When I was living in Toronto with my landlady and good friend Elizabeth Chen, I would often pick up the home phone to find a Mandarin speaker on the other end. Since Elizabeth doesn't speak Mandarin, I soon learned that these calls were from banks trying to reach out to new immigrants. They identified their potential customers by scouring the phonebook for (in this case) Chinese names and calling them. I quite enjoyed taking these calls, as while fending off the eager bankers I could practice my Mandarin.
When I lived in the dorm/hostel, it was my turn to be targeted by these bankers, but this time in Tamil. The conversation (in Tamil) would go something like this.
"Hello, can I speak to Srinivasan?"
"This is Devyani Srinivasan speaking."
"Is he there?"
"Is who there?"
"I am Srinivasan - Devyani Srinivasan."
This conversation would repeat itself at least a few times on each occasion.
Part of the confusion arises from the fact that, like many South Indians, we don't really have a family name. Srinivasan is my father's first name, which has become my mother's and my family name. However, this is also common practice, and I'm sure the Tamil banker was aware of it. The bigger problem is that there's an underlying assumption that a woman cannot be living on her own, without a husband or a father. And of course, that banking matters must be discussed with the man of the household.
Fast forward to Chennai, 5 years later. The census ladies come to our house. They ask who the head of the household is and I say, "Devyani Srinivasan" because a) I don't see why a woman can't be the head of the house and b) I thought they wouldn't be interested in my husband because he's a foreigner. So under head of the house they put, "Srinivasan".
Then they ask who the parents of the head of the house are, so I say, "T.V. and Sujata Srinivasan". But we all realize that this isn't the right answer when we move to the next line, and they ask who my parents are. So since the only other Srinivasan I know is my father, in the first line I put down his parents.
By now I have managed to explain that there are only two of us living in this house, my husband and I, and my husband is a foreigner. The census ladies then decide that between the two, having a foreigner as the head of the household is a lesser evil than having a woman. So they put down Patrik Oskarsson as the head of the household. However by this time they are too exhausted to start writing down the names of the parents again, so they leave it as, "Head of the household: Patrik Oskarsson, Parents of head of the household: T.R.V. and Vembu Chari". So my father and husband are now brothers!
I have a friend who used to work for the census, and she claims that it is possible to have a woman as head of the household. But if it is only possible in cases where there is no trace of a man around, what about families where men migrate for wage labor, and women are de facto heads? If we don't even record this information, how can we begin to know what the issues and conditions are that these households face?