(Published in The Hindu, April 14 2016)
In the 1930s wizened retirees parked in gentlemen’s clubs used to snigger that if Lord Willingdon, the Viceroy, was born to govern India, Lady Willingdon was born to govern him. She certainly had formidable reserves of energy, deployed in leaving her very immoderate footprint in this country. She set out to propagate her family name, having roads, hospitals, and whatever else she found — an airport included — named after one or another of her august household. Brassey Avenue, for instance, flattered her grandfather, while Ratendone Road gratified her son. Of course neither man had come anywhere near India. She appropriated Lodi Gardens as Lady Willingdon Park, and even as far as Cochin managed to claim a Willingdon Island. Indeed, such was the scale of her accomplishments that it took independent India decades to undo her methodical exploits. A thwarted Lady Willingdon probably turned in her grave at the biggest blow: the Delhi street named after her beloved son today honours a bisexual female painter, Amrita Sher-Gil.
Back to the myths
While all this might be dismissed as the phenomenal vanity of an imperial spouse, our home-grown rulers have proved eminently proactive in exercising their own name-dispensing prerogatives, the latest being the transformation of >Gurgaon into the more Sanskritised Gurugram in honour of the Mahabharata hero, Dronacharya. The best that can be said about this innovation is that in a society that mythologises historical figures (thereby abandoning objective scrutiny at the altar of ‘hurt sentiments’), we finally have some variety with a place named after an actual mythological figure. (And he will now invest Gurgaon’s monuments of glass and steel with once-upon-a-time glories as a ‘centre of learning’, according to the authorities.)
It wouldn’t be cynical to suspect that the government expects dividends from this rechristening since most such moves tend to depend on political calculations, though occasionally one comes across obscure streets memorialising even more obscure names that happened to be related to a dominant grandee or a socialite with reach.
Of course, no one across the political spectrum is blameless when it comes to exalting new names and spellings to the towering heights of Indian signposts. So much so that one could be excused for wishing the return of Lady Willingdon’s subcontinental orbits naming everything after assorted relations — at least we can all agree in our shared dislike of her labels and address more pressing concerns, of which this country confronts a number. But then again, renaming places attracts a good section of our political class precisely because, as Lady Willie realised, it offers glamorous avenues to look wise and pretend at making history than, say, a deliberation on the legendary potholes into which residents of Gurugram will continue to periodically sink despite Dronacharya’s heightened significance in their community.
In essence, let everything crumble, so long as we get something named after our chosen icon for the season and a little bit of chest-thumping for our troubles. After all, this is a period for slogans and much thumping in the battle between The Idea of India and The Idea of India & Cow.
It is perhaps tedious to have to point out yet again the political insecurity that propels this desire to rename places. Bombay was a marshland till the Portuguese, for want of better options, developed it. When Catherine of Braganza transferred it to the British crown, it began to grow into a great metropolis. Its transformation into Mumbai was a post-Independence demonstration of local pride and cultural assertion. Nativism hasn’t cured the city of its monumental woes, but guardians of its name can revel in restored ‘pride’.
For years, factions in >Madras clamoured to have its name changed to Chennai. This was done, and the ‘foreign’ name discarded. Only late in the day did architects of this breakthrough divine that Chennai derives from a Telugu-speaking prince and isn’t quite that embodiment of Tamil sentiment. And they were belatedly embarrassed by opinions that ‘Madras’ is quite probably, in fact, Tamil.
On the one hand, we seem unable after all these years to reconcile to our history as a once-subjugated people. And so we set about renaming all varieties of things to make a point to dead Victorians whose successors in faraway countries don’t particularly care that colonial Calicut is now a very Indian Kozhikode — someone in Uttar Pradesh might have more trouble getting around that. But in these name reversals one could argue that there is democratic will and justification.
In addition to this rejoinder to colonialism, however, we now also seek to transform harmless, familiar local names into Sanskritised super-names as part of a unifying Hindutva cultural agenda. As it is with historical figures we rarely attain consensus while filling the Willingdon vacuum. The BJP has its pantheon and the Congress has Nehru, who is routinely blamed for every other current and past malady these days. And now we must grapple with what could mutate into a trend of hyper-Indianising already Indian names — I recommend that Trivandrum, now somewhat unwieldy as Thiruvananthapuram, return to its ‘original’ Sanskrit Syanandapuram.
It is a peculiar irony that all this name changing is essentially in pursuit of a business notoriously exemplified by an imperious Vicereine when India was her husband’s fiefdom and she wished to shape it in her image. Today our own leaders compete clumsily with alternative images while most of us serve as shuttlecocks confronting mindless priorities that ought to have been buried forever with Lady Willingdon and her generation. But then this precludes the phenomenal capacity Indian politicians have for resurrecting ideas that have been long dead, while their subjects wallow in the same old problems in the same old ways, whether living in Gurgaon or Gurugram, Bombay or Mumbai.