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The Naming Game

Given that nobody ever uses the new names given to all cities, what is the point of this exercise? Seema Goswami finds out why...

art and culture Updated: Dec 15, 2008 15:14 IST
Spectator | Seema Goswami

What’s in a name? We have been assured that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And of course it would. Except that this misses the point somewhat. The truth is that names do matter. Think about it. We would have a hell of time locating a street, a city, or even a country if we didn’t get the name right.

This was brought home to me by recent events in Mumbai. Soon after the terror attacks ended and the endless recriminations began, reliable sources had it that the transcripts of the terrorist intercepts had indicated that they were going to attack a target on Mathuradas Vassanji Road.

At the time, this information caused some confusion among the ranks. Nobody could quite figure out where Mathuradas Vassanji Road was. It took some time before it was traced: this was the road on which the Taj Mahal Hotel and Towers is located. But such is the pre-eminence of the Taj that it is regarded as a landmark in itself; nobody even knew the new name of the road on which it stood.

This confusion is not just restricted to our intelligence agencies or even officialdom. It affects all of us and is exacerbated by the fact that place names are forever being changed around us in some sort of nod to political correctness. In fact, as the first reports of firing at a train station came in, I couldn’t quite figure out the location myself. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus? CST? Where was that? It’s only when a report referred to it by its historic name of Victoria Terminus – VT to everyone in Mumbai – did the penny drop.

So widespread was the confusion that it even percolated down to the international media, which couldn’t quite make up its mind as to whether the terror attacks took place in Bombay or Mumbai. Some used one name, some the other, and then there were those who alternated between the two, clearly unable to make up their minds.

It took the London Times to address the issue head on. The front page of its 29 November issue had the headline: Bloody End to the Siege of Bombay. But inside, in a column headed Feedback, Sally Baker wrote that after considerable discussion the Times had decided to change the house style to Mumbai. The paper had always referred to the city as Bombay, wrote Baker, because it was assumed that most of its readers were familiar with that name. But now, after the terror attacks and the endless coverage, Mumbai was more recognizable. Hence, the change.

I’m sure all of us can identify with this confusion. Even now, so many years after the name change, it is still hard for me to think of Bombay as Mumbai. We all use the new official name when we write about it, but in our hearts and minds, the city will always live on as Bombay.

It’s much the same story with the city I grew up in: Calcutta. The commissars may have renamed it Kolkata (which is how you would pronounce Calcutta in Bengali) as a sop to regional chauvinism but the city will always be Calcutta – or the more affectionate diminutive Cal – to me.

But then, this is a city that clings to its old place names with stubborn obduracy. Park Street is still Park Street; Chowringhee is still Chowringhee; Esplanade is still Esplanade. It doesn’t really matter that all these places have been renamed by the powers that be.

We still refer to them by the old familiar names we grew up with. Of course, this compulsive renaming does have its moments. Where else but in Cal would you find the American consulate situated on Ho Chi Minh Sarani? Clearly, some comrade somewhere had a sense of humour!

In Delhi, too, we have had the usual renaming of old colonial landmarks with new home-grown names. Some years ago, Mani Shankar Aiyar ran a campaign to rename Connaught Place – the hub of New Delhi before its epicenter shifted to Khan Market – as Rajiv Gandhi Chowk. But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who calls it by that name. Connaught Place is still called Connaught Place, or as old Delhi hands would have it: CP.

Despite the failure of such new names to catch on, the re-naming game continues apace. So Bangalore is now called Bengaluru; Cochin is called Kochi; Calicut is called Kozikhode; Baroda is called Vadodara; Trivandrum is called Thiruvanthapurum. It is, of course, another matter that nobody ever refers to these cities by these new names.

So, honestly, why do we bother? There is no denying that names have an emotional resonance and even intellectual baggage. So, Mumbai is a bow to Marathi chauvinism just as Kolkata is a salve to wounded Bengali pride; Bengaluru is a slap in the face of those north Indians who can’t be bothered to pronounce south Indian place names properly; and Vadodara is a monument to Gujarati asmita.

But given that nobody ever uses these names, what is the point of this exercise? I certainly can’t see the point. Can you?