Shriram Lagoo’s name (part 2)

(This is a continuation of a prior post that can be found here.)

The Hindu right activists who threatened Lagoo seem to consider his mere continuing to bear a name that he did not choose for himself an active appropriation of it. From such an angle, his name may indeed be construed as boundary crossing: a rationalist, he nonetheless bears a notably Hindu name. The celebrated French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously noted how ‘Some societies jealously watch over their names,’ and countless ethnographic examples could be given that show how names are frequently understood as items of property. Part of the problem, of course, is that Shriram is not just a Hindu-identifying name but a god’s name—and one that the Hindu right has expended a large amount of energy defending in recent decades. Moreover, in certain bhakti schools there is considerable slippage between the name and deity, with mantras inseparable from the gods whose names they speak. So as with the lesbian character Sita in the film Fire (1998) whose name was changed to Nita in response to violent Hindu right protests, ‘defence’ of the name seems to constitute defence of the god him or herself. If, as Veena Das has suggested, ‘stories told about objects of use belong to their aura’, we might say that in seeking to hinder the attachment of Lagoo’s rationalist crusading to the name object he carries Hindu activists seek copyright protection of the (Hindu) name’s aura. They are seeking to manage (and contain) the name’s associations—a delimiting that mirrors rationalist activists’ own attempts to generate expulsive or purified names.

Notwithstanding powerful arguments concerning the learned, or instrumental, nature of Hindutva’s ‘taking offence,’ it is possible to perceive why a person with the name Shriram proclaiming the need to ‘retire the god’ might be construed as incongruous for some. Of course, as with brand names (see the fascinating work of William Mazzarella on this subject), accruing improper associations is a risk built into the very existence of personal names. Just as ‘brand jacking’ demonstrates that a product is ‘never able to legislate its own intelligibility completely’, intentionally incongruous name uses can be taken up as a form of political assertion.

Consider the case of controversial right-wing Slovenian politician and former prime minister, Janez Janša, whose statement in 2007 that ‘the more there will be of us [i.e. Slovenians as opposed to immigrants] the sooner we shall reach the goal’ was responded to with ironic literalism when three Slovenian performance artists legally renamed themselves Janez Janša. The artists’ subsequent engagement in activities incongruous with the names they bore constituted an indirect but potent form of political critique; for example, a headline ‘Janez Janša Dances in Berlin,’ which referred to an artistic performance by one of the three artists, had a double-meaning, since it could be interpreted as the Prime Minister being servile to German interests.

This is not to suggest that such a logic animated Lagoo’s retention of the name Shriram—no renaming took place, and his name is a matter of concern for Hindu right activists, not him. Yet the episode at the station in Sangli in which the actor-activist proclaimed ‘Jai Shri Ram…Lagoo’ certainly seemed to play on the gap between name and named and was evidently comical for Dabholkar and his colleagues. In his analysis of Bentham’s ‘auto-icon’—the philosopher’s bequeathal of his own stuffed corpse to University College, London in 1832—David Collings sees in the gesture a ‘delicious profanation’ and ‘a kind of sly joke against contemporary prejudice and outraged opinion’ that calls upon ‘the libidinal resources of debasement and traditional inversion rituals.’ Is there something of this wilful transgression and inversion of convention in some rationalist acts of naming? Many activists take delight in staging their weddings on inauspicious days, feasting during eclipses, and consuming substances such as meat and alcohol that in many contexts are shunned as impure. The hinted at sense of wilful transgression —not frequently present, but perhaps animating the laughter at Sangli station—is suggestive of pleasurable incongruity, and of taking possession for ironic effect in a manner that contains parallels with the case of Janez Janša. Rather than brand jacking, it could be termed (or, more to the point, experienced by certain Hindu right activists as) ‘name jacking.’


Shriram Lagoo’s name (part 1)

The Maharashtrian rationalist journal Thought & Action records that in the early 2000s, the famous film actor and rationalist Shriram Lagoo ‘was harassed by the hooligans of [the] RSS [a right-wing Hindu organization] who insisted that he should change his first name because Shriram is God’s name [but] he is an atheist.’ The anthropologists Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn have noted the remarkable consistency of the preoccupation across global contexts of a commitment to finding the proper ‘fit’ between person and name. Here it was the perceived lack of a fit that was at issue.

