The naming game goes merrily on

India (at least a large portion of it) has been ruled over the centuries by those professing the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths. Each successive dynasty or empire, depending on its geographical origins and religious proclivities, christened and rechristened places at will

V RamaniUpdated: Sunday, September 25, 2022, 10:22 PM IST
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Juliet got it all wrong when she said "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Especially in my dear Bharat, where, unlike the name-dropping we see in societies in other countries, the emphasis is on dropping names. The latest headline-making news is, of course, Rajpath making way for Kartavya Path. True to the argumentative Indian's penchant for seeing the funny side of things, Raj Bhavans have been renamed Kartavya Bhavans, the trains headed for the national capital have been rechristened Kartavyadhani Expresses and a major state in India has acquired the moniker Kartavyasthan.

With the constant inflow of migrants over four millennia (I think it is unfair to call those who settled in this country invaders), a turnover in names was only to be expected. India (at least a large portion of it) has been ruled over the centuries by those professing the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths. Each successive dynasty or empire, depending on its geographical origins and religious proclivities, christened and rechristened places at will.

My early childhood in Delhi was spent travelling on roads named after assorted British Governors General and Viceroys — Cornwallis, Hastings, Curzon, Minto, Irwin and Reading, to name a few. By the time I reached adolescence, these roads had acquired the names of freedom fighters and other well-known Indians. More recently, the road named after the late but not so lamented Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was given the name of India's eleventh President, though I have it on the authority of my friend Mukul Kesavan that Aurangzeb Lane has escaped the axe.

Old habits die hard, as I learnt when I reached Bombay (as it then was) as an IAS probationer in 1981. Disembarking at Bombay Central railway station, I asked the cabbie to head for VT (Victoria Terminus) station. The Administrative Staff College near VT, where I was to undergo training, had directed me to reach Hazarimal Somani Marg. At VT, the cabbie expressed ignorance about this Marg and we spent the next forty minutes flitting from Colaba to Metro Cinema in search of the elusive goal. Something impelled me to check the letter from the Staff College and I noticed, in brackets, the name Waudby Road. The irritated cabbie asked me why I had not given the right name in the first place and, lighter by many rupees, I reached my destination.

But Bombay (sorry, Mumbai) was not done with me. I still remember Amol Palekar, romancing Vidya Sinha on a BEST bus in Chhoti Si Baat, asking the conductor for two tickets to Fountain (Flora Fountain). It was only after I moved to Maharashtra in the 1980s that I became aware that Flora Fountain had been renamed Hutatma Chowk as early as 1960. When I took up residence in the premises of the Byculla Zoo (Jijamata Udyan, to be politically correct), the road in front was ES Patanwala Marg. Digging deep into the origins of Mr Patanwala, I discovered that he was the owner of the famous Afghan Snow brand, applied by us on our faces in the 1960s. I was witness to the efforts of our city fathers (and mothers) to get roads named after some venerated soul (often a dear departed relative) during my stint in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC, as it is popularly known). Most general body meetings of the Corporation would have at least one or two of these items on the agenda. The names associated with localities and given to bus stops in Mumbai reflect its eclectic spirit: on a BEST bus plying on the Colaba-Dadar route, you will find passengers asking for tickets to Haji Ali, Prabha Devi and Portuguese Church.

The state from which my ancestors hailed, Tamil Nadu, is no less inclusive: Northern Chennai has an area (Parry's Corner), named after the British founder of one of India's oldest business houses as also its own Broadway. Its politicians and natives sport the names of statesmen, emperors and freedom fighters: Stalin, Lenin, Napoleon, Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi.

The 1990s Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra was very keen to rename Aurangabad and Osmanabad: these changes finally came about during the recent political turmoil in the state. Aurangabad is now Chhattrapati Sambhaji Nagar and Osmanabad is Dharashiv. Not that other governments have been inactive on this front: Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai sport their new names; Delhi stays as it is, probably because Indraprastha was too briefly the capital of the Pandavas to lend its name. Karnataka has not lagged behind: Gulbarga to Kalaburagi, Bijapur to Vijayapura and Belgaum to Belagavi, not omitting the other entrants: Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mangaluru. In UP, Allahabad's name has been changed to Prayagraj and Mughalsarai Junction, that oasis for the Kolkata-bound railway traveller, to Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction. Ahmedabad, Lucknow and Hyderabad wait in the wings for their name changes.

But it is not just the names of places that occasion action. The name issue dogs North-South interactions as well. Brought up in Delhi, I stuck to the name you see at the top of this column. Can you imagine how the name Venkatesan Subramaniam (my given name at birth) would have been spelt in any document? As it is, the name Ramani leads to gender misclassification at times – because what is a male name in Tamil Nadu applies to females in Kerala. When I was to join the Mussoorie Academy, a North Indian Associate Course Director (ACD) assigned me a room in the Ladies Block. My chance of living in the midst of my female batchmates was scotched by the other Tamilian ACD who, with equal sang-froid, assigned my fellow male batchmate with the surname Maheshwari a room in the same Ladies Block.

And so, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as the naming game goes on merrily, with the twin objectives of reviving the past and setting one's seal on posterity, it behooves us to remember the wise words of the King of Persia: EVEN THIS WILL PASS AWAY.

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre

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