What is in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
                                     By any other name would smell as sweet.”


These oft-repeated clichéd words were written by Shakespeare in his famous play Romeo and Juliet. The literal translation is even if you rename rose with some other name, it’s perfume and beauty will not be diminished, in other words, the beauty of the rose is not dependent on its name. This quote has been going around in my head ever since I read that the name of the city Allahabad has been renamed to Prayagraj and more recently Faizabad was renamed to Ayodhya.

I have had a fascination for names of places/localities in cities. The older localities in cities and small towns throw up such odd/weird yet mind-boggling names. For example in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, you have areas called as “Lal Kurti”, “Budhana Gate” and even a “Jali Kothi”. Even the more colonial Dehradun has localities like “Khurbura” and “Jhanda Mohalla”. The capital of Lucknow has areas like “Telibag”. Contrast this with the names of the new areas of the towns, you will find an MG Road, a Shastri Nagar and a Mayur Vihar in almost all the towns of North India. There is a uniformity which is boring, bland and somewhat political as well when names of new localities are influenced by the political masters. When I hear names like “Lal Kurti” I wonder how did they get such bizarre though unique names. All these names point to the past in which some incident/person/or use led to a particular name being associated with the area and over a period of time became the given formal name of that particular area, giving a distinct flavour to cities. Now suddenly the Government of India has also started taking interest in names of cities. According to the latest report, about 24 cities/towns have been given the approval to change their names with many more proposals for a name change on the cards.

While the history of words/names is not a very popular branch, in recent years the Government of India seems to be suddenly interested in it. It has started tracing back the names of the cities all the way back to ancient India and is now on a renaming spree. Thus the anglicized Baroda became Vadodara, colonial Calcutta became Kolkatta, Islamic Allahabad became Prayagraj, a caravanserai on the GT Road changed from Mughal Sarai to Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhaya Nagar. There are now clamours to change Ahmedabad to Karnavat and Agra to Agravan. People seem to believe that we should go back to our roots from whence we came. The ancient name of Allahabad was Prayagraj and thus we should go back to that, to take pride in our regional/religious identity. Similar arguments were given for renaming Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, Madras, the list seems to be growing each day. Name of a city has now been associated with nationalistic, regional and religious pride. What the renamers forget, is to go back to the roots is to actually lose the identity and the growth of the city. Prayagraj in ancient times grew, became a city, was renamed to Allahabad, grew again. Over the years it assimilated cultures, people, customs leading to the Allahabad city of now. Renaming it back to Prayagraj will not take us back in ancient times and erase Allahabad, Allahabad is an indistinguishable part of today’s Prayagaraj. Changing the name of the city does not mean the city itself has changed, like the rose, the city with its charms, idiosyncrasies and problems, remains the same.

By a stroke of their pen the governments might change the name of the cities but can they change the city itself?  Calcutta was renamed Kolkatta, but can they change the fact that before the British established their trading post on the banks of Hoogly, it was a small hamlet. It was Calcutta, the trading post established by the British, which became the Capital of India until it was shifted to New Delhi. It was Calcutta which gave us stalwarts like Tagore, Mother Teresa and Satyajit Ray. Bombay was renamed to Mumbai, but can they change the fact that before the British, Mumbai was a fishing hamlet. British made Bombay the financial hub it is now by joining the seven islands of Bombay. Renaming it to Mumbai does not erase that fact. Nor does renaming it to Mumbai change the spirit of Bombay. The fact is that the city still remains the city of dreams, a city where everything is possible.

I sometimes wonder if the current or a future government would try to change the name of Capital of India since that is also of British origin. New Delhi, where the current government and ministers reside, was built by Lord Lutyen when the capital was moved from Calcutta to New Delhi and inaugurated in 1931. If so, will they go back to Indraprastha or will they take into consideration Siri, Ferozabad, Tughlaqabad, Shahjehanabad or Dilli as well, since those too, were the names for the city?

I recently read a book by a Pakistani author the premise of which was how systematically the successive governments of Pakistan renamed the Hindu areas/cities in an effort to erase its Hindu past.  The similarity with the current renaming spree in India cannot be missed. The politicians seemed to have missed the point that History cannot be erased, it happened, and that needs to be accepted as a fact.No one possesses a time machine to go back to change the parts of history which are abhorrent. It is the future of our country that we have control over. We can either keep renaming cities, harking back to days of lost glory and ancient pride, or we can work to make our cities reach new heights with better infrastructure, facilities, sanitation and health services so that we actually have something to take pride in.

In the meantime, since according to Shakespeare the name doesn’t really matter and the core remains the same, I am going to continue using the names Calcutta, Bombay, Gurgaon, Madras and CP( how I hate the name Rajiv Chowk!!)!

4 thoughts on “What is in a name?

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