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Becoming Bengaloorued

Shashi Tharoor  |  New Delhi 

Shashi Tharoor opens this book on the prospects and problems of India in the 21st century with a Panchatantra-fied fable of an elephant who has to become a tiger to survive. The effort is laboured, but the message clear: the momentum of change is growing, the results are largely good so far, and Indians and their competitors are beginning to both anticipate opportunities and worry about the future. In the extract below, Tharoor examines the name-change frenzy that has occupied some state governments since the 1990s.
One Indian phenomenon that never ceases to surprise, and often confuses, foreigners is India's penchant for renaming its cities. An American businessman who was planning a visit to India after a long absence told me that his associate there 'used to live in Madras, but he seems to have moved to some place called Chennai'. When told that his friend hadn't moved at all but that Madras had become Chennai, his jaw dropped. 'But cities don't do that,' he said weakly.
Well, in India they do. The victorious Indian nationalists of 1947 were at first careful not to up-end the familiar verities of Indian life when the British left, so the cities of the Raj kept their names for decades, even while streets named for British imperialists were gradually renamed for those who had resisted them. In the first decades after independence, practically the only city that changed the spelling of its name was Kanpur, which the British had absurdly spelled Cawnpore, a form that sounded affected to every Indian ear.
The Anglicized 'Poona' also became 'Pune' to reflect the way the name was actually pronounced, and Mysore state was renamed Karnataka to resurrect the proud tradition of what the British had called the 'Carnatic' region. But the big metropolises of the land ""Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras, the four best-known Indian cities internationally (until they were joined by Bangalore) "" stayed what they had always been for the first fifty years of India's independence.
Then change came. The self-appointed guardians of Indianness "" politicians looking for new postures to affect, and new issues on which to assert themselves "" finally came into their own in the 1990s. They proclaimed their determination to reverse the colonization of the Indian sensibility by 'restoring' the 'original' names of cities that had allegedly been mangled by the foreign conquerors. So the Government of Maharashtra, led at the time by the chauvinist regional party the Shiv Sena, renamed the state capital Mumbai, proscribing the use of the word 'Bombay' for any official purposes.
The city of Bombay (whose name came from the Portuguese 'Bom Bahia', or 'good bay') had in fact never existed before the colonial era created it, but it had developed from a number of fishing villages, one of which may (and I use the word advisedly) have been called Mumbai. So Mumbai's claims were at least debatable, but even if the case for it could be sustained, what was worse was the decision to abandon a name with nearly four centuries of global resonance.
This struck me at the time as the equivalent of a company jettisoning a well-known brand in favour of an inelegant patronymic "" as if McDonald's had renamed itself Kroc's in honour of its inventor. 'Bombay' had entered global discourse; it conjured up associations of cosmopolitan bustle; it is still attached around the world to products like Bombay gin, Bombay duck, and the overpriced colonial furniture sold by 'the Bombay company'; in short, it enjoyed name recognition that many cities around the world would spend millions in publicity to acquire.
'Mumbai' was already the city's name in Marathi; but what has been gained by insisting on its adoption in English, aside from a nativist reassertion that benefited only sign-painters and letterhead-printers? (The Shiv Sena went one step further and renamed the city's main railway station, Victoria Terminus, an Indo-Gothic-Saracenic excrescence universally known as 'VT' and completely devoid, in everyone's imagination, of any asso ciation with the late Queen-Empress. 'VT' is henceforth to be known as 'Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus': try telling that to a Bombay taxi driver.)
Not to be outdone, another regional party heading the government in Madras, the DMK "" which had, in an earlier spell in office, renamed the state of Madras as Tamil Nadu ('homeland of the Tamils') "" decided that the city of Madras too would be rebaptized. The chief minister had been informed that 'Madras', like Bombay, was actually a Portuguese coinage, derived either from a trader named Madeiros or a prince called Madrie. 'Madras is not a Tamil name,' announced the chief chauvinist to justify his decision to rename the city of 'Chennai', the word used (though not always) by Tamil speakers.
Once again, name recognition "" Madras kerchiefs, Madras jackets, Bleeding Madras, the Madras monitoring system "" went by the board as Chennai was adopted without serious debate. More unfortunately, however, the chief minister had overlooked the weight of evidence that Madras was indeed a Tamil name (derived, alternative theories go, from the name of a local fisherman, Madarasan; or from the local Muslim religious schools, madarasas; or from madhu-ras, from the Sanskrit and Tamil words for honey). Worse, he had also overlooked the embarrassing fact that Chennai was not, as he had asserted, of Tamil origin.
It came from the name of Chennappa Naicker, the Raja of Chandragiri, who granted the British the right to trade on the Coromandel coast "" and who was a Telugu speaker from what is today Andhra Pradesh. So bad history was worse lexicography, but in India-that-is-Bharat it is good politics.
The communist government in Bengal soon followed: 'Calcutta' would henceforth become 'Kolkata', which was the way Bengalis pronounced it in their native tongue. (The International Air Transport Association, however, resolutely insists that airlines still tag your bags to 'CCU, not 'KKT', which belongs to Kentland Airport in the USA. In Tamil Nadu, the state government has allegedly instructed postmen not to deliver mail addressed to 'Madras' "" compelling evidence of the pettiness that underlies the directive "" but baggage tagged to 'CHN' rather than 'MAA' will end up in Jeonju, South Korea.) The habit proved catching: Kolkata's kommunist kousins in Kerala decided that Cochin "" a name that had stood for centuries and even been exported (to South-East Asia's 'Cochin-China') "" would henceforth be 'Kochi'.
And as the twenty-first century dawned with computer professionals in the West discovering Bangalore "" and even beginning to fear their jobs would be 'Bangalored', outsourced to India ""the politicians of the Karnataka decided that their capital's new-found fame more properly belonged to 'Bengalooru', the 'city of boiled beans' rather than of India's burgeoning Silicon Plateau.
So can we now buy railway tickets to Bengalooru? I remember how my team-mate and I, heading off to represent St Stephen's College at a debating competition in what was still Calcutta, got our student concession forms made out to 'Haora', as the newspapers had informed us that Howrah, Calcutta's grand colonial-era station, had been renamed.
It was only after queuing for two hours that we discovered that, whatever the Bengali Babus of Writers' Building nay have decreed, the Indian Railways had not yet digested the new reality. We were sent back to college with the proverbial flea in our ear "" for having attempted to buy tickets to a station that didn't (yet) exist.

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First Published: Sun, October 21 2007. 00:00 IST