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You’re what the world calls you

Changing anglicised names of places to their earthy originals is plain identity politics. Pratik Kanjilal elaborates.

columns Updated: Jan 08, 2010 21:24 IST

I’m visiting coastal Orissa (sorry, Odisha) after a decade. Two grisly images still remain with me from my last visit, shortly after the devastating cyclone of 1999 — a human skeleton in a rice-field in Jagatsinghpur, its arms stretched wide as if to embrace the sky, and a rock which rolled strangely underfoot and turned out to be a skull.

The current iconography is more cheerful. Driving out of Bhubaneswar airport, the biggest billboard in sight has Vedanta declaring that it is “mining happiness for the people of Orissa”. On the highway to Cuttack, Posco says: “Steel in every step. Song in every heart.” Spin doctors’ spells for countering strong NGO magic — activists accuse mining companies of being market neo-colonialists who displace tribals from their mineral-rich lands. Alas, the spells aren’t working. Their unctuous smugness betrays terrible insecurities. What they’re really saying is: “Please stop beating us. It hurts.”

But I don’t see the signage I’m looking for, proclaiming that Orissa has ceased to exist by constitutional fiat and that I am now in Odisha. The government buildings, including the imposing State Archives, are still located in Orissa. Their signboards say so. Mumbai and Kolkata announced their change of state with the vehemence typical of the right and the left. Odisha arrived quietly and is waiting enigmatically to be acknowledged.

Maybe it’s because of an element of uncertainty. Odisha has competition. It is derived from an indubitably ancient tribal name, but there’s also Utkal — the state university is named for it — and Kalinga, a name which resounds through history from the Mahabharata era down to the late Middle Ages. A certain war is named for it, in the course of which the emperor of bloodthirsty Magadha, so terrifyingly depicted in the Arthashastra, converted to the Eightfold Path and became the most influential missionary of peace in all of human history.

But the reach of Ashoka’s evangelism was outshone by the vast political, cultural and commercial domain claimed by Kalinga. After the nation rose from the ashes of the war under the stewardship of Kharavela in the 2nd century BCE, its ports, especially Pulicat, became springboards for building a commercial empire in Southeast Asia. Kalinga is the reason why so much of the East bears recognisably Indian names — Singapore (Singhapura), Irrawaddy (Iravati), Borneo (Varuna) and Kampuchea (Kamboja), for instance. And the Tamils there are called ‘Kelings’, for Kalinga. The word is derogatory in Malaysia because the original Kelings were impossibly rich and therefore disliked, like Jewish and Marwari traders, and recently there was an agitation to get it expurgated from the Malay dictionary.

Place names and the demonyms they give rise to can have tricky histories. It appears that Tamil merchant princes — colleagues of Ilango Adigal, perhaps — travelled overland to Kalinga to take ship for Southeast Asia, where they were identified as Kelings. Just as centuries later, when Calcutta (sorry, Kolkata) became the eastern shipping hub, upcountry Punjabis sailed from there to Malaysia and were welcomed as Bengalis. To their disgust, no doubt, and the disgust of Bengalis too.

Changing place names from Anglicised corruptions to pristine, earthy originals is an act of identity politics. But it’s futile because you are not what you call yourself. You are what the world calls you.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal