Inter-marriages and inter-names

We have been clueless over the fact that why did SRK [Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan] choose to write his son AbRam’s name in such a different manner and here’s what the actor has explained. ‘His name is based on a variation of Prophet Abraham. And I liked the connotation that it’s…a secular name. We are a Hindu-Muslim family… and I want my children to grow up without any difference of opinion in the name. It’s nice this way and has more universal appeal’ […] Shahrukh Khan already has two kids with wife Gauri Khan. His son named Aryan Khan is 15 years old, while his daughter Suhana is 12 years old. (Filmibeat, 21 August 2013)


Talking about boundary-crossing names in the last post, I mentioned the eye-catching nature of the names borne by the children of Bollywood icon Shahrukh and Gauri Khan.

This is an interesting case for several reasons: like the names of other offspring of ‘love-matches’ the names Aryan and Suhana Khan bear a trace of the ‘modern’ conjugal production of the child as the joint achievement of both parents in which they see an objectification of their love , coded here in the ‘nextness’ of names that indicate their different religious backgrounds: ‘We are a Hindu-Muslim family,’ Shahrukh Khan notes. But he also calls attention to the ‘secularism’ of the name of his most recent child: ‘I liked the connotation that [AbRam’s]…a secular name.’

This points towards the common understanding that all inter-faith marriages are to some degree ‘secular’ in signifying an ability to transcend conventional divisions, and it is worth noting that most Indian rationalist organisations claim to offer financial and legal support to couples who have performed them in the face of familial opposition.

The offers of assistance made by rationalist groups show their sympathy for inter-faith marriages, but of course the majority of such marriages do not arise from anything so grand as an ideological position on secularism taken up by the couple. Though less widespread than it once was, some incoming brides in north India change (or have changed for them) their forename as well as surname to mark their new circumstances. Inter-faith or -caste marriages, too, may occasion the bride changing her name to efface the boundary crossing the relationship embodied in a kind of post-hoc imposition of propriety.

In light of this, we come to understand the critical role of the boundary-crossing name: a child’s inter-name, in making the inter-marriage explicit, retroactively causes the inter-marriage to form a secular statement. The inter-name of the ‘love-match,’ then, may be indicative of secularism in a lower key, and rationalists indeed encounter inter-faith marriages as a form of lived secularism. If and when couples, too, come to understand their own conjugal trajectories in such a way, their children’s names may signify both the complex unity of their ‘separate’ identities within the child and a kind of statement that reflects back on the ‘secularism’ of the union it emerges from.

Shahrukh Khan is himself well aware of the capacity of personal names to effect automatic categorisation. A recent film of his on the racial profiling of Muslims after the 9/11 attacks on New York foregrounded the highly suggestive statement, ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,’ and at an airport in New York to promote the same film, right on cue, the star was detained for questioning for two hours ‘because his name came up on a computer alert list.’ ‘“I was really hassled—perhaps because of my name being Khan,” he said in a text message to reporters in India. “These guys just wouldn’t let me through.”’

This episode, and the detentions that he (like so many others with Islamic names) has been subjected to before and since, adds poignancy to the name he and Gauri Khan gave to their most recent child: AbRam. A particularly innovative ‘intername’ in the way it crosses boundaries within the forename itself, and also remarkable for the public debate it generated, I dwell for a moment on the way in which it mobilises the figure of Abraham in reference to a Hindu god.

A report titled ‘Secularism Shows in the Name of “AbRam,”’ quotes the actor: ‘“As we all know my wife Gauri is from Hindu family and me Muslim, by this so many issues arose but we are far from those issues now. We decided that our baby’s name should show secularism so we have decided to give the name to [our] new-born baby “AbRam”. Here “Ab” stands for our Prophet “Huzoor Abraham Alai-His-Salam” and “Ram” stands for as we all know Bhagwan “Ram.”’

Abraham is a kind of go-to figure of promise for progressive faith commentators for whom, as the root of the Abrahamic faiths, he stands for the possibility of healing and accord between the religions he ‘fathered.’ For Jacques Derrida, the ‘serial multiplicity of the “more than one [plus d’un]” inscribed itself upon the very name of Abraham,’ and it is in meditating upon the iconic progenitor’s name that he produces an analytic of ‘fidélité à plus d’un [faithfulness to more than one or: collective faithfulness]’ and of what we might call names that afford hospitality. One can see the attraction for Derrida of a figure that seems quite in tune with his own ‘reasoned distrust toward borders and oppositional distinctions (whether conceptual or not)’. Indeed, Abraham is equated by Derrida with ‘the endurance of the undecideable’, just as we have been exploring in these blog posts an onomastics of undecideability as a counter to automatic categorization. AbRam is, of course, just such an undecideable, even hospitable, name. Its audacity lies in onomastic extension of the lineage, with the ‘Ab’ brought together with ‘Ram,’ the name of a Hindu god. Thus is non-Abrahamic Hinduism integrated into an imagined Abrahamic secularism.