What’s in a surname?

In December 2009, I joined Northumbria University as a PhD student. I had met my first supervisor on day one, and a few days later I went and met my second supervisor.

I was situated in the fourth floor of Ellison building E-block and his office was a couple of floors down. I knocked on the door and I was beckoned in. I said, “Hello Dr Daadbin, I am Balaji Aresh,” he welcomed me with a firm handshake and a quizzical smile and asked, “Uh! Are you from Iran? Your last name sounds Persian.” After a millionth of second of self-doubt I politely protested to my second supervisor who originally is from Iran that I am not and that I am from India. My last name, Aresh, sounded like Arash.

Here is the story of Arash; according to Persian mythology, Arash was a heroic figure who marked the borders between Persia and Tooran, by firing an arrow from a specially constructed bow. I found this interesting and would love to conduct one of those DNA test to find out if I have a Persian ancestry. Alas, that is not how my surname came to be. Usually in South India, your surname would be your father’s first name. And my father’s name is Aresh Balasundaram.

Here is the story of Aresh. My father was born in Walaja, a small town in Tamil Nadu on 27th July 1946, into a family of fine silk saree weavers with my grandfather having some lineage tracing back to Tipu Sultan’s army but that is as much information that my father can recollect. My grandfather was apparently an excellent Indian classical singer too and gave up an opportunity to become an actor in the then Tamil film industry! Unfortunately my grandfather passed away when my father was quite young. And so, in comes his uncle from Bangalore, decides that he can take care and provide education to only one of his brother’s three children, chooses my dad and takes him back to Bangalore. My father’s name at this point was Thirunavukkarasu Balasundaram.

In Bangalore, another one of his uncles was tasked with admitting my father into a school. Wanting to ensure that my father gets educated in English, enrolled him into St. Thomas High School near Ulsoor lake. Now this uncle of his decided that Thirunavukkarasu Balasundaram was too long a name to remember and let alone write for a young boy, registered his name as B.T. Arasu and not knowing the birth day and month supposedly put down his own, that is 10th of April. The administrator went one step ahead and registered his name as Aresh instead of Arasu. This went unnoticed.

My dad soon made friends and one fine afternoon, one of them, Ramakrishnan by name, comes over to my father’s house to teach him how to ride a bicycle. He stops at the gate and shouts out at the top of his voice, “Aresh, Aresh, come out to play”. My father’s uncle clearly irritated that his nap was disturbed, peeps through the window and shouts back that there is no Aresh here, muttering angrily, “Who is this Aresh?”. My father excitedly headed for the front door and unlocked it, ready for his first lesson. “Why are you going?” asked his uncle even more irritated.

My father replied, “I am Aresh”.

Having taught thousands of students in his career in the education industry, in subject areas of Maths and Statistics at all levels, my father, Aresh Balasundaram, retired in 2004, in April rather than July!

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