UPDATE: The U.S. Consulate has requested the USG to officially change “Calcutta” to “Kolkata” for U.S. Consulate-related matters. Seems that many people in many places couldn’t handle the “confusion.” Or maybe the system couldn’t handle it. Conformity, people! I said conformity!
There are many histories and legacies in a country such as India; in its cities and villages, and if you probe deeply enough, in its people.
Sometimes a place or a building looks better at night. In Calcutta it’s more accurate to say that many of the places and buildings look even better at night. The Writers’ Building has defined the northern side of Dalhousie Square in Calcutta since 1780, although it existed in various incarnations since 1690. Today, Dalhousie Square is officially Benoy, Badal, Dinesh Bagh. Chowringhee Road is Jhawarlal Nehru Road. The list goes on, and so I’ve learned to ask: what was the original name?
People know what I mean when I ask this question. If there’s a slash of gray hair on their head, or if they wear thick-lensed spectacles, the answer I receive is usually the British name. If I ask someone who’s been fed throughout the years with the ruling Communist Party doctrine, I expect to hear a name suggesting liberation from the days of ruling classes and tyrants.
In recent days I’ve read of other changes in India: the Union Territory of Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and the congested techie capital of Bangalore (now Bengaluru). It reminds me of studying the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, and of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. There’s an argument that the human condition of necessity requires us to search for an origin, a meaning behind a meaning, for the proverbial “guy behind the guy behind the guy.” But you never see the original light or the actual thing; it’s only shadows to which you try and attach meaning.
A large number of changes to names in India occurred after the country gained its independence. Putting aside the fact that most people have a limited knowledge and understanding of historical events, these name changes might be about erasing meaning and legacies, both real and symbolic. Fair enough, one might say, if that’s what it takes to cast of the yoke of colonialism or oppression or that overarching demon referred to as “The West.” Yet name changes seem to happen for two other reasons: political expediency and a misguided need to affirm an identity. Reason one is easy enough to dismiss. Reason two is a bit more complicated.
I’ve held on to my own name in the face of stiff challenges by pre-adolescent bullies, unenlightened professors, and Americans who have never traveled outside the boundaries of their hometown. No changing Vinod to Vinny, Murali to Roy or Babu to Bobby for me. But I haven’t managed to affect its mispronunciation – sigh.
In the days of British rule, Indians didn’t have the option of choosing identities for themselves. Today, however, they do, but you get the feeling here that it would be almost impossible to get a real consensus on anything, let alone identity. Chennai and Mumbai seem to work fairly well as far as name changes go (they’ve stuck), but the wave of nationalism that produced those changes has succumbed to a preference for spending the money necessary to effect such changes on something more valuable, like immunizations or education.
The other night I hopped in a yellow Ambassador taxi.
“I’m going to the American Consulate on Ho Chi Minh Sarani,” I said.
“Ahhh…Ho Chi Minh Sarani,” said the cabbie. “It used to be such a nice street, sir. In those days it was called Harrington Street, and there were no barriers blocking access to the people.”