"I would have preferred a more western name to fit in"
Indian names are beautiful, diverse and often rich with meaning.
Parents from India, or with an Indian background, usually choose their children’s names with cultural value in mind.
Some Indian names are given by a grandparent, chosen from a holy book or even named after the village or town one grew up in.
However, since Indian men and women arrived in Britain in the 50s and 60s, names have gradually become more westernised.
Modern Indian baby names have moved past the extremely traditional (and often unisex) names that were common prior to British colonialism.
Most Indian names are in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi. Some also have roots in Indo-Aryan languages like Sanskrit, along with Persian and Arabic influences.
Many names like Pooja, Rohit, Anjali, and Jai are deemed timeless, with parents still selecting them today.
Furthermore, there are names with a modern twist as parents look for unique names for their babies that are easier to pronounce.
DESIblitz explores what is in an Indian name.
Traditional Naming Conventions
In India, naming conventions varied (and sometimes still do) based upon a person’s religion or region of origin.
The majority of first names in India are intentionally chosen with a specific meaning.
Interestingly, the use of surnames is a relatively new convention, introduced during the British.
For example, the surname ‘Sandhu’ originates from the tribal name ‘Sindhu’ which is the second-largest Jat tribe in the Punjab region.
Originally the name ‘Sindhu’ referred to the Indus river and the area Sindh which it flows through.
When British people travelled across to India in the 1600s, parts of Northern India became accustomed to surnames. They now follow western naming conventions by having a given name followed by a surname.
However, this is not necessarily the case in southern India, where people may adopt a surname out of necessity when migrating or travelling abroad.
Ranveer, aged 78, recalls the time when he first came to the UK in the 60s and how his family had to make up a surname to put on the documents:
“They just used the first part of our town name – it was what everybody did before coming here to work.”
Traditionally, a name with the suffix ‘-walla’ loosely means ‘the trade one’s ancestors practised’. For example, ‘Chaiwalla’ roughly means ‘someone who makes chai (spiced tea)’.
This draws parallels with British surnames which often derive from the family’s professional trade.
For instance, the surname ‘Smith’ and ‘Taylor’ comes from someone in the family being a blacksmith or a tailor.
Moreover, the common surname ‘Patel’ means ‘village headman’ in Gujarati and Marathi. It ultimately derives from Sanskrit ‘pattakila’ meaning ‘tenant of royal land’.
Many Indian names include honorific titles. These are generally based on formal or informal social and religious relations.
Sometimes these titular names stand alone. Other times they are in the form of prefixes, suffixes or replacements.
For example, some names that indicate high status or worship include ‘Guru’ (‘teacher’ or ‘expert’) and ‘Baba’ (a mark of respect towards Hindu and Sikh ascetics but can also mean ‘father’).
The name ‘Raj’ is sometimes used in honorary cases, meaning king or royalty.
This also acts as a common first name.
In addition, ‘Sri’ is traditionally used as veneration for deities or religious figures. However, it can mean ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ followed by the first name.
Furthermore, many Indian names add the gender-neutral honorific suffix ‘-ji’ onto a first name to show respect towards a person, a group or inanimate objects e.g. ‘Madhavji’.
Caste-based Indian Names
Indian names even stem from ancient mythology, religious text and the amalgamation of so many cultures that live together in the sub-continent.
With over 19,500 languages and dialects spoken in India, names can vary from region to region, giving rise to a plethora of interesting baby names.
Many names, however, are based on the outdated caste system. It is still followed culturally, particularly in relation to marriage despite it being outlawed in India.
India’s caste system is a social structure that divides different groups into ranked categories. Members of ‘higher’ castes have a greater social status than individuals of a ‘lower’ caste.
The system appears to have ancient roots. Sanskrit texts from the second millennium refer to a practice of dividing individuals into social groups.
Four main classes emerged but gradually, the caste structure became more complex and was reinforced by the authorities of the British Raj.
The categories set down by colonial administrators persist today. Surnames often derive from the main caste names, six of the most significant include:
- Brahmins – traditionally priests or teachers and now dominate high positions in science, business and government.
