You Are Not Your Name

Some old script stuck in plastic in Oxford, I dunno, my wife saw it

I’ve been thinking about reality a lot, or more specifically illusion. The Buddhist idea of self is not that there is no-self, but that the self is not all. Anatta means (not) self. Just as (not) Steve doesn’t deny the existence of Steven, An-atman doesn’t deny the existence of atman. It just asserts that atman is not the end-all and be-all.

To stick to names, this reality is somewhat obvious in Asian cultures, where people have many names, most of the relative. I have five names that I go by on a regular basis—Appa (father), Patiya (child), Jit (nickname), Indi (nickname), or Indrajit. I have a dozen more names I go by infrequently, and these only increase as more children are born. In this context, it is somewhat obvious that there is no fixed self because, I mean, which one?

With the standardization of colonialism we got first and last names, and we still have to use them or we get beaten, exiled, or tortured. So a melange of identities get brutally shoehorned into a government form. I notice this in Kerala where relatives have one name which is exclusively for government use, and is often something random someone wrote down when they were five or six. Someone’s name is Mathew Mathews because, fuck it, I just call him Appachan.

You can see elements of this in African-American culture. As Lloyd Banks says in the song Wanna Get To Know You, “to make her feel special I let her call me by my government name.” White people don’t do this so much. People here in the UK get offended when the kids call them Auntie. But everybody’s auntie or uncle in Sri Lanka, or Asia, or Africa, or most of the world outside of the central White Empire.

I notice this when I try to fill out forms here and I’m like ‘I don’t know my aunt’s name.’ Why would I? To me, she’s Loku Amma (literally Big Mama), my mother’s older sister. I’ve never had occasion to use her first name and, indeed, I shouldn’t. She is defined by her loving relationship with me, not our creepy relationship with the government.

I’ve noticed this with my children because A) they don’t have a name for the first month and B) we would constantly make up pet names for them. Squabby, Pablo Escabablo, Baba, Kutti, Kunji, Panri Kutti, the names go on and on. They are all expressions of love, not punitive things that some asshole border guard checks before deciding whether to cage you or not. What’s in a name? In many names, there is love. There is a web of human relationships.In just one name, there is coercion and power. There is one relationship to the state, and the state is a jealous god.