Forget inflation. Forget the economic slowdown. Forget terrorism. The big question that has every political activist in Mumbai on tenterhooks is whether Uddhav Thackeray’s new strategy of targeting establishments that still have “Bombay” in their names, such as the Bombay Stock Exchange, Bombay Dyeing or the well-known school Bombay Scottish, will successfully counter his cousin Raj’s “Bash up North Indians” strategy. That was the subject of a heated discussion I had with a few friendly neighbourhood goons in the hallowed precincts of Bombay, oops, Mumbai Gymkhana, while we devoured platefuls of the local fish, Bombay… er… Mumbai duck.
“What’s in a name?” I asked them, kicking off the discussion, “That which we call Bombay, by any other name would smell as foul.” “That’s Romeo and Juliet,” smirked a pedantic thug, swiftly countering it with “He that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.” “Iago, in Othello, the Moor of Venice,” he explained smugly. A saner goon with a saffron headband said they had a tough time finding firms that had “Bombay” in their names, until one bright spark suggested they use the telephone directory. But not everyone seemed convinced. A brawny gangster looked longingly at an undersized Bihari waiter, before sighing and resuming his meal.
“We’re really short of businesses that use the name ‘Bombay,’ ” added a guy in a pink safari suit. “Just yesterday, a friend took pity on us and changed the name of his shop from ‘Benares Paan and Bidi Corner’ to ‘Bombay Paan and Bidi Corner’ so that we could go and break it up. The shop was insured, of course.” But a grizzled veteran in khaki shorts said everything was going according to plan. “People have got so scared of us they’re changing their signboards everywhere. Did you know that Bombay Grill in New York will now be known as Mumbai Grill?” But he agreed sorrowfully the initial reports that panic-stricken inhabitants of Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh had changed the name of their town to Mumdila were unfounded. “The good news,” he said, “is that the Bay of Bengal will soon become the Bai of Bengal.”
But a shifty-eyed politico said gloomily, “While we run out of places to rename, our rivals will never run out of North Indians to bash.” The learned thug said that William of Occam, a Franciscan friar in the Middle Ages, had propounded a theory known as Occam’s razor. “What he essentially said was that the simplest solution was the best. There’s an appealing simplicity to Raj’s solution. Select North Indian, whack him with stick, smile for photograph. So much better than searching for Bombay.”
Yet khaki shorts doggedly stuck to his guns. “We also have an economic programme, setting up stalls for people selling vada pav,” he informed me. “Bollywood’s prosperity is founded upon a steady diet of vada pav,” he added. “There has hardly been a star who wasn’t a struggling actor once, sleeping rough on Mumbai’s footpaths and making do with a piece of fried potato wrapped in bread that goes by the name of vada pav. It accounts for the explosive mixture of energy and gas that is so quintessentially Bollywood.” The pedantic one explained that this was political economy — the politics being the renaming of Bombay, while the vada pav provided the economics.
The saffron headband suggested enlarging the scope of operations to removing all English signs. “Why?” he asked rhetorically, shouldn’t a movie like Father of the Bride be called Dulhan ka Baap? I pointed to the example of a political outfit known as Amra Bangali (We are Bengalis) in Kolkata in the eighties, whose sole occupation was blackening all English signs at railway stations with a liberal dash of tar. It turned out later the head of the party was a gentleman from Rajasthan who owned a tar factory.
It was plain they didn’t like that story — even though I was footing the bill for the meal, the situation could get ugly. So I decided to make amends by helping them out. “Do you guys know that the place where the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre is located is still called Trombay?” I said. They gasped and goggled. “But that’s in Turbhe,” blurted the brawny goon. “Precisely,” I said, “but they still call it Trombay. I think the least you can do is change it to Trumbai.”
As they got up to rush to Trombay, one of them asked me to look on the bright side. “Just think,” he said, “if these Uttar Bharatiyas had their way, this place would have been Bum-Bai.”
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint