“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
(William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet)
William Shakespeare would never have had the hapless Juliet fret about the irrelevance of a name in the face of true love if he had been a twentieth or twenty first century inhabitant of India that is Bharat. My first tryst with our name-changing proclivities came when, as a newly posted probationer in the civil service, I landed at Bombay (Mumbai?) Central railway station one hot May morning in 1981. Getting into a taxicab, I directed the cabbie to take me to the Maharashtra State Administrative Training Institute located on Hazarimal Somani Marg, where I had been ordered to report for being inducted into the state bureaucratic culture. For good measure, the letter from the Institute informed me that the Institute was close to the Victoria Terminus (VT) (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus?) railway station. At VT, the cabbie asked me which road he should take. Clueless about Bombay’s (Mumbai’s?) roads, I directed him down the road to Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk?). Not finding the Institute, we took a one-way road back to VT and explored other alleys in our vain search for the elusive Institute. On our tenth or so sortie (as the taxi meter merrily shot up), we finally located the Institute located in a modest, single-storey premise, it’s innocuous signboard hidden from public view by large creepers. My eureka moment was spoilt by the contemptuous glance I received from the wizened cabbie who growled “Why didn’t you tell me it was Waudby Road?” before driving off with the inflated amount he received from me.
My engagement with Mumbai’s road names continued when I joined the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation (better known to the locals as BMC) in 1996. I was allotted a house within the premises of the Mumbai Zoo in midtown Byculla. Its northern boundary abutted E. S. Patanwala Road. Intrigued by the name, I made inquiries and discovered that Mr. Patanwala was the founder of a large cosmetics empire, responsible, among other products, for Afghan Snow, a vanishing cream that was applied on my face before I left for school every day. As fate would have it, my boss allotted me the subject of maintenance of Mumbai’s roads. My padayatras across many kilometres of Mumbai’s roads and pavements threw up many names hitherto unknown to me: Barfiwala Road, Veera Desai Road and Lokhandwala Road, not to mention Bhulabhai Desai Road and Gopalrao Deshmukh Road, better known by their earlier names of Warden Road and Pedder Road respectively. But it was at my weekly attendance at the General Body meeting of BMC corporators that I was privy to the extreme interest that the subject of road naming (and renaming) generated in the city fathers (and mothers), something that dreary budget items failed to excite. The meeting agenda was never complete without the inclusion of at least one item pertaining to a stretch of road that was to be renamed, often after some local benefactor or even some deceased relative of a corporator, whose memory was thus preserved for prosperity.
If the BMC was so active in the game of the name, how could the Maharashtra state government show tardiness? Shortly after it assumed state power in 1995, the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine put all its might behind renaming Bombay as Mumbai. Not content with this, the government of the day strove valiantly to rename Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar and Osmanabad as Dharashiv, hoping probably to erase the Mughal-Nizam legacy. While Bombay became Mumbai, the then state government was not successful in renaming other cities, though politicians of parties like the Shiv Sena still use Sambhajinagar to refer to Aurangabad.
If you think Haryana’s politicos showed great drive in renaming the urban jungle of Gurgaon as Gurugram, please shower your appreciation on Karnataka’s present government which has, with great gusto, gone about renaming the state capital and just about every district, albeit sometimes only to reflect the Kannada inflection of tone — Bengaluru for Bangalore, Mysuru for Mysore, Mangaluru for Mangalore, Belagavi for Belgaum, Vijayapura for Bijapur and Kalaburagi for Gulbarga. The epidemic is now spreading further; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is demanding that Shimla be renamed Shyamala!
It is almost as though the rechristening of places indicates a deep rooted desire to erase certain not so pleasant historical memories, especially of the colonial era. Delhi went through the phase of historical cleansing when Cornwallis, Canning, Curzon, Hardinge, Irwin and Willingdon, all representatives of East India Company/British rule in India, made way for their Indian counterparts after independence. Mercifully, smaller places in India named after Britishers who made a local impact — Forbesganj, Daltonganj and McCluskieganj — have withstood the renaming mania. More recently, the present central government decided to remove Aurangzeb’s name from a Delhi road, renaming it after a respected former Indian president to forestall any criticism of religious or historical bias. Each government obviously favours its admired icons in the naming/renaming exercise. While the Congress pantheon dominated the landscape in the first few decades after 1947, governments of other political persuasions have been no less diligent in introducing their favourites into road names. Sometimes, the repetition of the same name can cause confusion in giving directions; my area in Bengaluru has many roads named after the great engineer, M. Visvesvarayya. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Netaji Subhas Bose are perennial favourites across towns and cities of India and are often repeated in the same city. Ideological, literary and anti-colonial affinities also influence road names: Kolkata has its Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Shakespeare Saranis, while Delhi has roads named after Nelson Mandela, Josip Broz Tito and Archbishop Makarios; where Olof Palme fits in this group is still a matter of conjecture.
Actually, names are meant to be markers of one’s origin, ethnicity and religion in the masala dabba that represents India’s diverse, heterogeneous population, although the forces of national integration and globalisation are ironing out these distinctions. Still, in a country that is more a continent (like India), there are delicious vignettes that highlight the complexities of names that are commonplace in some parts of the country but are foreign to the ears of those from other parts. Take my own example. I stuck to a six letter name like Ramani since, based as I was in Delhi, I was not sure how my northern confreres would mutilate Subramaniam. Now, Ramani is generally a name more associated with the female sex in its linguistic origins, including in states like Kerala, although there are hordes of male Ramanis emanating from Tamil Nadu. But when I was to join the civil service training academy at Mussoorie, the Assistant Course Director (from a northern state) used his extant knowledge to assign me accommodation in the Ladies Block. My good fortune (??) at this turn of events did not, however, last long. The other Assistant Course Director (a Tamilian) promptly rectified the gender error. He gleefully related to me how he inadvertently paid back his colleague in the same coin. The Tamilian allotted Maheshwari to the Ladies Block, till his northern colleague pointed out that Maheshwari was a male surname in the northern reaches of India. Imagine also the plight of the Punjabi receptionist at the entry desk of Shastri Bhavan, in the heart of the Indian government, who asked this strapping Tamilian visitor his name. When the visitor blithely replied “Thirunavukkarasu”, the receptionist, visibly blanching, hastily handed over his pen to the Tamilian to enter his name in the entry register, a name as Greek to the receptionist as Varoufakis (for more on the latter, refer to the Greek economic crisis).
I wonder if Nandan Nilekani devised the unique identification Aadhaar number for every Indian to get over the problem of mutilation and misspelling of names. A number (accompanied by fingerprint and iris scanning) that enables individual identification from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Dwarka to Dimapur would do away with the need to get the spelling right. Pronunciation is another matter altogether. Maybe we should all adopt the Beagle Boys formula — the three brothers were distinguished solely by the numbers boldly emblazoned on the front and back of their sweatshirts: 176-167, 176-671 and 176-761. After all, there’s always safety in numbers!