Indian surnames and inferences drawn therefrom

John Oliver Perry Joperry2 at AOL.COM
Sat Jun 26 01:17:06 UTC 1999

        For almost a year, a number of knowledgeable people have responded to
a series of initially rather stumbling and perhaps naive inquiries from me
(an Indophile knowing only English) on the H-ASIA, RISA-L, & Sasialit lists
about the above Subject.  Having recently joined INDOLOGY, I would like to
solicit from members of this list any further responses, either posted or

        Over the twenty-eight years of my involvement with India (since 1978
researching and writing mostly on contemporary Indian English poetry and
criticism), I have been fascinated with the varieties of Indian surnames and
the inferences  that are commonly drawn from them by other Indians... and
others "in the know."  When a person's name is mentioned, often a collocutor
will attempt to deduce certain supposed facts about the person: perhaps
caste, area, line of work, even character (typically, how that work is done
but possibly a more general description of the person's expected way of
life).  How do they know, and how much (and when) do they use, these supposed
facts about another person deduced just from their name, and, perhaps most
important, what is it that they think they know?

        Of course, in the rapidly changing Indian society such inferences--
about work (traditionally) done, caste/social status, community, geography,
what southern U.S. people used to call "background"-- are less and less
likely to apply to all (or even any) people using a particular surname. For
one thing, a so-called "family name" may have been recently assumed (or
given), for precisely the reason that people do draw inferences from Indian
names. Also inferences about "family background," community, etc., are less
and less important as Indians become more urbanized and tend to judge others
by their individual character, attainments and capacities.

        Still, there is a "lore" about surnames that would be interesting to
explore, no matter how unreliable and prejudicial.  Though enormous, it would
also be interesting to collect this lore in a dictionary of Indian surnames,
a collection in some ways parallel with (but perhaps more historically
relevant and `serious' than) "How to Name Your Baby" books in India that list
(usually Sanskrit-based) given names and their translated meanings.  Some
overlap exists between given names and surnames, but surnames-- however
presently or previously understood, for whatever insidious or benign
purposes-- are the focus of my interest, partly because they and their
implications tend to be inherited or ascribed more than assumed.  The
problem, in one sense, is to map the common prejudices of various groups
about other groups which use a distinctive name-- be it a family name, a
caste or sub-caste name or some other accepted designation.  Yet a full
account would include also the self-image of  the group by most of its
members. And there might also be substantial minority reports from all sides.
Moreover, a complex group characterization might take the form: "They are
typically such-and-such, but some are of another type."

        Two kinds of questions emerge from this consideration:

First, practical/methodological/theoretical questions-- e.g., for each
surname, what time period is being considered? what area(s)? what methods are
allowable, relevant, and/or reliable for gathering such lore? what varieties
of information and of lore will be collected? what sources/informants will be
used, including the subjects themselves (wherever possible)? what books are
currently available to support the work? what cautions are pertinent for
investigating the common (but potentially biased, unfairly prejudicial)
practice of drawing inferences from surnames? what social and/or personal
harms can be done by such an investigation (vs. its historical and
anthropological interest), and, not least important, how can the immense
amounts of information be solicited and organized (e.g., what tools
can/should be used, from face-to-face fieldwork to the setting up of closely
monitored internet collecting sites and computer-based programs; what
organizations can be enlisted or formed for the work; what funding mechanisms
may be required or helpful for a well-organized project)?

Second, questions about the information itself: e.g., how does this
information correlate with other, supposedly more reliable, scientific
demographic data about such matters as traditional and current typical work,
wealth and income, social status and marriage patterns, relationships to
other groups and sub-groups? who typically draws which inferences, using what
methods, and for what purposes?   what are the possible/probable etymologies
(as opposed to folk etymologies) of each name and its provenances, linguistic
and geographical? how much of the lore is related to such linguistic-semantic
and socio-linguistic cues/clues?

        This query has come a long way from my intitially asking whether a
dictionary of the explicit (inherent/translated) meanings together with
widely accepted sociological connotations and implications of Indian surnames
exists, or could be collected.  As my awareness of the issues has developed,
making such a collection of data (and necessarily interpeting it) begins to
look like an impossibly encyclopedic undertaking.  I would be interested,
therefore, in any suggestions about dividing the project. Drawing limited
geographic-linguistic boundaries is an obvious choice, and some respondents
have offered bibliographic citations that suggest a few books already exist
that approach the desired form and substance for a few linguistic or
geographic areas.  However, most of the best known Indian surnames about
which many people make some common deductions have become quite widespread
now, and this geographic and social diffusion is increasing as members within
castes and other social groupings become more diverse in wealth, status, and
work as well as in their usual location or habitat, community, and their
relationships to other groups.

        Clearly it would be impossible to survey and cite every book that
describes a social group having a common name, or all the anthropological
books describing the social relationships of a particular village or larger
area, and thus what people there understand about each named group (which may
include more than one surname).  And the broader and more dispersed the
social group written about, obviously the more diffuse and diversified the
supposed information about its members, or else the more unreliable as a
report about what people in contact with them generally think they know about
them, and they about themselves. Still, whatever the difficulties, the sheer
pursuit of this evanescent and disputable, oft-times disrespectful, lore some
Indians claim to have about their fellow Indians *based on surnames alone*--
such an unending, but definable, project should be a fascinating process,
whatever the ultimate product.

        Thanks in advance for any contributions to this subject, either
directly or, if of general interest, posted for all.  And please do not
hesitate to offer (off-list) what might ordinarily be obvious bibliographic
citations or odd bits of family lore or personal anecdotes.   My apologies
for a long initial posting.   Best wishes,
John Oliver Perry (Professor, Emeritus, English, Tufts Univ., USA)

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