- Kshatriyas – the military caste and owners of the land.
- Vaishyas – traditionally cattle-herders, agriculturalists, artisans and merchants.
- Shudras – a historically disadvantaged caste.
- Adivasi – uneducated caste and reside in rural areas.
- Dalits – meaning ‘suppressed’, low-status occupations and considered ‘untouchable’.
Raja Chowdhury, aged 41, discusses the historical significance of his family name.
“My surname comes from Khatris, the warrior caste – namely from my great-grandfather who was in the navy.”
Many Hindus in India have a family name that indicates caste although some have now dropped these names in an attempt to reject the caste system.
Community-based Indian Names
Sikh Punjabi Names
While the caste system remains fairly strong in India, there have been many attempts to eradicate it.
In Sikhism, the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, created the Khalsa in 1699.
The Khalsa is a community of initiated Sikhs.
The Sikh Gurus desired “a society where all people were equal – regardless of gender, caste, religion, or any other social marker that creates divisions between people.”
Hence, people from a background originating in Punjab in India may have a uniform religious name.
For example, people from the Sikh faith adopt a ‘Khalsa’ name as their only surname, usually ‘Singh’ (‘Lion’) for men and ‘Kaur’ (‘Princess’) for women.
Punjab to the UK
This kept with the tradition followed back in Punjab whereby surnames were less common and religious names were used instead.
Nonetheless, in the 70s, the movement began to shift as first-generation British-Punjabi children went to school in the UK.
The common surnames of ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ amassed great confusion by teachers and educational staff.
Almost every child from Punjabi homes had these two surnames.
Therefore, in order to integrate more seamlessly into British schools, families gradually started to register their surname which belonged to their family tree.
In many cases, these surnames reverted back to the use of village names from India or a caste even.
In order to keep the Sikh identity alive, more British born Indian-Punjabis started using ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ as a middle name.
Punjabi surnames of many Indian people living in the UK are still associated with caste.
Often people can tell from a surname, which caste a person is from. Although the hierarchy of caste is not as prevalent as in the earlier decades, surnames still ratify the connection.
A large community in the UK consists of ‘Jats’. So surnames like Sandhu, Deol, Dhillon, Bhandal, Cheema, Dhariwal, Dosanjh, Lally, Bains, Garewal, Johal, Kandola, Kooner, Mahal and Sanghera are all examples.
Other Punjabi castes such as ‘tharkan’ or ‘chamar’ have popular surnames like Bhamra, Sagoo, Jandhu, Bansal, Virk, Jhutti, Das, Ram and Devi.
This naming convention follows most of the castes still acknowledged by Punjabi people.
Jasbir Sandhu, from Birmingham, states:
“Although increasing awareness and the drive to eradicate caste is a positive movement, there are still many people living in the UK who are proud of their caste.
Most Indian communities from different castes living in Britain have formed their own sub-communities. For example, ironically, even having separate Sikh gurudwaras.”
“Most of us from the 70s could quickly tell people from different castes from their surnames.
“Therefore, the surname acts as a kind of protection mechanism of your own sub-community.”
“Hence, rishtas or weddings between different castes are still frowned upon by some and not accepted.”
Other Indian Names
Similar to the Punjabi names, many people who came from the Gujarati community who settled in the UK from India or East Africa, also had common names.
Last names like Patel, Shah, Solanki, Chauhan or Mistry were very popular for young people in the 70s to 90s.
These were all mainly associated with caste or family background.
Most people from within the Gujarati communities were still very accepting of these names and continued with the tradition.
Bina Shah, from Bradford, says:
“I was always told by my family that we are from the ‘Shah’ clan.
“The caste system plays a strong role in Gujarati communities in the UK, as it does for Punjabis.
“Has it made a difference to me, personally? Don’t think so, apart from my name being easy to say.”
Indians from other faith backgrounds also retained their surnames based on family backgrounds.
Zahid Khan, from Leeds, expresses:
“Being an Indian Muslim born in England and having a name like Khan would always associate me with being Pakistani.
“When I would explain it to people. They would often look at me oddly after!
