But first, here’s the background. Ever since Bal Thackeray’s delinquent nephew set himself up as his Uncle’s Mini-Me, Marathi chauvinism has returned to Maharashtra politics. Raj (the Thackeray nephew) first attacked non-Maharashtrians and then made the re-assertion of Marathi identity his platform. Uncle Bal was slow to react but now the Shiv Sena has also joined the campaign. In recent weeks, activists have vandalised signboards that use Bombay rather than Mumbai (as in the Bombay Scottish School, for instance) and the senior Thackeray has written an article urging any entity that still uses ‘Bombay’ to change its name. (Bombay Dyeing should become Mumbai Dyeing and so on.)
This campaign is predicated on the assumption that Bombay is a Maharashtrian city whose name was changed by colonial oppressors or, worse, evil north Indians. To use ‘Mumbai’ is to reclaim the past and to shrug off the insult symbolised in the name ‘Bombay’.
This is a stirring argument when used as election rhetoric. But there is one problem: it is also nonsense.
First of all, whether we like it or not, Bombay is not an ancient Indian city in the sense that, say, Delhi is. It is a colonial creation. There is no record of any city on the site of Bombay before the Europeans got here.
That explains the name. It is generally believed (though there are other theories) that the word ‘Bombay’ comes from a Portuguese phrase which means beautiful bay. This was later anglicised — when the city passed to the British — to Bombay. So Bombay is not a Maharashtrian name. In fact, it is not even an Indian name. And that’s because the city did not exist before colonisation.
So where did ‘Mumbai’ come from? The general view is that it is a corruption of ‘Bombay’. Indians have a tradition of corrupting city names when we use them in different Indian languages. For instance, it is clear that the city of Ahmedabad was named for Sultan Ahmed Shah.
But no Gujarati calls the city Ahmedabad (especially when we are speaking Gujarati). It is always ‘Amdavaad’. Nevertheless, educated Gujaratis do not claim that Amdavaad is the correct name. We recognise that it is a corruption of Ahmedabad. So it is with Bombay. No Hindi speaker says that ‘Bambai’ is the real name. It is a corruption of Bombay. And Mumbai is probably also a corruption.
Nor is Bombay a particularly Maharashtrian city. There’s a reason for that: till 1960, there was no Maharashtra. After Independence in 1947, Bombay became a full-fledged state. The city was its capital and it included much of what we now call Gujarat state (excluding Saurashtra) and today’s Maharashtra (excluding such areas as Marathwada).
The most famous chief minister of Bombay, Morarji Desai, was a Gujarati and there was no sense — till 1960 at least — that Gujaratis had less of a claim to the city than Maharashtrians.
This was not a just a political distinction. It had its roots in the city’s history. Even during colonial times, Bombay was developed by many communities: Gujaratis, Parsis, Muslims (many of them also Gujaratis) and Maharashtrians. All of them regarded the city as their home. No Parsi felt he was a guest in a Maharashtrian city. Bombay’s fabled cosmopolitanism springs from those origins.
When Maharashtra was created, it was largely because of pressure from Maharashtrians. Gujaratis were happy being part of a non-linguistic state. And even then, there was some debate over whether Bombay should be part of Maharashtra or a city-state on its own. Certainly, the population statistics did not support the view that it was a Maharashtrian city. Marathi-speakers were actually a minority in Bombay. So the view that it is a Maharashtrian city and that everybody else is an outsider is not supported by facts.
Then, there’s the problem with the name. The claim that it represents Marathi pride is sought to be substantiated by another claim: that one of the fishing villages that preceded the creation of Bombay was named after a goddess called Mumba Devi.
This is a historically dodgy claim. And even if it is true, so what? We don’t live in that fishing village. We live in one of the world’s great cities.
The view that Mumbai is merely a corruption of Bombay gains strength from another fact which the Thackerays prefer not to highlight: Gujaratis also call the city Mumbai.
It has never occurred to Gujaratis that we do this to honour some long-forgotten goddess. We have always treated ‘Mumbai’ like ‘Amdavaad’ — as a vernacularised version of a name from another language.
So if ‘Mumbai’ means anything, it is as much a symbol of Gujarati pride as it is as an expression of Marathi chauvinism. It’s all very well for Thackeray to insist that the Bombay Stock Exchange (where only a tiny proportion of the members are Maharashtrians) should be renamed the Mumbai Stock Exchange. But if that does happen, it is more likely to be seen as a manifestation of Gujarati pride (the majority of the Exchange’s members are Gujaratis) than of Marathi chauvinism. This is as true of Bombay House or Bombay Dyeing. Parsis are Gujarati speakers, and do not regard Mumbai as a purely Marathi name.
So, if Thackeray goes ahead with this crazy scheme, all he will do is re-emphasise the Gujarati contribution to Bombay. Maharashtrian chauvinism won’t even get a look in.
Why then is Bal Thackeray doing this? In 1980, when he first pushed to change the name of the city, he was able to joke about it. At the time I was editor of Bombay magazine and publicly opposed to the proposal. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “you won’t have to change the name of your magazine to Mumbai.” Over a decade later, when the Centre finally dropped its opposition to the change and Bombay became Mumbai, he was still quite happy to allow the Bombay Stock Exchange and the rest to continue using ‘Bombay’. His own grandson went to Bombay Scottish School.
So, why the change in stance? Surely, Thackeray has seen the example of other cities. Calcutta may now be Kolkata but the CPM is not asking the Calcutta Club to change its name. The Karnataka government is not forcing ‘Bengaluru’ on shops and establishments in Bangalore. Most state governments have worked out that change proceeds at its own pace.
In the 1970s, when Ceylon became Sri Lanka, most of us were startled by the change in name. But now, who refers to the country as Ceylon? The same is true of Iran. Nobody calls it Persia any longer. Change does happen — but in its own time.
On the other hand, the Lankans don’t get hysterical about the use of the term Ceylon tea. The Iranians do not demand that every Persian cat be renamed an Iranian kitten. The historical contexts are all unchanged: it’s still Persian art or a Persian rug.
But the Thackerays don’t understand history — or consistency for that matter. As my colleague Sujata Anandan wrote perceptively in the HT’s Bombay edition on Wednesday, this new-found zeal sits uneasily with Bal Thackeray’s own record: if he’s so keen on Marathi usage, then he should use his real name. It’s Thakre not Thackeray, in the manner of William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair. Not only does Thackeray use the anglicised spelling, he even pronounces it like the English author, who, as far as I know, was not a Marathi manoos.
Worse still, I don’t think that either Bal or Mini-me really care about the issue anyway. They just need a cause that sounds emotive and chauvinistic enough to motivate the goondas in their cadres. Thackeray is now old enough to recognise that this kind of platform is not sufficient to hold a party together in the long run. But faced with the threat from Raj, he’s had to go back to the primitive chauvinism of the Sena’s early years.
It would be a tragedy if the people or the politicians of the city of Bombay allowed this rivalry between uncle and nephew to change the traditions and heritage of this great metropolis. The only way to handle the Thackeray campaign is to hold firm and to tell the old boy to sort out his family disputes in the privacy of his own home.
We are certainly not changing any more names only because he can’t handle his nephew.