¨Women do not need to change their surnames in their passports¨, said PM Modi. And the whole world (or at least, the Indian world), was in furore. Why! Women were never required to change their surnames anyway. Why this announcement, suddenly.
Well, I know that the rulebook never mentioned that women were required to change their surnames on their passport, or anywhere. I am also not a fan of Shri Modi Ji, or any other political persona. However, I feel that a lot of Indians listen to PM Modi and take his word as the gospel truth. Interestingly, this is also the likely population generally against women sticking to their maiden names after their marriage. So I do feel that Mr Modi endorsing this ´no change of surnames required´ will go a long way in changing the mindset of the self appointed guardians of married womens´ morality.
I have been questioned many times by many people, why I still use my maiden name, even twelve years since my wedding. Do I not love my husband? Do I not like his family? Don´t I find it weird that we don´t sound like family. I have taken these questions in my stride. What I did find questionable was two instances where I had a run in with the Government officials.
It was 2013, and I had gone to the Ghaziabad passport office to get my passport renewed. At the end of a very frustrating day, I reached stage ´D´of the passport approval process. It was almost closure time for the passport office. I thought I had seen everything I could have during that day – including one of the men at stage ´C´asking an old woman in a burka, why she needed to use a burka since she was well past her youth and beauty. As if it was his legal right to know the answer! Anyways, I reach stage ´D´where this very stern looking madam was sitting, my passport renewal resting in her hands.
And then came the question: why had I not asked for change of surname. I was taken aback. Was it required, I asked. Yes, she said, very matter of fact. Is it the rule? I mean, we had the marriage certificate, if we needed to travel overseas as each other´s dependents. Would that not be enough? Are same surnames the only proof that we are married?. Oh hell! How stupid I was to ask about the rulebook! I should have known that the Indian society, including well placed Government officials – even those who are women, think you are nothing short of a felon if you refuse to change your surname. So I had to say things like, ¨you see madam, I started working before I got married, and so all my documents and bank accounts are in my maiden name¨. She wasn´t really convinced, gave me a very, very disapproving look, nodded her head in an infinity loop, which I figured meant I was hopeless. As I returned, I could only pray that she had not changed my surname in the passport without my approval. Thankfully, the passport came in my own name.
The second instance was when I last travelled to India. I was with Aahna as Rajesh was in India to be with daddy in his last days. I was already upset as I hadn´t the heart to tell a very excited Aahna through our 36 hour journey that she won´t be seeing dadu ever again. And right then, this elderly gentleman at the immigration counter at Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport decided to get disturbed that my child´s surname didnt match mine. I politely told him to check my husband´s name and Aahna´s father´s name in the passport, as they are the same (Oh! Thank God!). ¨To madam, aapko apna surname change karwane ka tha na¨ (then madam, you should have changed your surname).
In that confused state, I could only mumble that I got married after my passport was made (which was a lie, refer instance 1). But it seemed to make sense to him, and he suddenly seemed to understand that perspective. ¨Achcha, achcha, passport pehle ban gaya aapka. Koi baat nahi, baad me change kara lena (Oh okay, your passport was made before your marriage. Never mind, you must get your surname changed later). I nodded, thanked my lucky stars that he didn´t decide to check the veracity of my statement, collected my documents, and walked out as fast as I could. I was half worried he would call me back to check the date of issue on my passport, check my daughter´s age, and figure out I was either lying, or my daughter was born before I got married. Between not changing my surname, and being an unwed mother, what could have been the greater evil?!
With the Prime Minister himself endorsing that I am not required to change my surname just because I decided to get married to a man with a different surname, I am hoping such instances will be relegated to memories from a bygone era. I hope this starts a change of mindset – not just in relation to the passport, but in general. I am all for women who want to change their names and surnames, but I am happy that for once, an Indian Prime Minister is rooting in solidarity with women who decide not to.