A Savarna By Any Other Name, or a Personal History of Caste Privilege

Many people of Malayali origin bear surnames that indicate their upper-caste status. Are they just relics of a feudal past that hold no meaning in today’s world? Shilpa Menon examines the larger implications and histories of such surnames through a personal reflection on her surname.

Shilpa, er, Menon

(Note: the ‘er’ is an awkward pause.)

A world cloud of the terms used in the article, in the shape of a speech bubble.


Some years ago, social-media debates arose over an announcement made by a Malayalam film actor that his daughter would proudly bear his wife’s second name’Menon’. Many questioned the kind of feminist solidarity that entailed using a savarna1 caste surname as a means of subverting patriarchal naming norms. As Dalit-bahujan2 feminists have pointed out since time immemorial, if it is not anti-caste, it is not feminist. The actor responded to criticisms by asserting his commitment to anti-casteism, saying in the same breath that Menon carried no caste connotations for him or his wife. ‘Menon’, for him, just ‘happens’ to have been a caste group that existed ‘once’.

Is this so? I offer my case as an example. Depending on your political leanings, your savarna surname is a basis for pride in your identity, or much hand-wringing over caste privilege. I belong to the latter category, not in the least because I am a researcher in the humanities and social sciences, where discourses on everyday casteism, and the more pervasive caste barriers in academia, are occasionally discussed openly, and privilege-guilt is fondly cultivated in some quarters. ‘Do I keep it, do I get rid of it,’ was my initial, naïve dilemma, soon giving way to the understanding, informed by following anti-caste thinkers, that the very choice is built on privilege. The glaring awkwardness of a second name that proclaims smug savarna identity bears no comparison to the material risks attached to a surname indicating oppressed-caste status.

But how did I ‘happen’ to end up with a surname the same as a caste that existed ‘once’? The story of my surname is told to me thus: while enrolling me in school in the Middle East, my parents had to think about what patronym I would use. My father’s name was a multisyllabic one with religious connotations, uncharacteristically Brahministic even for a dominant-caste Malayali. For privacy’s sake, I will call him Venkatakrishnan. ‘The girl will get to matriculation before she learns how to spell this,’ my parents worried, as they did about how Arab officials would trip over it. ‘Menon’ was compact. Menon it is. Struggling through the English alphabet in kindergarten, I would have been thankful, had I known.

This is an innocent enough story. But one does not grow up in a proud diasporic Menon/Nair family without hearing and seeing not-so-innocent things. Casual conversation about how a particular firm will hire no lower than the Nair caste. Separate utensils and toilets for domestic workers in the ultra-modern flats of my parents and relatives. Talk of how an acquaintance’s daughter married below her caste status (of course it is not casteism, it is just that they have a different ‘culture’). Comments that some people don’t ‘look’ Nair enough because of how dark they are. Even small things, like bright colours, being described in caste terms. And years later, in the first year of my PhD in the US, a cheerful mass email from an unknown sender that popped up in my University inbox: ‘Hello friends, let us have a Malayali gathering!’ I was disturbed by how a stranger knew to email me about this. Then I saw all the names cc-ed in the email, likely pulled up through a search in the University directory: Menon, Nair, Pillai, Kurianall dominant-caste names that unambiguously indexed Malayali identity. More so than a ‘Matthew’, ‘Shabeer’, or a ‘Shiju’. For someone who distanced herself from ubiquitous Malayali and Nair community associations, this was a reminder that one does not simply step away from privilege through a few lifestyle choices.

Sarath, er, Pillai notes that generic caste names like ‘Menon’, which were used in a more restricted way in the 19th century, likely increased in usage at the turn of the 20th century. I want to add that the practice may have been cemented with the increased migration of savarna communities away from their locales. Indeed, my father, mother, and many in their generation who grew up in Kerala bear their family names as their second names, different from caste surnames like mine. Back in Kerala, the savarna family name, attached to the tharavad or homestead, was an act of emplacing: it gave you a spatial location, and therefore a caste and class location as well. Urbanisation and migration produced the risk of family names losing this capacity to ‘place’ people. Surely enough, the relatively novel ‘Menon’ had done its work of emplacing me, thousands of miles away from our tharavad—the email found its way to my inbox in a large American public university.

