There is no question about it, Bengalis in India are justified in wanting to stop calling their state West Bengal. Paschimbanga was the new consensus name, trumping alternatives such as Bangla, Bongodesh and our personal favourite, Bongo Bhumi. Why be forced to twist your tongue around ‘Oishte’ Bengal.
One way out, of course, would have been to simply ‘Bengalify’ the spelling and declare the birth of Oishte Bangaal, in the same way that Simla became Shimla and, somewhat earlier, Cawnpore became Kanpur. Local pronunciation prompted Asom, Puducherry and Odisha to become the new names of Assam, Pondicherry and Orissa respectively. Or, perhaps, these were merely reversions to their original names. After all, these were the names that were changed to suit the pucca British tongues that could not get around delicious Southasian sounds like pur, baad, uru and ganj, the most common suffixes denoting place names. So the process of reclaiming these fruity resonances has been gradual but steady, in many cases accompanied by chest-thumping nationalism and sub-nationalism – devotion to the motherland and local culture of course being equated with the volume of resources poured into the paperwork and signboard-painting that accompanies each change.
Name dropping has been a Southasian pastime ever since roads were roads and chowks were chowks, the guiding philosophy being that if you cannot rub shoulders with bigwigs, at least attach their names to sundry streets. Shrugging off the colonial legacy has also meant a slew of new names, with roads, bhavans and airports being named after patriots of various hues. Most assassinated leaders in the Subcontinent have at least one airport named after them, if not a couple of squares, streets and convention centres.
The veneration of certain leaders can also create considerable confusion for guidebook writers and common citizens trying to simply find their way around. In many Indian cities, everything seems to be named after one Gandhi or another, ranging from Mohandas to Indira to Rajiv, doubtless to be followed eventually by Sonia, Rahul and maybe Priyanka. In Bombay – Mumbai, that is – one heads from Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal to Chhatrapati Shivaji Chowk to museums, halls, stadia, roads – all named after the famous warrior king, who gallops on his rearing steed and brandishes his sword menacingly from countless statues around the city.
Odour of the rose
This urge to stamp one’s legacy on unsuspecting future generations means that history begins to resemble a work of fiction. The Hindu-isation drive in India means that if some people have their way, every remnant of Muslim rule will be wiped away. Ahmedabad will become Karnavati, Allahabad will be changed to Prayag, and Aurangabad transformed into Sambhajinagar. Of course, when the re-christening mania reaches the Indian capital, the publishers of the Lonely Planet guides can be trusted to join the protests – how can ‘Indraprastha Belly’ be taken seriously?
Of course, love for one’s own motherland hinders the naming of another’s motherland. In 1999, attempts by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government to rename West Bengal as Bangla or Bango (with the ‘o’ masquerading as an ‘a’) were met with bitter opposition from within Bangladesh. Jyoti Babu had to remain content with reverting Calcutta to Kolkata, which, even at the time, uncultured non-Bengalis expected to be called Kolkoto. Untutored in the niceties of Bengali, the rest of the world erroneously assumes that the language lacks the ‘a’, unmindful of the centuries of phonic training that goes into smelting some ‘a’ into ‘o’ and leaving the rest for use in English.
Even as the average Bengali gives short shrift to the language, it is the English alphabet that apparently drove Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to make another push – this time successfully – for a name change. Last in an alphabetical list of 28 states, ministers from West Bengal found themselves addressing official meetings amidst empty chairs and loud rumbles from hungry bellies impatient for lunch. None waited long enough to hear West Bengali speakers. This tragedy now awaits the ministers and seminarians from Uttar Pradesh.
With this keen desire to be bumped up the list of speakers, one would have imagined the consensus would have been for Bongo or Bangla, after Rabindranath Tagore’s famous ‘Banglar mati, banglar jal’ song about the earth and water of the land. But instead, there is a puzzling insistence on the ‘Paschim’, or West, or Oishte, as the case may be. (Incidentally, ‘Oishte’ would have moved the state even further up the alphabetical ladder, if only by one character.) West from what? At the turn of the previous century, the British created an East and West out of Bengal, and after Partition East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan in 1956. So west of the east is indubitably west, but now that Bangladesh is Bangladesh (and has been so since 1971), the ‘Paschim’ part of the new name seems about as useful as a compass on Mars.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)