Tired of questions that followed whenever she introduced herself—“Neha what? No last name?”— a five-year-old replied, “Only Neha”, when the local butcher asked her name. He found her response very amusing, and three decades later Neha’s family in Bengaluru still jokes about calling from “Only Neha’s house” when they order from the butcher.
Not every anecdote is as amusing for Neha, now 35, who goes by just one name. She works as a category marketing head at a consumer goods major in Gurugram, and is used to explaining her single name everywhere she goes.
Neha’s father decided that his daughters would have mononyms, and be known only by their own identities, and not the associations that come with a last name. Her sister, Megha (39), a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bengaluru, shares Neha’s pride in using a mononym and the meaningful symbolism of their father’s choice.
The sisters do, however, experience several hurdles, like others with just one name, especially when it comes to official documentation.
Whether denoting caste, community, occupation, geographical origin or parental lineage, last names have several origins. Some individuals choose to drop a surname for various reasons, including erasing caste or community associations, rejection of patriarchal naming traditions, or as a form of self-expression.
Professional organizations find it difficult to accommodate non-standard naming conventions. Painter and sculptor Sidharth (62) officially adopted his mononym when he was 21. Born as Harjinder Singh in a family of Gurbani singers in Punjab, he decided to take a neutral name without caste or community associations after travelling the world. Initially, he signed his paintings “O Zero”, which elicited amused reactions. But it was the passport office—which just refused to accept it as a name—that made him settle on Sidharth. He admits it’s been a challenge when he has to fill forms that require more than one name for auctions and exhibitions. He tries hard to reject any form of a last name, but he has resorted to using everything from “ji” to “X” when dealing with paperwork.
While some government offices are accommodating, companies with stringent processes are often challenged by any deviation from standard naming conventions. Armaan, 28, a commercial pilot with an Indian airline, who was given his mononym at birth, has faced several issues at work where his father’s last name is appended.
“People just assume I forgot to include a last name when filling paperwork,” he says. He has grown accustomed to immigration officials questioning his lack of a last name or his single name showing up in duplicate boarding passes or airline tickets as “Armaan Armaan.”
Neha has encountered difficulties at some organizations. One multinational company she worked for was unable to accommodate her request for a single name email address. “It went all the way to HR in the US because I refused to provide a second name. What they came back with was hilarious— Neha..@companyname.com. The two dots made me sound like some sort of unfinished business. I finally relented and added my father’s initials.”
Dr Chandrasekhar Sripada, professor-organizational behaviour and strategic human capital at International School of Business, Hyderabad, agrees that it can be a challenge for individuals with mononyms. “You may not want to be judged or identified by your background, but the world is out to judge you on this very background,” he says. “There is an undercurrent of support for those who use mononyms from more modern organizations, where the emphasis is only on the use of the first name when addressing each other. Whether seen as trendy, more egalitarian or less formal, it does signify a shift towards a less hierarchical society,” he adds. Gaurav Gangwani, senior HR manager at a telecom company, has received a few requests from mononymous employees and the organization finds ways to respect this preference. “A single name can throw things off, for example, an employee ID cannot be generated unless all the details are included. But, there are ways to circumvent this, like putting in an extra space in the last name field that isn’t visible but could be accepted by the system as input.”
Richa Nanda, an HR professional with a global software company, does point out the difficulties—work visas, for instance, are often rejected because of the use of a single name. “It can lead to complications when trying to link a provident fund account or PAN number. At times, people include an initial as a last name because the system requires a last name field, but their other documentation only has a single name. When the name on all documents does not match, creating the PF account becomes an issue,” she says.
Though organizations may try to be supportive of an individual’s choice, the larger ecosystem may not be. Dr. Sripada feels organizations should be respectful of these choices, but also understands how even they may be unable to change processes to accommodate them.
“Organizations are designed for the majority, not just for a few people with a different point of view,” he says.
Settling for different suffixes to her mononym is something Megha,a scientist, has grown accustomed to, but says the Indian system is more flexible than the US. Her passport and government identification documents in India use her mononym. IRCTC allows her to book train tickets with a single name, which airlines do not, she says. In the US. where mononyms are rare, she had to be “Megha LNU” (last name unknown) in the social security system, “Megha Megha” on her PhD certificate, and “Megha Single Name” on her driving license. “Scientists are known by their last name. When looking for a scientist’s published work, most searches are done using a last name and that has always made it difficult to find me,” she says. Her first publication was with a colleague, where his last name was printed for both of them.
People may choose to stick with their mononyms, but they do not necessarily continue that tradition with their children. Megha decided to suffix her husband’s and her name to her daughter’s name. Sidharth has added his name to his daughter’s as he did not want to impose the inconveniences he had faced on his daughter.
Dr Sripada says it usually takes organizations time to accept individuality and that they will evolve. “When mononyms become more common, organizations will take a step back and amend their processes,” he says. There is a certain empowerment and anonymity that come with a mononym. “People can’t tell which part of India I am from,” says Neha. “It’s a great conversation starter and has always been a point of interest when I go for interviews.” The privacy afforded by being mononymous, in a time when Google can dig up immediate results on anyone, can be a boon. For Armaan, having a single name sets him apart. “I like my name as it is. I want to have my own identity.”