Language and Bombay and Madras and Calcutta

During the period when Suresh Prabhu and Anant Geete were Ministers of Power in India I used to have to follow up any discussions with them about power projects with visits to the head of their party, Bal Thackeray, in Bombay. (They were in their posts as representatives of the Shiv Sena Party in the then BJP led coalition but had little freedom to act on their own. The Shiv Sena was embodied in Bal Thackeray and he always had the final word). Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena had led the very vocal, sometimes violent and parochially nationalist movement to change the name of “Bombay” to “Mumbai” in 1995. I have found all these “nationalist” movements – whether in Bombay or Madras or Calcutta or Delhi or Bangalore – to be small-minded, rooted in insecurity and representing a deeply-felt  – but real – inferiority.

On my first meeting with Bala-saheb I was given strict protocol instructions by one of his aides before being ushered into the sanctum sanctorum at Mathoshree. I was to make sure that I always referred to “Mumbai” and not to “Bombay”. At the end of the audience I was expected to end my taking leave of him with the words “Jai Maharashtra” (long live Maharashtra). I remember asking the aide then whether, if I said “Bombay”, he would not understand what I meant. As he spluttered and I entered, I remember telling him that while I had no desire to insult anybody, I used language and words and names to best communicate my meaning.

In the event, in about 6 or 7 meetings over a number of years with Bal Thackeray, I never once used the terms “Mumbai” or “Jai Maharashtra“. But I did not go out of my way to use “Bombay” excessively or to provoke. I do not recall that Bala-saheb was ever discomfited or upset at my use of language (or non-use of “Mumbai”), or that we had any difficulty in getting our messages across to each other.

I grew up with “Bombay” and it evokes for me a world of glamour and wealth but also of modernity and substance and rectitude. As a child we lived in Poona (not Pune) and travelled through Bombay regularly. Bombay was avant-garde. “Mumbai” for me conjures up an old dirty village. A picture of slums and unfinished construction and uncollected garbage and rotting mill buildings. All very subjective of course but names and language are about communicating meanings. I note that the international airport designation of Bombay remains “BOM”. Since it takes an Act of Parliament to change it, the “High Court of Bombay” remains the “High Court of Bombay” in Mumbai. The Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways Company Limited (B.E.S. & T Co.Ltd) remains BEST but the “B” now stands for “Brihanmumbai” (meaning Greater Bombay). The name of the main railway station Victoria Terminus (VT) was changed to Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus but it is still referred to by everybody as VT. “Bollywood” remains “Bollywood” and I see no moves to make that “Mullywood”. Bombay Gin would not taste the same as Mumbai Gin. Bombay duck is far superior to Mumbai duck. In the 2000’s I used to stay at a guest house on Malabar Hill. Taxi drivers know exactly what I mean when I refer to Flora Fountain or Cuffe Parade or Kemp’s Corner or Napean Sea Road. The magic of Marine Drive on a misty evening is still untouched. Bombay, Meri Jaan is still the original song with Dev Anand in the movie CID.

The politically correct name is “Mumbai” and foreigners – especially – are very concerned about being politically correct. When I use “Bombay” I have no fear of being misunderstood. And even ardent Marathi nationalists understand exactly what I mean when I say “Bombay”, and the cleverer ones (there are not many of them) may even understand that I don’t think much of their rabid parochialism.

I finished my schooling in Calcutta and my image of the city has to mirror that reality. I am not misunderstood today when I still refer to Calcutta rather than Kolkata. The Calcutta High Court is still going strong. The international airport code is still CCU. Back in 1963 the British Council Library on Theatre Road was one of my favourite haunts. The name of the road was changed to Shakespeare Sarani but when I was there earlier this year – 50 years on –  taxi drivers still referred to Theatre Road (and did not even know that there was any other name). School was on Park Street and Park Circus is just as congested as it always was. Lansdowne Road  and many others have been renamed, but the old names live on. Bangalore remains Bangalore for me and Bengaluru does not trip off my tongue very easily – if at all. In Delhi CP is the supposedly defunct Connaught Place but it is still CP and not Rajiv Gandhi Chowk. Madras airport remains MAA and the Madras High Court is now located in Chennai. Mount Road is still Mount Road and everybody knows where Parry’s corner is.

I am told that Mumbai and Chennai and Kolkata and Bengaluru are the only “correct” forms but that is just a rather empty political statement. There are no rights or wrongs with language. There are only successful communications or misunderstood ones. There is no correctness about grammar – only compliance with a prevailing usage. My point is that as with grammar so with names. Inventing words or rules of grammar – or names – is of little account if the invented terms are not used.

Maybe the old names will be forgotten in a generation or two – or maybe not. The reality of usage always trumps the desires of  “political correctness”.

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2 Responses to “Language and Bombay and Madras and Calcutta”

  1. Ramesh Purohit Says:

    i fully agree. although some people might say that why in the first place the colonizers changed it. Two wrongs do not make a right…..
    May be, there were muted protests at the time the changes were made …. apparent reason was the British tongue was not bale to pronounce the names properly…

  2. anandkumarrs Says:

    Nice post. I agree with you. To me it is still the Madras or Calcutta or Bangalore !

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