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.’