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.