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The curious case of Chamel-e-Menon

I confess I have changed my name – several times. I was rather unimaginatively named 'S. Ramesh' at birth (the ‘S’ from my Dad’s name – ‘Sukumar’). At adulthood and on applying for travel documents, a progressive passport officer promoted ‘Ramesh’, and from thereon it was ‘Ramesh Sukumar’. In college, it was shortened to ‘Suku’ after a popular Bollywood song. When I relocated to the Middle East, I added the ‘Menon’ – again from my Dad’s name. This signaled my belonging to the vast Malayali diaspora in the Gulf region. Later and in line with my choice of faith, my Christian name to replace the ‘Ramesh’ was ‘Jonathan’. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to respond to that one... so now and hopefully forever, it stays ‘Ramesh Menon’.

Clearly, the bard got it wrong.

Names are powerful – they are the first signals of identity and belonging. They help make instant connections through indications of origin, religion, social status and ancestry.

In Middle Eastern societies (many that have evolved from tribes), names often have three parts – the unique name of the individual + the name of the father + the name of the tribe/family. This means you address people by their first name; if you used their last, you would be speaking to their tribe (risking an uprising). Across India, surnames are helpful in choices in life and business depending on social classes. In West Africa, it is not uncommon to receive business cards with the family or tribal names in UPPERCASE – clearly to communicate ethnicity first and individuality next. A Navajo (or Naabeehó) surname can indicate the person’s profession or role in the community, the clan, a familial relation, the person’s residence, a unique characteristic and even a physical description. Names are amazing.

But names can also be the start of unholy alliances.

In the context of names, nepotism might involve giving an unfair advantage to someone because they have the same last name or are related in some way. Nepotism is the appointment or promotion of family members or friends to positions of power or influence, regardless of their qualifications or suitability for the role. Nepotism leads to accusations of favouritism, corruption, and abuse of power. It is important to note that having the same surname does not necessarily mean that nepotism is occurring.

At scale, nepotism creates corrupt societies that favour a few more than the people they are elected to serve.

“Give me your surname, and I promise you identity!”

National identity requires sacrifice.

Several tribal-based, democratic nations recognize the need to create a shared national identity that supersedes ethnic identities. Building a national identity helps to foster a sense of belonging and pride among citizens and also serves as a source of unity and cohesion within a society. Often, such nations imagine that a national identity comes from launching a well-designed country brand.

But creating a national identity in tribal societies requires two fundamental commitments from all – ownership and sacrifice. Ownership comes with the participation of all stakeholders through respected and acknowledged contributions. Sacrifice begins with individuals willing to commit their ethnic identity to the more significant cause and narrative that constructs the national identity. That requires tremendous ownership of the national narrative on the part of individuals, which can only be achieved by a deep commitment to inclusive dialogue by governments, civic groups and other social institutions.

An accurate measure of success in a national identity program is where people drop their surnames on business cards or shorten them to initials – at least in business environments. By doing so, we identify ourselves as individuals, are recognized for capability rather than origin, and signal our commitment to a cause that equitably celebrates sameness and uniqueness.


Thanks to Scott Adams, I love you!

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