The Independent’s move on Bombay: Is Cawnpore next?

  • Sitaraman Shankar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 11, 2016 19:32 IST
Marine Drive, Mumbai’s iconic promenade. A British newspaper plans to revert to the old city name. (Shutterstock)

We ought to be grateful to British newspaper editor Amol Rajan, who has selflessly decided to bear the burden of renaming our financial capital. In case you missed it: For our good, the Indian-origin helmsman of The Independent has decided to roll the clock back 21 years and rename Mumbai with its colonial name, Bombay.

In one deft stroke , he has punished the parochialists who burdened the Portuguese-British gift to our nation with a narrow Indian name that scarcely reflects its proud cosmopolitan heritage; he has also struck out fearlessly against the forces of intolerance that threaten to choke us.

Rajan has defended his move to (a sympathetic) BBC and will publish a note on Saturday to the readers of the Independent.

The Kolkata-born (is it now going to be Calcutta? The suspense is unbearable) Rajan suggests that Mumbai “needs to choose one of its names for international purposes”.

Wait a minute. Unless you have been living under a stone, didn’t that debate end in 1995, when Maharashtra restored the local Maharashtrian name to the city?

That it was the Shiv Sena who did it is neither here nor there; that the Shiv Sena does a lot of nasty things doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this (now, non-existent) debate. Countries and cities can call themselves what they want; Mumbai found easy acceptance internationally, and the change has been stable - there have been no calls to go back to the old name.

Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru may be relatively recent, but all renaming is the reflection of the same nationalist urge: It is just a question of degree. Should we go back to calling Kanpur, Cawnpore? Surely the renaming motive of an imperialist in a foreign land is somewhat less justified (and more obnoxious) than the renaming motive of a nationalist in his own nation?

The BBC interviewer raises the question of how to unravel the city’s long history to “keep everybody happy”. The word “everybody” here ostensibly includes the British and the Portuguese, though why they should be kept happy isn’t obvious. Clearly, this is another onerous burden poor Rajan is expected to assume: He seems to be a dutiful sort of person.

The interviewer, who “feels Rajan’s pain” in this vexatious issue of dealing with renaming names that have been renamed in the first place, also throws in a reference to army junta-named Myanmar, which bait Rajan takes; restoring the old name, in protest against the country’s loss of democracy, could be his next project.

Of course, beyond raising a few hackles, all this should matter only to the readers of the Independent (circulation, a modest 60,000), who will, sooner or later, get the impression they live in a time warp.

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