This week, British newspaper The Independent is set to implement an editorial rule — Mumbai’s going back to Bombay in all references to the city — a cradle to our movie industry and one of the world’s megacities. Population? 1.85 crore and climbing.
But The Independent’s India-born editor Amol Rajan has chosen to ignore the current name that brings together all things fantastic about the city. In his argument, Rajan (originally from Kolkata, or Calcutta) claims the move is the paper’s stand against the closed-minded view of Hindu nationalists.
Bombay was officially changed to Mumbai in the year 1995 with yes, the Shiv Sena forming the name-change campaign’s spearhead. The Marathis though, have been using ‘Mumbai’ much before the paperwork. But Rajan is of the opinion he’s doing us a favour by pointing the light at issues he believes are “ascending”.
“The whole point of Bombay is of an open, cosmopolitan port city, the gateway of India that's open to the world,” said Rajan, in an interview with BBC radio (of course).
“If you call it what Hindu nationalists want you to call it, you essentially do their work for them. As journalists, as someone who edits The Independent, it’s incredibly important to be specific about our terminology. I’d rather side with the tradition of India that's been open to the world, rather than the one that’s been closed, which is in ascendance right now.”
In conclusion, Rajan adds that Mumbai had a “slightly nastier strain of Hindu nationalism”. So, according to the highest editorial chair within the offices of a British paper publishing out of a capital that was responsible for the plunder of several hundred indigenous cultures, Bombay —a memory from the Raj’s humanitarian ways — is better than terminology we’ve put in place as an independent country.
Retired professor of history, Prof. Aravind Ganachari, from Mumbai University counters Rajan: “There is no strain of Hindu nationalism when you call it Mumbai. Beijing was previously called Peking, and Istanbul was previously called Constantinople. Does that mean these cities should go back to their former names because a white man decided on it? One can’t pinpoint Shiva Sena or any other party for the change of name - it’s got to do nothing with Hindu nationalism. Shiv Sena renamed the western Indian city after the goddess Mumbadevi. This announcement by the Independent only reeks of colonialism. Imperialism did no good to India - all these years they tried to civilise India under the guise of colonialism. The guys in the UK probably need lessons in civility.”
“The Independent has a colonial hangover,” opines Anil Dharker, columnist and director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival. “It is the prerogative of the country to decide what they want to be called. Many countries have changed their names be it China, Vietnam or Myanmar. Here, we are only talking about a city. If the UK decides to call one of its cities by some name and we still decide to stick to its old name, how upset would they be? The colonial powers in the past changed the names and anglicised it.”
Another proud citizen of Mumbai, author Kiran Nagarkar, says the name ‘Mumbai’ has had nothing to do with religion. “It is a cultural identity and that is what the original name of Bombay was. I’ve used Bombay in my books and both the names are still used interchangeably. The problem comes when either party judges the other one for using either one. It is absolutely not the right stance to take. I don’t want to come across as closed-minded but, I don’t understand why they would do something like this. How would they feel if we called London something else? I frankly think The Independent’s stand is really infantile," says Nagarkar.
Colonising Brits didn't just murder names of cities in India. Names of hundreds of ports and capitals worldwide were changed just because leading lights of the Empire couldn't pronounce them correctly.
In Kerala, where the Brits chose absolute convenience over recognition of culture, names of dozens of port towns were "altered" to avoid confusing the man responsible for trade receipts.
Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan, a Kerala-based historian says, "Misinterpreted translations were a reason for the spread of anglicised place names in Kerala. Here, native speakers were an important source of information for the British and the Dutch. The way they articulated the names did not suit the anglicised tongue. So, they recorded and documented it in the way they could decipher in terms of spelling and pronunciation.
"Funnily enough, the capital's name was either Aananthapuram or Thiruvaananthapuram but after the British opted for Trivandrum, it became Thiruvananthapuram for local people. It was in 1810 that a British Colonel James Wells first called it Trivandrum," adds Gopalakrishnan.
What’s in a name? Plenty. The decision to revert to colonial-era 'tags' is not just infantile, it's the de-recognition of the historical fact that India lost thousands in its fight for freedom—a freedom it exercised while deciding its own versions of cities' names. Changes made to names of cities remains one of the most important moves we have made to remove memories of the Raj. And when you consider, those names now mean much more, culturally, than the shortened versions which suited the stiff upper lip... that makes a world of 21st century sense. Many thanks for the reminder dear Independent.