Thursday, 11 August 2011

What's in a name?

I'm just back from a flying visit to Bangalore, which has been responsible for my recent silence. I can't say much about the place because I was there for approximately 20 hours, which was spent either sleeping, working or sitting in some truly bone-shuddering, stomach-wobbling taxi journeys (hell, I have decided, is the road to Bangalore airport at rush hour in a car with dodgy suspension).

According to the government of the state of Karnataka, though, the place I can't say much about is Bengaluru, which has been the official name of the city since 2006 (although apparently this has yet to get the final nod from the federal level). Bangalore is just one of dozens of cities in the country that have been renamed since independence, most famously including Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (formerly Madras) and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in an effort to move on from the colonial era and re-establish indigenous names.

Except that a lot of Indians don't really seem to have noticed. Bengaluru may be the official name, but I've never heard anyone use it. If you're spelling out a word here, you still say "C for Calcutta". The home of Bollywood still tends to be referred to as Bombay (and I doubt Mollywood is going to become a popular term any time soon). Of the big cities, Chennai seems to be the only one that has caught on universally.

It's easier for smaller cities, which were less established in the popular consciousness and so have been able to reinvent themselves more easily (though for understandable reasons people usually still refer to the Keralan capital by its old name of Trivandrum, rather than the officially approved mouthful, Thiruvananthapuram). It's noticeable that in the big cities, institutions that used the old name in their title have often not changed to the new one (as in the Bombay Stock Exchange, conspicuously not called the MSE).

Actually, in my experience there are three names: the old ones, the new ones, and the ones used in the English language announcements at Delhi airport (I have never heard anyone else refer to "Hy-dare-abad" or "Kaul-kaah-taah"). Another weird thing: the English language announcements use Bengaluru, but the Hindi ones use Bangalore. I'm not sure what to make of that.

Delhi remains Delhi, although apparently there is a proposal floating around to rename it Indraprastha (the name of the oldest of the many cities that have stood on this site). At the moment there doesn't seem to be a movement to correct the spelling to the local pronunciation of Dilli. Maybe to avoid confusion with the capital of East Timor.

All of this must take a bit of getting used to, so I suppose it's not surprising that the vernacular takes a while to catch up with officialdom. On the whole I recognise the importance of reclaiming the country's place names and marking the fact that India has long since moved out from under the Colonial shadow. Pragmatic Me, though, wonders how much it has cost changing all those road signs and reprinting official documents and guide books.

Anyway, this has been kind of a boring post really, but I'm a bit short on sleep (thanks to the very noisy stray dogs of Bengaluru) and not coming up with anything better. Sorry. Will try to be more interesting next time!

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