“There are a lot of Indian Muslims living in Britain but the independence of Indian and Pakistan has left a stain on how we are received within communities.”
Bhagyasri Deshpande, from Manchester, says:
“Being a Hindu, I was always proud of the name my parents gave me.
“But getting people of non-Indian and even Asian backgrounds was always a problem when it came to saying or spelling it.
“I suppose I would not have the same problem if I was called Bina or something.
“But it should not matter. Your name is your label to the world. So, why should you not be own it with pride?”
Indian Names and Bullying
When the children of Indian parents were first being born in the UK, their first names usually reflected their heritage.
Parents stuck to Desi-sounding names in order to uphold tradition and try to ensure their roots were not forgotten.
Many Indian first names were unisex and ended in ‘-inder’, ‘jit’, ‘preet’ or ‘dip’.
Kuljit, based in Northamptonshire reports that she felt conscious of her first name growing up:
“As first-generation Indians, my sisters and I all have very traditional names which was not well received by our peers.
“Kids would make fun of your name and some would not want to play with you because you were different”.
She does believe opinions towards traditional Indian names have progressed over the years. There has been a growth of different ethnic minorities in the UK, thus acceptance has grown.
However, Kuljit notes that children are still being bullied, particularly in the north of the UK for their Indian names, turbans and ‘different’ appearance.
Difficult to Pronounce
Rugby-based Amandip expresses that while she always liked her name, the issue was the pronunciation:
“I hated it at school as the spelling did not match the pronunciation, I got tired of correcting people”.
Many others are in agreement with the hardships and bullying that came along with having a name that people couldn’t pronounce.
People even went as far as name-calling using profanity, rhyming Indian names that ended in ‘jit’ with ‘sh*t’.
This lead to a host of self-esteem issues, loneliness and isolation for many children.
Harinder Chandi, based in London, feels that her name is not difficult to pronounce. She says “what you see is how you pronounce it” – in the same way you would say the name “Belinda”.
However, she notes how teachers and peers at school would “struggle or say something else entirely”. Furthermore, she states:
“I’m not fond of the name.
“I always knew it was a Desi name and I would have preferred a more western name to fit in when I was young”.
Similarly, Inderjit Jutla, based in Northampton felt “a little embarrassed” by her name, feeling discouraged as other kids made fun of it.
It shows how even decades after leaving school, bullying leaves an imprint on people.
Impact on Job Applications
If racism due to skin colour is not enough, names that are not ‘British’ enough on a job application can also create barriers.
There have been many undercover experiments carried out to prove that this happens.
Non-English people have applied for jobs with British names instead of their own and got interviews for the same jobs that they got no response for before.
UK Deed Poll’s Conrad Braithwaite, an organisation that helps people change their name legally says that thousands of people from the UK change their names to more ‘English’ ones or new ones. Most are by ethnic minorities trying to tackle job discrimination.
Hence, showing that having a foreign name can impact job prospects, depending on the type of job and the level.
With many Indian names which are difficult to pronounce or write, they can also be a target for this kind of discrimination.
The Trend of British First names
Issues such as racism and the fear of future bullying of children also led to a time in the 70s and 80s where many newborns from Indian communities in the UK were given British first names.
This trend especially impacted boys more than girls. Popular names given to them included ‘Peter’, ‘Steven’, ‘Michael’, ‘Paul’ and ‘David’.
So, it was not odd to hear someone called ‘Steven Singh’ or ‘Paul Kapoor’.
As to whether giving these name to children helped them or even hindered them is difficult to say since there are no real statistics which reveal such measures.
But this also gave an opportunity for the people with these to be quizzed as to why they had a British first name as well.
Michael Patel, who was born in the 70s says:
“I have often wondered why I was called Michael compared to other Indian lads in my school.
“My parents said it was to ‘make my life easier’ living in the UK”
“But I wonder if it has or not… Because my skin is brown and I am of still Indian origin.”
Some girls had names such as ‘Jayne’, ‘Sheila’ and ‘Monika’ as well. The aim of these names was typically again to allow easier pronunciations.
Sheila Mistry who was born in the 80s adds:
“I was often asked at school why I was called Sheila when my parents were both Indian.
