Indian cities wrestle with changed

Indian cities wrestle with changed names

By Ramola Talwar Badam

BOMBAY  You say Bombay and I say Mumbai. You say Calcutta and I say Kolkata. The old rhyme about pronunciation  “Po-tay-to, po-tah-to; to-may-to, to-mah-to”  could be the refrain of most Indians, as well as citizens of other former colonial territories bent on dropping the Westernized versions of city names.

In 1995, the city council of Bombay renamed India’s largest city “Mumbai”  after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi. Nine years on, the financial and entertainment hub is still mostly known as Bombay, although much of the world, including the U.S. government and the European Union, officially accepts Mumbai.

Bombay’s rechristening triggered the renaming of several Indian cities in a show of muscle-flexing by municipal officials. Madras in southern India, which gave its name to a cloth print popular in the 1960s  became Chennai, a shortened version of the name of an Indian who once owned the land on which the city grew. The eastern city of Calcutta  infamous in British history for the brutal imprisoning of colonials in the “Black Hole of Calcutta” Kolkata.

This renaming can create peculiar problems. Tour operator Hameed Shahul, for instance, notes
that since the southern state of Kerala renamed the old city of Calicut six years ago, some tourists have insisted they want to visit both Calicut and Kozhikode  which is the city’s new name.

“I have to convince tourists that both cities are the same,” Mr. Shahul said. Adding to the confusion, many top institutions have stuck with the old names. It’s still Bombay High Court, Madras High Court, Calcutta High Court and Cochin High Court because altering these would require an act of India’s Parliament. The Bombay Stock Exchange, Bombay Gymkhana club and the University of Madras also kept their names, for tradition’s sake. When the Kerala city of Cochin was renamed Kochi, administrators at the Cochin University of Science and Technology kept the old name
because they feared the school could be confused with Japan’s Kochi University.

“Some people argue that by changing names India is becoming more patriotic,” said K.V. Kunjikrishnan, the university’s registrar. “But I strongly feel that … it is a political smoke screen to impress people and get votes.”

Sharda Dwivedi, author of two books on Bombay, feels name changes distort history. “You can’t eradicate 300 years of history,” she said. “I personally think the collective memory of people is what really matters, even in terms of heritage.”

Sometimes renaming proposals are provoked by misplaced ideas that the familiar names are linked to British or Portuguese colonial history. A couple of years ago, downtown Bombay’s Laburnum Road was to be renamed because of the British ring to the name. “Then someone said, ‘But that’s a tree, not an Englishman,’ ” Miss Dwivedi noted, alluding to the golden-yellow flowered native Indian laburnum trees that line the street. To be politically correct, some businessmen carry
two sets of visiting cards, presenting one with Mumbai’s new name to government officials and the
other with the older, better-known name at international seminars.

“They don’t want to upset protocol if they’re dealing with any officials,” said Gul Tekchandani, chief investment officer of Sun F&C, a Bombay-based brokerage.

There is reason for caution. In Bombay in the late 1990s, workers of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party blackened signs on businesses and schools that did not use Mumbai. Last June, activists vandalized signs on cobbled streets in western India’s Goa state to demand the renaming of 14 roads with Portuguese names.

India’s colonial past included British, Portuguese and French rule in different regions. And in a nation with 18 official languages and hundreds of dialects, Indians are divided over renaming efforts.

In Calcutta, Bengali grocer Tapan Mondal said the city’s renaming “made no difference because we never used Calcutta. For us it was always Kolkata in our conversations.”

But Mita Dutta, a consumer rights activist, said she uses Calcutta in most conversations. “To say
Kolkata is a conscious effort.” India is not alone. South Africa, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are among many countries that have renamed provinces and cities.

Sri Lanka, the island nation off India’s southern tip, dropped the British-era name of Ceylon. The
revised name, meaning “island,” was used in early times and derived from ancient Sanskrit. But the Bank of Ceylon, Ceylon Petroleum Corp. and even the Ceylon Tourist Board have stuck with the colonial name.

Some countries merely corrected spellings based on faulty British pronunciation of unfamiliar languages. Bangladesh changed the spelling of its capital to Dhaka from the British Dacca. Similarly in China, the government changed from Peking to Beijing in the 1950s to bring the spelling closer to the Chinese pronunciation and later turned Canton into Guangzhou.

In western India, where India’s name changing all began, Pramod Navalkar, leader of the right-wing Shiv Sena party that spearheaded the change to Mumbai, says things may be getting out of hand.
“It began with cities, then roads, then intersections. Now even street corners are being renamed,” Mr. Navalkar said. “Everybody gets confused.” He added, chuckling: “Many a time I also say
‘Bombay.’ ”

AP reporters K.N. Arun, Pamela D’Mello, V.M.Thomas and Nupur Banerjee contributed to this story.