The Naming Game

What's in a name? We have always been assured that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Of course, it would. Except that this misses the point somewhat. The truth is that names do matter. Think about it. We would have a hell of time locating a street, city, or even a country if we didn't get the name right.

This was brought home to me by two incidents. The first incident went like this Simran who was actually trying to locate Naushad Ali Marg, which incidentally was Carter Road in Bandra at one point of time. Soon after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks ended and the endless recriminations began, reliable sources had it that the transcripts of the terrorist intercepts ad indicated that they were going to attack a target on Mathuradas Vassanji Road, Mumbai. At the time, this information caused some confusion among the ranks. Nobody could quite figure out where Mathuradas Vassanji Road was. It took some time before it was traced: this was the road on which the Taj Hotel and Towers is located. But such is the pre-eminence of the Taj that is regarded as a landmark in itself; nobody even knew the new name of the road on which it stood.

This confusion is not just restricted to our intelligence agencies or even officialdom. It affects all of us and is exacerbated by the fact that the place names are forever being changed around us in some sort of nod to political correctness. In fact, as the first reports of firing at a train station came in, I couldn't help figure out the location myself. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus? CST? Where was that? We have too many landmarks named after the Maratha prince. It's only when a report referred it by its maiden name of Victoria Terminus--VT to everyone in Mumbai--that the penny dropped.

So widespread was the confusion that it even percolated down to the international media, which couldn't quite make up its mind as to whether the terror attacks took place in Bombay or Mumbai. Some used one name, some the other, and then there were those who alternated between the two, clearly unable to make up their minds. It took the London Times to address the issue head on. The front page of its November 29 2008 issue had the headline: Bloody End to the Siege of Bombay. But inside, in a column headed Feedback, Sally Baker wrote that after considerable discussion the Times ad decided to change the house style to Mumbai. The paper had always referred to the city, as Bombay, wrote Sally, because it was assumed that most of its readers were familiar with that name. But now, after the terror attacks and the endless coverage, Mumbai was more recognizable. Hence, the change.

I'm sure all of us can identify this confusion. Even now, so many years after the name change, it is still hard for me to think of Bombay as Mumbai. We all use the new official name when we write about it, but in our hearts and minds, the city will always live on as Bombay. It's much the same story with my hometown Palakkad. The commissars may have written it as Palghat (which is how you would pronounce as an Englishman) as a sop to colonial chauvinism but the town will always remain Palakkad--or the more affectionate dimunitive Pal--to me.

But then, Bombay is a city that clings to its old names with a stubborn obduracy. Naushad Ali Marg is still Carter Road, Mumbai Samachar Marg is still Apollo Street, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Marg is still Marine Drive. It doesn't really matter that all these places have been renamed by the powers that be. We still refer to them by the old familiar names we grew up with. Of course, this compulsive renaming does have its moments. Where else but in Calcutta would you find the American Consulate situated on Ho Chi Minh Sarani? Clearly, some comrade somewhere had a sense of humour!!

In Delhi too, we have had the usual renaming of old colonial landmarks with new home-grown names. Some years ago, an Indian politician Mani Shankar Aiyar ran a campaign to rename Connaught Place--the hub of New Delhi before its epicentre shifted to Khan Market--as Rajiv Gandhi Chowk. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who calls it by that name. Connaught Place is still called Connaught Place, or as Delhi hands would have it: CP.

Despite the failure of such new names to catch on, the renaming game continues apace. So Bangalore is now Bengaluru; Cochin is now Kochi, Baroda is now Vadodara, Trivandrum is called Tiruvananthapuram, Shimoga is now Shivamoga. It is, of course, another matter that nobody even refers to these cities by their new names. So, honestly why do we bother? There is no denying that names have an emotional resonance and even intellectual baggage. So, Mumbai is a bow to Marathi chauvinism just as Kolkata is a salve to the wounded Bengali pride; Bengaluru is a slap in the face of those North Indians who can't be bothered to pronounce names of South Indian places; and Vadodara is a monument of Gujarati "asmita" (pride). But given that nobody ever uses these names, what is the point of this exercise? I certainly can't see the point. If you can, please send me a mail justifying your answer to


Krane Metal said…
the name thing works bothways. if i introduce you to 'akshay' as 'vinay' he will always be 'vinay' to you, this is the first way. second way, if i suddenly say the 'rose' you daily smell has become a 'tulip' today, you would still cling to 'rose' as in contrast to the first case where you won't be in for the real name 'akshay'. this is because first impression of any name is strong.
Siddhartha said…
I absolutely agree with you.. there is absolutely no point in such name changes.. The primary reason is that, it costs a huge burden on the public exchequer.. India cannot afford to spend its money like this.. There are numerous ways other than rechristening names by which we can pay our respects to the great heroes...

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