In the English speaking world, people’s last names are often indicative of what their ancestors did, such as in Baker, Smith (for blacksmith), Fletcher (arrow maker), Taylor (tailor), etc.
Borrowing from this tradition of insults, whose name evokes the original profession of the family, the Parsis have their Battliwalas, their Daruwalas, and, among the most memorable by their polysyllabic specificity, the Sodabottleopenerwalas.
But other Indian surnames are not as clearly descriptive of the occupational or geographic backgrounds of their owners. For example, I did not know until I was sent a list of surnames and their roots, that Malhotra and Mehrotra, are the two forms of Mehra, “chief” or “master” in Punjabi.
Khannas, apparently, comes from a small place near Ludhiana called Khanna, which means a quarter, as the place was only a quarter the size of an ordinary town.
Deshpandes and Deshmukhs were case officials at the district level and Kulkarnis did the same in the villages.
The Agrawals are said to be the descendants of the legendary king Agrasena, and should not be confused with the Agarwals who trace their ancestors back to the ancient city of Agar, near present-day Ujjain.
There seems to be some uncertainty as to whether the Yadav got their name from traditional cowherds or, as some claim, descended from a mythological king Yadu.
There is also an ambiguity about the origins of my last name. Does Suraiya – or Saraiya – refer to an ancestry of people who kept sarais, or taverns for travelers? Or do I come from a line of potters who made surahis, or earthenware pots to store water and keep it cool, even in the mid-summer furnace fire?
My older sister Babiben disagreed with both etymologies and said that our name comes from the Hindi word surak, for hole, and that our ancestors pierced the ears and nostrils of people who wanted to wear earrings. ears or noses.
That’s the thing with Indian names. No one knows for sure. Or, in my case, the nose for sure.
This article is meant to make you smile. Any connection to real life events and characters is a coincidence.
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