I am glad that finally a legal luminary of the stature of Soli Sorabjee has said with absolute finality that ‘Bombay is not a dirty word’. It never was and never will be.
For, in fact, the origin of the word ‘Bom’ is Portuguese, which means ‘good’ (bay standing for port). The Portuguese had seized possession of the original seven islands from its ruler Shah Mohammad Sultan in the 16th century and had gifted the pieces of land as dowry to Charles II of Britain when he married Catherine of Braganza some years later. The British did not feel the need to change the name of the city, either. It was not a corruption of Mumba Devi, the resident deity of ‘Mumbai’, as the Shiv Sena would have us believe.
Last week, though, the editor of the London-based The Independent, Amol Rajan, said, “The whole point of Bombay is of an open, cosmopolitan port city ... If you call it what Hindu nationalists want you to call it, you essentially do their work for them.” While I do not quite agree with the latter half of his statement, I am in tune with the first. Bombay went from being the smart financial capital of India to a somewhat dog-eared city in the years since the first Shiv Sena-BJP government effected the name change. But I have steadfastly refused to refer to it as Mumbai when writing in English, and I have good reasons for it.
There would not be so much heartburn over this name change by the Shiv Sena — and here is my reason — had there not been so much hypocrisy involved in the decolonisation of various nomenclatures, starting with how the Thackerays spell their own name. Not just that. My reason also flows from how Thackeray referred to himself in English — Thack-e-ray, the ‘thack’ rhyming with ‘hack’. During a half-hour interview with me before his government came to power, he referred to himself and his family thus at least six times. But when, in 1995, the first thing he insisted on was the change of name from Bombay to Mumbai, I thought he would lead by example and change the spelling of his name in English to ‘Thakre’. When that did not happen, even as the Shiv Sena went on the rampage attempting to force Bombay Dyeing and Bombay Scottish School to switch to ‘Mumbai’, I could not help pointing to the hypocrisy of it all. For, it was Thackeray’s illustrious father, Prabodhankar Thackeray, a reformist and writer, who had anglicised his name as a tribute to the Indian-born British writer William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair), whom he admired.
Hindu nationalist sentiment was definitely involved in Thackeray’s attempt to change the name of Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar, after Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son, who was brutally put to death by the Mughal emperor (the Supreme Court struck that name change down) but I believe there need not have been so much fuss about changing the name of Bombay to Mumbai but for this continuing hypocrisy. Decolonisation, after all, led Ceylon to change its name to Sri Lanka, Peking to Beijing and Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. But if decolonisation was the ideal, why not ‘Thackeray’ to ‘Thakre’? ‘Thakre’ is no dirty word either -- it is a wholesome Maharashtrian name, after all, and many proudly bear it.
Changing Calcutta to Kolkata, Madras to Chennai and Bangalore to Bengaluru has been accomplished - and accepted - with minimum fuss. No one even bothers if Pune is referred to as ‘Poona’ in anything except postal addresses and official documents.
But, I believe, the controversy over ‘Bombay’ will continue to rage until the Thackerays embrace ‘Thakre’ full and square.