The origins of the controversy lie in Lagoo having written a piece called ‘Retire the god’ that served as the introduction to a new book on the noted Keralan/Sri Lankan rationalist Abraham Kavoor. It went further than Narendra Dabholkar’s organisation was itself willing to go, at least publicly, on the question of the existence of God and the article inspired considerable public debate. Dabholkar and Lagoo then began a program they named Vivek Jagar (Knowledge Awakening) in which they staged debates across Maharashtra. In another issue of Thought & Action Dabholkar reported details of a specific confrontation between the actor and Hindu right activists that occurred immediately after a Vivek Jagar program at Sangli:

“Dr. Lagoo wanted to go to Mumbai by night train. We, all the organizers, were at station to see him off. The train was late. During that period we saw a group of young people rushing towards Dr. Lagoo. At first we thought that the group may be fans of Doctor who also is a famous film actor… Within no time they surrounded us and started shouting slogans like Jai [i.e. victory to] Bhavani, Jai Shivaji; Sanatan Hindu Dharm ki Jai… They started asking questions like, Why do you speak against Hindu religion?… One of them suggested that Dr. Lagoo should shout Jai Shri Ram. Dr. Lagoo was not afraid at all. He must have thought himself and with a smile on his face he said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and after a pause added ‘Lagoo’ to it. The slogan became ‘Jai Shri Ram Lagoo.’ Even in those strenuous moments we could not help laughing. All these angry young men were confused. At that moment the train entered the platform and Dr. Lagoo boarded the train. Thus further confrontation was avoided.” 

Lagoo’s forename Shriram presents a paradox, since his use of it is at odds with both of the strategies we have considered in earlier posts: neither purified nor boundary-crossing, the name Shriram Lagoo unambiguously encodes its bearer’s Hindu background. No change, or renaming, has taken place to cause offence—it is his continued use of the name that seems to be the problem. (Indeed, as the examples given in earlier posts indicate, the objects of the majority of rationalists’ naming innovations are their children, as with Lagoo’s son Tanveer).

If his own name became a matter of concern due to his very public atheism, part of Lagoo’s rationale for preserving it is sentimental: ‘As a child I…was not [in] a position to oppose my parents not to give God’s name to me. They were very pious parents and as such they might have chosen the God’s name for their beloved child. They have given me name with their love and affection’. There are also practical concerns: ‘Atheists do not like to be called by God’s name, [but] there is no simple and easy escape route for them,’ one activist told me. Another stated: ‘More than 10 million people have gods in their names. Some are Bhagwan or Paramatma Singh, even Ram—there are so many. But I have not chosen my name. My parents gave me my name. I became a rationalist later on in life. So how can I change it?’

Disapproving Names

As anthropologists have described, children of inter-faith marriages bearing boundary-crossing names may be teased by schoolteachers who disapprove of their parents’ union, and secular activists’ children bearing this kind of name can be met with similar responses. Such names might be given with worthy pedagogical intentions, but cause those who perforce bear them some misery and embarrassment. The son of famous anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, called Hamid, is said to have ‘suffered a lot in college because of his name. Everyone asked him, “What is your caste? What is your caste?”’ While in the case referred to in an earlier blog post in which avowedly secular parents gave a Hindu boy an Islamic name, the child later demanded to be given a new, unambiguously Hindu name due to teasing at school.

The problem is that naming acts are often felicitous only when the context is in place and our trust in conventions is secure. The absence of these factors in respect of unconventional, or extraordinary, acts of naming such as these disrupts their efficacy. The boundary-crossing name is in part interventionist—intended to generate the disidentity it itself embodies—but also normative in depicting what transcategorialism ideally should be like (and as such at odds with ordinary naming conventions). But similar to philosophical writings that create a normative base for discussing what various phenomena ideally should be like, with often little attempt to account for their ordinary forms, boundary-crossing names will sometimes not fare well within the scenes of utterance into which they are inserted.


In addition to the teasing of those who bear them, there is the even blunter instrument of simply refusing to use such names. A Kolkata-based, Hindu-background activist described to me how her non-rationalist family members do exactly this in respect of her daughter: that is, they ignore the Islamic name given to her by her parents, having between them—and quite independently of her parents—decided on a Hindu name for her that they would use. The activist is fearful that they may even have consulted a pandit for the purpose. Since, as John Searle has argued, making something the case by representing or declaring it as such only succeeds if the status of the actor performing the function is to some degree collectively recognised, one can see why rationalist acts of naming may fail to ‘take’ in families in which the tradition is to consult a pandit rather than leave the act of naming solely with the parents.

Refusals to acknowledge and/or scorning of boundary-crossing names thus form one of the major problems generated by rationalists’ attempts to realign the problem of names and automatic categorisation. But the problems they face are not discrete and may overlap, which is precisely what we find in the case of the name of the film actor Shriram Lagoo – which we will discuss in the next post.