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“What’s in a name? That which/we call a rose by any other name would/smell just as sweet.” William Shakespeare can be pardoned for his dark age innocence when names were only names and unambiguously signified a unique human identifier.

I am sure Shakespeare never got a passport made and never crossed seas where he had to present himself to immigration authorities that insisted on including father’s name in an individual’s name to preclude the possibility of a duplication.

My Indian passport bears the name that I always thought was my ‘full’ name and was comprised of my ‘Given name’ and ‘Surname’. I, in my deep ignorance, believed that this combination was a sufficiently unique identifier of my existence.

After all a name given to me by my parents and my family name, should make me nominally distinct from practically anyone else I was likely to cross paths with.

The process of acquiring a Resident ID was a rough shake up as it stipulated including one’s father’s full name as ‘middle’ name in one’s own name thereby expanding the ‘full’ name to nearly a disorienting sentence.

Long, stretched names

My compatriots from south India conventionally have their father’s given name and place of their origin included in their rather long names and the local requirement to add father’s full name in their names further stretched their names further.

There are agencies that insist on dividing the names into three distinct portions and qualify them as ‘First’, ‘Middle’ and ‘Last’ name. This presents a challenge to those who have never bothered to acquire a middle name and do not know what to do with the blank box. Conversely, there are those who have multiple middle names, but then some name-seeking portals ignorantly forget to create spaces for the multiple middles.

At the risk of being deemed gender insensitive I must state that ladies’ nomenclature suffers from even greater complexity where some agencies also seek their ‘maiden’ name and then their ‘acquired’ name. Most ladies justifiably demand their maiden family names to be included in their full names so that their premarital identity is not completely extinguished.

But this is not the only addition. There are cultures where convention requires her to include her husband’s name as her ‘middle’ name after her marriage, a feature that now allows her to exclude her family-name from an unmanageably lengthy ‘full’ name.

This man-made conundrum caught my attention when my wife reached the check-in counter of an Airline for a recent travel. The tour operator we had booked with had, in interest of brevity, excluded our ‘middle’ names in the booking document.

Identical pictures, different names 

The airline official refused to accept that my wife, who had on three different documents three different names by three different methods, was the same person. That her picture on all three was identical was of no consequence and it took some desperate convincing to allow her to travel but it set me thinking.

Later, a visit to a popular hypermarket and my inquiries with its inventory manager proved apocalyptic. He revealed that they handled 184 varieties of biscuits and thousands of their daily biscuit sales were completely error-free.

Also, they had over seven thousand items on their inventory whose stock-balances changed every minute. They carried out an inventory assessment every fortnight and additions and deletions of items were large-scale and frequent.

How was it that they never erred and never faced any duplication? Was it not the same with human populations distributed as they are in different geographies, drawing an easy analogy with display shelves of a hypermarket? And just as dynamic as the items on the shelves too, with continuous sales and their timely repletion?

The answer was all so easy to see. It stared me in my face. The only way to achieve a uniform error-free human identification across geographies was by assigning to each of us at birth, along with the name, an ubiquitous array of parallel lines, the bar code.

Dr Rakesh Maggon is a specialist ophthalmologist with an interest in literature