“I never really had an answer to tell people. Usually, it would be what my parents decided to call me.
“But has it helped me? Well, I guess it is easier to say than a complicated Indian name.”
Influences of Faith and Culture
Names caused most first-generation British-Indians to struggle to fit into western society.
In order to prevent this from happening to their own children, most have made conscious decisions about their own baby names.
Most parents want names that are easy to pronounce, sound trendy and work well in India and abroad.
Does this mean that second-generation British-Indians are more distanced from their heritage?
Sarbjit, from London, followed a more traditional route in that her mother chose one of her sons’ names.
Her in-laws chose her other son’s name by going to the Gurdwara and picking a letter from the Sikh scriptures.
For Harinder Chandi, it was important that her twin sons’ names were easy to pronounce at school, unlike her own name. She anxiously says:
“I wanted people from England and India to pronounce their names comfortably without being too Anglicised”.
It was crucial to her and her husband that the children’s middle names were ‘Singh’ in order to uphold their historical culture of being from a Punjabi-Sikh background.
Similarly, Kuljit named her daughter ‘Sahara’ which she felt was a good mix of east and west – unique yet easy to pronounce. Having ‘Kaur’ in her name also serves as a reminder of her history as a Sikh.
In addition, Mindy Mehat felt it was important that her sons have the middle name ‘Singh’, declaring:
“Our children are born in first world countries so I feel it’s important they are connected.
“They need to know they are Sikh and what this means – even if it’s an adapted version”.
Alternatively, Amandip did not want to include ‘Singh’ in her sons’ names because they were not baptised Sikhs. However, for her husband, it was important that they share a middle name.
Keeping the Faith
Sameena Ahmed, a British-Indian woman, feels her faith supersedes the place you live in.
“I wanted my children to have good, well-known Muslim names which re-iterated their faith and the culture they come from.
“My sons were named Afsal, Ali and Hamza. My daughter was called Maira and they have all be confident to carry them into the world.”
Jayesh Solanki, a practising British Hindu, reveals:
“The use of English overall is impacting our Indian languages. Look at India. Even English is becoming popular over there.
“Having an Indian name is the only thing left that can connect you to your origin, roots and the faith you come from.
“Therefore, it is important to preserve our names for the sake of our rich culture and significant heritage. Even in Britain.”
Will Indian Names ever be Accepted?
Kamel Sanghera from Glasgow does not feel things have progressed too much because people still don’t pronounce her son ‘Gursewak’s’ name correctly.
Aayushmaan Thackrey, from Coventry, claims:
“Having a short and easy name to say can be useful. But there are many names that are even more complicated than Indian ones.
“So, we should not force ourselves to change just to make life easier for non-Asians. Should we?
“Because they would not do the same if it was the other way round? The British Raj is an example of this.”
Dev Mistry aka Dave Mistry, from Wembly, discloses:
“Most people started to call me Dave instead of Dev despite how short it was.
“At first my parents were not happy but I didn’t mind. It then just stuck so they got used to it.
“It does make it easier I have to admit.”
This suggests that things may have progressed more in the South of the UK as opposed to Northern regions.
Tradition and Modernity
It’s possible that Indian names in the UK are evolving. Names that look and possibly sound western, yet still represent culture, tradition and religion.
Living in multicultural Britain, it is clear that some parents are seeking names that mix the Indian identity with the British, based on their own negative school experiences.
They don’t want the names of their children to hinder their growth, so are favouring a unique blend.
However, this does not mean that every British born Indian feels this way.
There are many Indians still very much proud of traditional names and the meaning behind them, which are highly valued.
For them, they feel the problem does not lie with having good Indian names but the people on the other side who cannot pronounce or write them correctly.
So, should the awareness of this kind of ‘name prejudice’ increase? Should people ‘insist’ to have their names accepted like anyone else?
The future of Indian names in the UK lies with new generations. If preservation and heritage are important to them, then Indian names shall still have their place.
If not, then hybrid names or further anglicising of Indian names will continue to make headway for a new generation of names at the expense of Indian names that have meaning and substance.