But the emplacement of people is not just about their surnames. T. K.C. Vaduthala’s 1957 short story, achante venthinga, inna!3 is about Kandankoran, a man from the Pulaya community who converts to Christianity, adopting the first name ‘Devassy’, with savarna connotations. For a time, he is convinced that the change in name and his involvement with the church grants him status, until the wry ridicule of his oppressed-caste community and his lowly status in his new Christian community both compel him to question his choice. In Sara Joseph’s renowned 1999 novel, Alahayude penmakkal,4 one story is about names that ‘burn like chillies’. An oppressed-caste man, Koran, adopts the respectable savarna first name ‘Raman’. This is the cause of much amusement for the rest of the community, a community that disposed of the Thrissur town’s dead, and was pushed away, out of sight, out of mind, into a settlement called ‘Kokkaanchira’. The only one who empathizes with Koran’s aspirational act of name-changing is the young protagonist, Annie, who recalls wanting to change the name of their settlement because of the disgust with which she and other children from there were treated by savarna teachers and peers. Both Koran and Annie had taken up doomed projects of protesting their emplacement. The well-known historian of Kerala, Dilip, er, Menon (2016), notes that oppressed-caste people were ‘expected to use terms of debasement when speaking about themselves or the objects they used and address their superiors using honorifics’ (187). Menon cites an anti-caste pamphleteer, P. Govindan, indignantly noting how oppressed-caste people were forced to adopt meaningless or nonsensical names. All these examples, and the lived experiences of very many oppressed-caste people, attest to the fact that caste oppression is not just anchored to the patronym, though the patronym, it would seem, makes privilege portable across continents.

In the US, I have noticed that the first name is much more mutable than the second one. My university allows students to indicate a ‘preferred’ name for use in their records. This mutability, however, circumscribed, is because of long struggles by LGBTQIA+ groups to make institutions more open to a transition in gender. In many cultures, the first name is that which indexes the gender of the person. Politics around patronyms, however, seem non-existent, with notable exceptions like the radical Black thinker, civil rights activist, and Muslim theologian Malcolm X.5 And so, I can change my first name in many institutional contexts in the US, but a change in patronym requires nothing less than applying for a new visa to the US. The patronym, and all that it indexes, now forms the basis of global regulatory norms of citizenship and migration.

In light of this personal history, I must disagree here with the well-meaning actor. There is nothing incidental about savarna surnames, even as they may appear as incidental within individual experiences. There is also no way to simply decide that they are ‘just’ names. To paraphrase the tongue-in-cheek title of a recent short film by Rajesh Rajamani, our savarna surnames bear a ‘discreet charm’—they conjure up community and opportunities even when we do not ‘see’ them. Our family names, then, indicate much more than abstract lineage. That genealogies, households, and families were denied to enslaved populations across the world testifies to how family names and histories index access to material and symbolic privilege. In the case of Syrian Christian families, Nidhin Donald notes how the very act of writing and publishing a ‘family history’ is a political act of cementing savarna social capital. Sanal Mohan has written about how, in contrast, oppressed-caste family histories that render visible Dalit lives can be a subversion of this kind of hegemonic history-making.

At the end of the day, the question of caste surnames is still a major issue. ‘Do we keep it, do we change it’, thorns and all, is still a consideration for those of us who want to take allyship with Dalit politics seriously. I think back to the question Annie’s acerbic grandmother asks about Raman/Koran in Alahayude Penmakkal: ‘Will your jati change with your name? Will you change? Will the conditions of your birth change?’ I imagine them directed at me, and they arouse a discomfort that refuses resolution. Perhaps the question of allyship begins with asking what politics can emerge from staying with this discomfort. Changing one’s savarna surname can indeed be an anti-caste gesture, but perhaps the key is to understand that this is not a means to proclaim enlightened castelessness, ‘just like’ oppressed-caste people who invest in Dalit politics, and close the matter. There is a lot else to be done. Even as we (I) write articles and social media posts and attend protests, we (I) might shy away from the more intimately uncomfortable political acts we can engage in: awkward interventions in our own homes and circles, risking savarna relationships, opportunities, and networks of care by refusing to be complicit in everyday caste oppression, or facing up to the times when our very progressive investments may have made us complicit. I have found that the bluster of outright rebellion does not quite work here as it does in more public expressions; I have had to work with pauses (er…), fits, starts, loaded silences of dismay and embarrassment, often at myself. If we do the surprisingly hard and invisible work of figuring out how to politically engage with our own discomfort, perhaps we can become anti-caste accomplices, and not just allies.

Note: My deepest thanks to Mahesh, friend and Dalit expat from Kerala, and colleagues Sravanthi Dasari, Aditi Aggarwal, and Dipti Sherchan for their insightful comments. Errors are mine alone.


About the Author: Shilpa is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a co-editor of Ala. She researches queer cultures and networks in Kerala, and can be contacted at shilpaparthan@gmail.com.


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