Surname, Please?

by | Apr 16, 2019

The train journey to Mangaon had worn me out. I had woken up at 5 am today, a record timing by my standards. Adding to this, the speaker on stage had been speaking in Marathi for the past twenty minutes. Due to these specific factors, my eyes steadily shut.

Father Richard had completed 25 years of priesthood and it was his silver jubilee ceremony that I was conveniently dozing in. It was my first time in Mangaon and at Sarva Vikas Deep, one of the partners of Centre for Social Action (CSA), my host organization. It was also my first time meeting Prateek, a 2017 fellow who chose to continue with CSA after the fellowship and who presently sat beside me, listening to the speaker with utmost attention, nodding at times. He had picked up Marathi during his fellowship.

“There is something interesting you all must know about Father”, the speaker insisted.
The sudden switch to English brought me back. Also, I simply couldn’t let interesting things pass. I rubbed my eyes and waited.

“Every place that Father goes, he changes his second name to the name of that place”, the speaker said.
“When he was in Bandra, he was called Richard Bandra. When he was in Pune, he was called Richard Punekar. Now he has been in Mangaon for the past 7 years and hence we will call him Richard Mangaonkar!”

The audience applauded.

In a land where surnames rule the roost, what Father Richard did, was not only smart but also brings convenience to the life of a social worker. My surname was almost invisible to me until 21 years of my life. I was born, brought up, did my schooling and graduation in Chennai. Back there, we don’t have a concept of surnames. Yes, you read that right!

One has their father’s name or mother’s name or sometimes both as their second name. After getting married, a woman traditionally takes the first name of the husband as her second name. Hence, in Chennai, second name was just any other name. So it was preferably abbreviated in records. My name has always been Nikhil K in all my certificates.

However, the ‘K’ in my name is not my father’s name, though his name also begins with K. I am originally from Andhra Pradesh and there, like the rest of India, surnames flourish. So, I got one too!

My first encounter with my own surname was probably when I was 7 years old. Remember how in Chennai everyone would simply abbreviate their second names? No one even bothered and most people, including me, assumed that my initial ‘K’ was just my father’s name. But at 7, my dad bought a second hand Maruti 800. It was moonbeam silver in color and would go as fast as 100 kmph. Sometimes, dad would joke that it could take us to the moon at that speed. Written on the rear windshield of the car, in bold white alphabet stickers, was Kanakamedala. It was our surname. Dad was certainly proud of it, to say the least. To me, it resembled a jumbled word from the JUMBLE section of the Young World paper that used to come on Sundays and I would painstakingly try to form a meaningful word out of it.

In my first year of college, I had given countless ‘intros’ to seniors in the name of gentle ragging. One of the seniors asked what my surname meant. I didn’t know it could mean something. He asked me to come back with the meaning or else, he would not let me join the writer’s club. In pleasing him, I found what my surname meant and also ended up joining the club.

After graduation, I had the opportunity to work in several places across India, from Gujarat to Delhi to Mumbai. Every time I met people, I would be asked my full name and saying Nikhil K would never be enough. “What does K stand for?”, they would enquire. I remember trying to enter a corporate office in Mumbai and the receptionist would not let me in without knowing my full name. But once I said it, the staff looked at me bewildered and went back to typing just ‘K’ on the computer. Initially, it puzzled me why people would ask for full names. What purpose does it serve? It was not until a few years ago that I came to know that a person’s surname could be used to identify their caste. However, the only reason why I wouldn’t say my full name was for the sheer convenience of it. I didn’t want to inflict people with a 6 syllable word!

This being the first month of my fellowship, I happened to meet so many new people, who of course wanted to know my full name. Now, imagine my plight! So, when asked, I would usually say that I’m from the south and I would be excused duly. But the world is filled with curious people like me who would still prod. Thanks to them, I am now comfortable in letting out my surname. So much so, that I often use it as a conversation starter.

I find names and surnames intriguing. In getting to know about the Katkari tribes with which my organization works, I read that the most popular surname among the tribe is ‘Waghmare’ which means Tiger Slayer in Marathi. My neighbor in Mangaon, a retired school teacher, introduced himself only with his last name which is ‘Soshte’, an old Maharashtrian surname. At a sale where we sell products made by Katkari people in Mumbai every weekend, I met one of our youngest volunteers, Tisya. When I asked her what her name meant, she turned thoughtful, ran to her mom and came back with the meaning. It means, ‘A good wish’, she said.

My surname is Kanakamedala (Ka-Na-Ka-May-Da-La). Kanaka means golden in Sanskrit and Medala means towers in Telugu. My first name, Nikhil means perfect. So, I’m apparently Perfect Golden Towers! Pretty cool, right?

Your turn now. Your surname, please? And do you have any anecdotes attached to it?

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  1. Karthik_Yadhati

    Great writing Nkhil 🙂

    I recently had trouble getting house with surname. Landlord after listening to my surname asked me if I was Christian and I had said yes, just to see his reaction, for which he denied giving me the house.

  2. Jaya Hariyani

    Nikhil Kanakamedala… Amazing writing.. ☺☺

  3. Swati Saxena

    In school, my classmates used to mis-spell my surname as Sexena and thought it was funny! [Where’s the eye-rolling emoticon when you need it]
    Absolutely enjoyed reading this, specially the Maruti 800 incident and Father Richard changing his surname often. Hilarious 😀

  4. Umang Jain

    Enjoyed reading this blog of yours. I use Jain as my surname, and people often used to ask my actual surname which is Fafriya and they’d make fun saying that it sounds like a Gujarati dish. While listening to Gagan Bhai Sethi (Founder of Janvikas Trust) last month, he mentioned that a surname denotes caste and in Gujarat, people use their surname first, then the name and then their father’s/husband’s name, which also means that one’s own identity comes between his/her caste and patriarchy.

  5. Rajat Charantharayil

    This is something that I can totally relate to when you are out of South India,as its common there just put your initial letters in the surname like C or K’ or ‘P’. I always introduce myself with my first name, the same reason as yours mine is also 7 syllable one. My brother is going to have a baby in 10 days, since both of us face this issue all the time he is considering trimming the the baby’s sir name by half or just put my brother’s or sister’s name as the baby’s surname.

    • Nikhil Kanakamedala

      Yes, you must have had lots of similar experiences with the surname. But I feel comfortable about it now, relatively and leverage it as a conversation starter.

  6. R ghanta

    Getting a data dump from my 85 yr old dad (only surviving sibling), learnt that one of my great grandmothers was a Kanakamedala. Googling for the meaning of that last name led me to this article.

    Grew up in Marathi land, but never stopped to think about the meaning of kaleidoscope of Marathi last names I swam in until recently as we (me & my myriad marathi friends) enter our golden years


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