is also an ever-present danger of involuntary religious and transsexual conversion, such as when a Ms. Kalyani becomes a Mr. Kayani, or a Mr. Ali Sait becomes Ms. Anita Sethi.  You may think that it is a good thing if your bills are addressed to someone else, because that absolves you of the responsibility of paying them, but would you be okay if the apartment or site that you bought with your life’s savings is registered under a misnomer?  Uh, no, thanks.

These kinds of silly spelling mistakes happen all the time. It is as though there is a game at the Public Service Commission to find out the number of ways a name can be mauled. In government offices, they ask you to print your names in block letters on applications, then ask you to read it to them, and nod their heads … and then proceed to screw them up thoroughly. In some cases, they actually will “correct” the spelling. So what if you are 60 years old and all your life’s records are in the “wrong” spelling. I had a Sandya Deviah tell me that when she showed an official an affidavit bearing the spelling of her name as it appeared on all her records, she was stunned to have him enter her name as “Sandhya Devaiah” because “It is the correct spelling, Madam.  You’ve been writing it wrong all these days.” Only God can save you if you are a Remya, not Ramya, Vidya, not Vidhya, Naveen, not Navin. I don’t know what people who change their names midstream in life do with the government, and I am afraid to find out.

Sometimes these mistakes are so strange that they defy plausible explanations. My grandfather’s name was Venkataramanan, but it is variably written as Venkatramani or Venkatraman. That, at least, is pardonable. However, how would you explain to one Alamelu why her Electricity Board lists her as Kamala? Or why Rangarajan’s official mail calls him Raghunath?

Once a mistake has been made, it is almost impossible to correct it.  If even one of your records end up with an incorrect name spelling, you have to correct all the documents you ever had, from your pre-school leaving certificate to your son’s mundan picture, making sure that all the said documents have been duly attested by a “reliable” government official in the presence of your maternal great-grandfather (the government is gracious in this aspect. If, by sad mischance, your maternal great-grandfather is dead, your paternal great-grandfather can be used as a substitute). You should also take out your entire savings in 500 rupee-notes, to give as tokens of love and affection for people who you have never seen before and will never see again (at least not until your name gets messed up once more).

A news article appeared in Indian papers last year about a Gujarati who now lives in Australia.  The story goes that the man’s son’s name was misspelt in his birth certificate that had been issued in India.  He had been trying to get it corrected … for three years.  The officials kept him running around until he lost it one day and pulled a knife on them.

And as if it isn’t bad enough already, a government project has been proposed to make an official ID card for every Indian.  Well, things are going to get pretty interesting!

As for me, I have adjusted thoroughly. Call me Ishmael … I’ll probably respond.

Lakshmi Palecanda recently moved from Montana to Mysore, India. She can be reached at lakshmi.palecanda@gmail.com

Share this: