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Bombay to Mumbai, or else...

Now that the Bombay/ Mumbai controversy has returned to the headlines, thanks to the Maharashtra elections, this may be a good time to examine the whole issue of the naming and renaming of places, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2009 01:20 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Now that the Bombay/ Mumbai controversy has returned to the headlines, thanks to the Maharashtra elections, this may be a good time to examine the whole issue of the naming and renaming of places.

But first, let’s get the Mumbai/ Bombay row out of the way. The argument for the use of Mumbai over Bombay is usually phrased in the following terms. First, Mumbai is the city’s original name; Bombay is a Raj-era corruption. Second, Mumbai/ Bombay was created by Maharashtrians. And third, that therefore we should use their name for their city.

All three claims are controversial. “Mumbai” may well come from the name used by the Koli fishermen who worshipped the goddess Mumbadevi in a village on the site of today’s Bombay. But another theory is that the name comes from the Portuguese “Bom Bahia” or beautiful bay and has as much claim to historical accuracy. Secondly, even if the Kolis did call their village Mumbai, this village was demonstrably not the city of Bombay, which was established by the British.

Second, while Maharashtrians played an important role in the creation of what was then called Bombay, they were not the only ones. The city was built by Parsis and Gujaratis, both Hindu and Muslim. Till 1960, Bombay was the capital of Bombay state and Maharashtra did not even exist. So it ignores history to pretend that Maharashtrians were the only ones who created Bombay/Mumbai and that everyone else is an outsider.

Third, guess what Gujaratis call Bombay? They call it Mumbai too. So it is not as though Maharashtrians have any monopoly on the name or that by refusing to use the term Mumbai, Gujaratis such as myself are rejecting the city’s Maharashtrian identity.

Frankly, we don’t see ‘Mumbai’ as being only a Marathi name; we see it as a Gujarati name too. So if I call Mumbai Bombay, I am not disrespecting Maharashtrians any more than I am disrespecting my own community — to the extent that the use of Bombay is an act of disrespect at all.

Which brings us to the larger issue. Do we need to change the names of places? Of cities? Of countries, even?

The broad answer to that is: yes. Whatever our individual views on the subject, there’s no doubt that place names change all the time. New York was New Amsterdam when the Dutch ran it. Singapore was originally called Temasek. Russian cities keep changing names. The old Leningrads and Stalingrads have now been abolished in favour of the traditional names.

Usually, the new names stick after a while. Who still calls Sri Lanka Ceylon? Unless there is a change of regime, Burma will end up being known as Myanmar forever. Nobody refers to Thailand as Siam any longer.

Much the same is true of Indian names. Forget about the more recent change in the name of Madras city (to Chennai). Let’s not forget that the whole state used to be called Madras before it was renamed Tamil Nadu. Karnataka used to be called Mysore. Arunachal Pradesh was known as NEFA. And so on.

So, the desire to change the names of places is not new. And usually, people who use the old names soon seem silly or out of touch. The Iranians used to be annoyed when Winston Churchill insisted on referring to their country as Persia. Now, as the expatriate Iranian comedian Omid Djalili has noted, anybody who talks about Persia might as well also refer to Mesopotamia and Assyria.

And often, the enthusiasm for changing names stems from valid impulses. We may laugh at the more recent attempts to change street names in India (does anybody call Connaught Place Rajiv Chowk?) but, equally, few of us would like to live in cities where every street was named after some colonial oppressor. For instance, nobody in Delhi refers to Cornwallis Road or Curzon Road any longer. The new names have become so firmly established that the old ones have been forgotten.

Why, then, does the change in Bombay’s name to Mumbai provoke so much controversy? After all, Madras became Chennai with a minimum of fuss. Calcutta is now officially Kolkata. Bangalore is Bengaluru. And so on.

The short answer is that in no other Indian city are those who use the old name terrorised as completely as they are in Bombay/Mumbai. Elsewhere, the change is cultural. In Bombay/Mumbai it is violently

I still remember when the idea was first floated by Bal Thackeray in 1979. I was editor of Bombay magazine at the time and Thackeray told me that he wanted the name to be changed on cultural grounds. (“It reflects our culture better than the British name”). We argued about names and culture (why didn’t he call himself Thakre then, rather than borrowing the spelling of his name from William Makepeace Thackeray?) but the discussion was good-natured. “You don’t have to change the name of your magazine!” he laughed.

Since then, however, the issue has become overtly political. The Shiv Sena and its breakaway faction, the MNS, now regard the use of the name ‘Mumbai’ as proof of their own virility. Anybody who prefers Bombay is seen as demeaning their manhood and is dealt with through the use of force and intimidation.

This is what makes the Bombay/Mumbai issue different. The CPI(M) and the DMK have cadres that are much larger than the MNS’s. But they don’t threaten to beat up people who refuse to say Kolkata or Chennai.

Mature parties know that history and time are on their side. They recognise that eventually — after a generation perhaps — the old name will be largely forgotten and the new name will take hold.
But the MNS is a party in a hurry. It needs to find issues with which it can a) hit the headlines b) claim to be speaking up for Maharashtrians and c) flex its muscles to remind everyone that it is capable of violence and disruption.

What better way to do that than to make a fetish out of the use of ‘Mumbai’ and to target somebody as high profile as Karan Johar who is especially vulnerable when he has a movie on release?
It is sad because the intimidation takes a process that would have happened naturally — the shift from Bombay to Mumbai — and turns it into a symbol of intolerance, division and sectarian hatred.

If Raj Thackeray — or Thakre, if he prefers — loves Mumbai as much as he claims to, then this is one issue he should abandon.

Time will achieve what his goons will not.

The views expressed by the author are personal