First published by The Woman Inc. on 17 February 2017.
When I was seven, I found myself in dire need of a signature. After one too many arguments, Didi and I decided that any bets we made with each other needed to be laid down on paper. India Post inland letters, with their suitably official-looking seal, became the stationery of choice for all our most important paperwork, containing details of bets and promises made and broken. Didi, at the grand old age of eleven, already had her own stylish signature; I needed one as well. After much experimentation, I hit upon one that looked a bit like a star but was supposed to contain all the letters of my name, followed by an artistic scribble of my surname.
This signature stood me in good stead for a couple of years. I signed hoards of inland letters, many of which suspiciously disappeared. Didi, as the older sister, was keeper of the records. To this day she insists she never lost any of our legal documents; I maintain she conveniently misplaced all those she didn’t want found.
If the document in question was for something with far-reaching consequences (like having to do your sister’s chores for a whole month), we would ask Ma to be our witness and place her signature below ours. I noticed that Ma’s signature was just her initial and our surname written out in regular handwriting. How could a signature be so everyday, so mundane? What would she do if she became famous, I wanted to know. Would she sign autographs with this banal excuse for a signature?
She then showed me her true signature: the one she had created as a young girl. I was enchanted. It was creative, artistic, original. It had curlicues and flourishes. Why on earth had she let it go? It appeared this signature from her youth had contained her surname at birth, her maiden name. When Ma got married her surname got changed for her, and she felt she had lost the right to her own signature. She devised a new one, an unoriginal recreation that spelled out clearly her helplessness at the loss. It broke my heart.
We talked and decided my signature would now be just my first name. Why the family name? Why identify ourselves as part of a group and therefore forever separate from others? The family names had never been ours anyway. Women down the ages had been chopped ruthlessly off family trees and grafted onto new ones. Teachers and aunts and uncles frowned at my new signature. People who didn’t sign a surname were suspect, of doubtful provenance. Cheerfully uncaring, I adorned all my examination forms, legal documents, and inland letters with the new signature, bolder and clearer, a symbol of identity.
When I got married, we decided we would both keep our original names. Our names were like old shoes: we had gotten used to them. If this caused more confusion than we liked, we would both change our surnames. We would be radicals, pioneers. We would boldly go where just a few couples had gone before. He favored outlandish superhero names; I preferred something simple but original. Before we could really get down to it, the world came knocking at our door.
My first legal proof of identity, the much awaited driving license, was handed over to me one hot May afternoon. I stood on the roadside, oblivious to the sweltering heat, holding a document that was supposed to prove my identity but had someone else’s name on it. The first name was mine, yes, but why was this followed by someone else’s surname? Although I had filled out my own name on the form, the powers that be had decided I needed another, reflected identity.
It was downhill after that for a while. It took me over a decade to claw my way back to an identity of my own. As for the driving license, I live to fight another day. Besides, I still have my signature.