Poorna and her late husband, Rob
Poorna and her late husband, Rob

LIFE HONESTLY

Now he’s gone, should I give up my late husband’s name?

Poorna Bell changed her surname after she got married. Could it define her for ever?

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By Poorna Bell on

The first time I took another boy’s name, I was 14. The words “Mrs Dan Cox” were scrawled all over my blue General Note Book. (He didn’t even know I was alive.) My friends had similar notebooks, with the names of different boys circled in red hearts. I doubt the boys down the road were doing the same; they were probably tongueing whoever was available in Smokers Alley, the patch of land that separated our two schools.

Ten years on, over violently blue fishbowl cocktails, I found myself discussing with my female friends whether we’d change our surnames when we got married. I adamantly said I wouldn’t. It felt like a betrayal of women’s rights, and I didn’t see why I should have to give up a name I’d had all my life when a guy didn’t have to. But also I think it was because Shakespeare was wrong. There’s a lot in a name, and especially when you come from a non-Western culture. A name can immediately tell you many things – what area of the country your parents are from, your religion, your historical context.

My maiden name was Shetty, and I was very proud to be a Shetty. Shettys come from the South of India, we are usually clever (admittedly not humble); most of us end up working in the professions as doctors or lawyers. We can get a bit fighty after a few whiskies but the women especially have a particular mould – resilient, strong, fiery, warm, kind. So of course, while drinking fishbowls and tripping from one crappy relationship to the next, I couldn’t imagine giving my name up for some guy.

But four years after that conversation, I met Rob, who confounded my expectations of men, and surprised me so much, I agreed to marry him despite not ever really being bothered about getting married. When we discussed it, I said: “So, I expect you think I’m taking your name?’ He just looked at me with this casual, easy way of his, and said: “Honey, it’s your name. And you choose to do whatever you feel is right.” And in that moment I knew I was going to take his name. Because it didn’t mean that I was giving up being a Shetty. It meant I was capable of making my life experience something bigger. And because I knew I was marrying someone who respected my family, and who wouldn’t ever force me to do something I didn’t want to, I wanted to honour that.

And I knew this was the only person I ever wanted to spend the rest of my life with so why would it matter?

But I imagine a lot of people’s fairytales begin like that – with utmost hope and expectation. Why get married if you’re going to be Eeyore-ish about the outcome? The reality, of course, is that a lot of marriages don’t end the way they should: old, wrinkly, a life well lived together. A lot of them succumb to divorce, or in my case – less common – your spouse dies young and you are left to ponder: “What’s in a name?”

It was my married name, and I was no longer married…but my maiden name was like a stranger’s house and the locks were changed

When the ending is acrimonious, that’s easier: changing your name back to its original form is a powerful way of reclaiming who you were. But when the ending is sorrowful yet respectful of the love you once had for each other, where does that leave you?

It’s a question I was asked a lot in the first year after Rob died. Was I changing my name? Vehemently I said no, but it was also complicated. It was my married name, and I was no longer married…but my maiden name was like a stranger’s house and the locks were changed. I am no longer that person anymore. And I felt by changing my name, I was erasing him from my life, when the absence of him was already so huge.

There was also brutal practicality to consider. I changed my name before my career took off and now I was expected to change it to a nobody’s name, as if it was a pair of socks? But on the other hand, this huge, life-changing thing had happened and it was fighting between my work and personal life.

A colleague, who swapped her maiden name for something a lot harder to pronounce, was left wondering the same after her divorce.  At the time, as it did for me, it seemed like such a monumental deal. It seemed like one of the most important decisions she could ever make. Was she going to be saddled with this painful reminder that it didn’t work out? This name that signified a future where now there was none? In the end, she kept her married name.

When the break-up is raw, and you want to banish everything and anything that reminds you of them, because when the grief and sadness is too weighty an anchor, it’s tempting to reach for the things within your control. And like a radical new haircut, a name is certainly one of them. But the thing I realised, is that yes, names are powerful things. But whatever power we have is what we give them, and it is possible to shape that into something with a different purpose and meaning.

Some might say – well why bother with changing it in the first place? I understand people are worried about losing themselves but I think we’re capable of a bigger experience than that. That it is possible to be all of those things – the girl who wrote boys’ names on a notebook, the woman who held a man’s hand while they said their vows, the wife who buried her husband – and still be yourself.

Someone asked me if I got remarried, would I change it again? And I think quite possibly if that happens, I would. Because my name is a capture of who I was, who I am and where I am going. And I don’t think Rob – as proud as he was that I took his name – would want me to not move forward.

Sali Hughes is away

@poornabell

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Poorna and her late husband, Rob
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