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Why names matter

By persisting with our nomenclatural obduracy, all we’ve succeeded in doing is make it more difficult for people to talk about our great cities, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jun 07, 2008 20:54 IST

Can one force a name-change on people? My answer is no matter how hard you persist, it’s very difficult and, in some cases, it’s silly to even try. An individual can change his or her name by a deed poll and ensure everyone accepts it. But for cities, particularly old, established, well-known ones, it’s impossible and self-defeating.

<b1>From their inception, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras have been known by these names. They represent their history, personality and identity. More importantly, these cities were never anything other than Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The villages that pre-dated them cannot claim to be their forebears. That would be like insisting New York has its roots in the Iroquois Indian settlements that once existed on Manhattan Island and should be re-named after them!

Today, of course, these cities are officially called Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. It’s too late to quarrel with that or revert to their original names. But why can’t we, unofficially, in our colloquial conversations, in our shop names and business labels and, particularly, when talking of their style and stamp, call them Bombay, Calcutta and Madras?

To do so would not be offensive to Maharashtrian, Bengali or Tamil pride. Nor would it be acceptance of a colonial past — although, how can you say you won’t accept it? And it’s certainly not any form of political incorrectness. On the contrary, it’s acknowledging a reality.

After all, have we forgotten the short and unsatisfactory histories of Leningrad and Stalingrad? Despite the full force of the Soviet state, the names never stuck. The cities always were — and now, once again, are — St. Petersburg and Volgagrad.

Perhaps, one day — as happened in the case of Beijing or Mesopotamia and Persia before that — the new names may replace the old. Or maybe they won’t. But till that day, why can’t we accept both? Surely, this is plain, simple common sense.

However, if this is too radical a suggestion, let me offer an alternative. If you want, insist the cities are called Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai in Marathi, Bengali and Tamil — and maybe all the other Indian languages as well. But in English, the language the world speaks, let Bombay, Calcutta and Madras continue.

Don’t simply think of this as a compromise. It is, after all, the accepted convention the world over. No Italian calls Florence Firenze or Venice Venezia in English. Similarly, the Russians call their capital Moscow not Moskva, the Germans say Munich not Munchen, the Czech Prague not Praha and the Austrians Vienna not Wien. Even the Spanish alter the pronunciation of Madrid. Indeed, the fussy French too!

And don’t tell me this is because these are relatively new countries and that ancient civilisations cannot accept a similar practice. Egypt, by far the oldest civilisation — and appreciably older than ours — is happy for El-Qahira to be Cairo in English. Actually, the city is far better known by the latter rather than the Arab name.

By persisting with our nomenclatural obduracy, all we’ve succeeded in doing is make it more difficult for people to talk about our great cities. Their names no longer trip off the tongue. Instead, they have to pause, occasionally try hard to remember and then struggle to pronounce. And the truth is this cumbersome process puts them off. At the end of the day, that may not matter very much to them. But can you really say the same for us?

My advice to Maharashtrian, Bengali and Tamil chauvinists is ask yourselves a simple question: which is in your greater interest, to force the new names on everyone and irritate, if not annoy them, or to accept that, in English at least, it will take time for their familiarity to be established and, till then, rejoice in the fame and popularity of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras? Think carefully about your answer. If you get it wrong, you could end up cutting your noses to spite your own face!