My name is Harshvardhan. Since I do not have a last name, I have to force my name to suit the general convention of first and last name. Thus, I also go as Harshvardhan Harshvardhan (European convention), FNU Harshvardhan (American convention), or M Harshvardhan (my academic pen-name).
Here is a conversation I had on Teams with one of my instructors when I wanted to clarify a few things.
Instructor: Hi, what is your name? I need your name to go over your answers.
Me: Harshvardhan. It would be registered in UTK system as FNU Harshvardhan or M Harshvardhan. I don’t have last name so every system works differently.
Instructor: What do you mean you do not have last name?
Me: My legal name is Harshvardhan. No last or middle name.
Me: In my family it’s common and in India its allowed. 😅
This conversation was my highlight for the day. I had a hearty laugh how uncommon it was in the west not to have a last name.
Names are precious and vital representations of personality. The two-three syllables call out a person who they are and if they are what they’re supposed to be. For humans, the general convention is to have multiple names — first, middle and last — and for animals, we seem to be adept with single names. For dogs, a Rottweiler Tommy from North America is Tommy, and so is a Doberman Tommy from India. They do not need family names as their human owners don’t feel obligated to lend their names.
However, human names can still be weird. For example, Elon Musk called his child X Æ A-Xii, and CNN has a guide to assist you with pronunciation.
What happens when you grow up in a family where last names are as fluid as the first name, and there is no concept of the middle name? Yes, I am from one of those families — and I am not alone. Don’t get me wrong: even in India having only first name is uncommon. In fact, last names are critical for arranged marriages and many societal customs. My marriage profile would look dubious to most matchmakers.
I was named Harsh at birth and Harshvardhan when I enrolled in school. No middle or last name. Others in my family had similar standing: my father’s last name is different from my grandfather and grandmother. My mother’s last name is different from my maternal grandfather or grandmother. My mother didn’t take my father’s name after marriage. Like me, my brother has no last name. My sister’s last name is different from my parents' and grandparents'.
I had the same question when people told me about the family names.
By taking up a name, you signal your belonging to a particular group which may or may not work in your favour, depending on the circumstances. Wouldn’t it be better to have higher degrees of freedom and allow people to choose the last name as well?
The academic world is still oblivious to single names. Sheherazade and Ardiantiono (2020) wrote an excellent article on Nature: Attention science: some people have only one name.
To register for a scientific conference is an easy task for most, but not for us. Like many Indonesian people, we have a single name. Websites often do not allow us to proceed from one page to the next unless we fill out a ‘Last/Family name’ box — something we’re unable to do honestly. Instead, we populate these boxes, wherever they appear, with our first name again or some variant of ‘NA’.
Word, Sheherazade and Ardiantiono. Word.
But anyway, the short term fix is more of a nuisance than trouble. I have to force my name to suit the general convention of first and last name. Thus, I also go as Harshvardhan Harshvardhan (European tradition), FNU Harshvardhan (American way), or M Harshvardhan (my academic pen-name).