I was born in 1986 in India and my parents named me Shravya and by default, I took my dad's surname, Nalla. I'm sure my parents didn't think twice about my surname like most parents at that time. If I was born in a hunter-gatherer society, I would probably have a single name to identify me. But apparently there were some societies that distinguished individuals by an event, or a characteristic - in this case, I would probably be called Shravya Bold or Shravya Bald.

The sole reason humans started using more than one name is to distinguish them from other people with the same name. Over the course of time, different types of surnames were used based on personal characteristics, occupation of a person, topography of place of residence, patronymic or matronymic names(derived from your father’s or mother’s name).

I’m glad that I don’t belong to the times when people’s surnames derived from their occupation. What a pain it would be to change my surname every time I changed my occupation! Probably that’s why every John Smith chose to be a smith all their lives. I would have loved to have the surname Mountain. Surnames were also derived from a person’s place of residence and I would give anything to live in the mountains.

The nature of surnames evolved with time. At one point in time, it was very likely for people in three successive generations to not have had the same last name because what constituted a surname changed over time. John Smith’s dad could have been a Mr. Robert Hill who lived on a hill.

Last year, when my husband and I were expecting a baby, we spent some time thinking about what we wanted to do with the surname. Most people in India use patrilineal family names, which is biased, so is shifting to a matrilineal system. While it wasn’t fair to just give Ajit’s or my family name, adding the other person’s family name as the middle name was going to be like a consolation prize.

If surnames came into existence only to distinguish a person from other people, why not give our child a new surname altogether.

Why do we need to pass on a family name?

At the outset**,** it seemed like there were two advantages in giving family names as a surname

  1. Being able to connect to unknown relatives across the world that share the same surname

  2. Leaving a legacy through a surname

While there are better ways to leave a legacy, if surname is something that matters to you, statistically, according to this mathematical model, most surnames go extinct in 20 generations unless you breed like rabbits(and want to keep up with the popular tradition of patrilineal family names).

Using surnames as a method to make a family tree has limitations: You can either track your father’s side of the relatives or your mother’s side based on whose family name you decide to keep. It is a completely different challenge when you have a common surname and have thousands to millions of relatives. For example: there are as many people with the surname Singh in the world as there are people in Canada. Try making a family tree with 35 million people. (You can check your surname’s distribution map here on Forebears)

35 million Singhs across different parts of the world. (Source: Forebears.io)

35 million Singhs across different parts of the world. (Source: Forebears.io)

In today’s time, a more accurate way to track lineage and ancestry is to get a test on 23andme.com or ancestry.com. We felt this would be a better way for our child to track all the unknown relatives across the world, if and when he wants to.

So we decided to give Neel, our son, a surname that meant something to both Ajit and I.

What does the law say?

Neel’s surname is inspired by a Japanese anime that Ajit and I are huge fans of, so he goes by the name Neel Naruto. If we were Icelandic, by law, we wouldn’t have the freedom to pick any first name or surname. We'd have to pick a first name from a list that has about 1712 approved names for boys and a patronymic or matronymic surname (derived from the name of a father or mother). In our case, Neel Naruto would have been Níels Ajitson or Shravyason if we were Scandinavians or even Asgardians.

When people heard that Neel was going to have a different surname, there were some concerns from near and dear, including the executive at the local passport office. Either out of ignorance or deep-rooted patriarchy, the local passport office refused to file our application because according to him it was against the law for a child to not have the same last name as the father's. (Some people tend to justify their strong beliefs by calling it 'the law', don’t fall for it.) Not true, we did our research and there is no such law.

Infact India is one of the few places along with New Zealand, UK and some states in the US that have the most liberal rules with respect to names. Parents have the freedom to choose any word as their child's first or last name, so long as it is not considered offensive. There are some countries that have restrictions, not because they are patrilineal or matrilineal, but because they have software issues or are still dealing with xenophobia and racism. Here are two such examples: