Will renaming the city get rid of a lingering colonial hangover?
Arose by any other name will smell as sweet. Calcutta by any other name will be as chaotic.” These words in the lead story of a Calcutta daily summed up the mood of an immobilised Calcutta held to ransom by a Mamta Banerjee political rally on 21 July, a day after the self-anointed champions of Bengali culture rechristened Calcutta “Kolkata”, following the example set earlier by Bombay and Madras.
One would have expected that given the Bengali’s well-known language chauvinism, the renaming would have generated considerable enthusiasm among the people of Calcutta. This was not the case. A few gawky Calcuttans approached by television channels on the streets said that they were happy about the ‘change. But a more scientific opinion poll conducted for The Telegraph newspaper showed that 52 percent of the city’s denizens are against the name-change. More significant was the fact that an overwhelming number of those surveyed were young.
Leading the charge for the ‘Bengalisation’ of the name of this 300-year-old city was the wellknown writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, who had been demanding the change through various newspaper and magazine articles. His write-ups attempted to rouse the Bengalispeaker to his support and were laced with polemic. A recent one stated that though the British had named the city “Calcutta” 250 years ago, the Bengalis continue to pronounce and write it Kolkata in Bengali. Only the brown sahebs call it “Khalkhata”. He certainly has a point there but the revered, accomplished and progressive writer sounds almost fascistic when he says that the English-language journalists who call the Bengalis “Bongs” should be taught a lesson or when he calls for publicly ridiculing Bengali children who speak English among themselves and socially boycotting the parents who neglect teaching of Bengali to their children.
In a way, Gangopadhyay’s outburst only serves to underline the collective frustration felt by writers at the declining readership of Bengali literature. Even a prolific and talented a writer as Gangopadhyay must have been affected by this. And their way of getting back at their vanishing readers seems to be forcing Bengali-ness down the throat of the present generation, something which, they feel, is accomplished to some extent by renaming Calcutta.
Gangopadhyay’s political alter ego in the renaming enterprise is the state’s Home Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Tipped to become chief minister when Jyoti Basu steps down, Bhattacharya has not particularly distinguished himself with his administrative skills. But it is well known that he is fond of rubbing shoulders with the Bengali literati and has on occasions been embroiled in controversies over his attempts to ‘preserve’ the Bengali culture. Thus it was that the would-be cultural czar of Bengalidom introduced the resolution for the renaming of Calcutta, and got it passed. (The resolution also proposes that West Bengal be called Bangla but that is a matter that can only be decided by the Centre.) The opposition Congress too fell in line to “correct the historical wrong”. Never mind if the move represented nothing more than an exercise in parochialism to subvert the historical legacy of the British who founded the city in the closing years of the 17th century.
Unlike many big cities of India, such as Delhi or Madras, Calcutta does not have a recorded history prior to 1690 when a British East India Company merchant called Job Chamock formally integrated the three villages of Kolikata, Sutanuti and Govindopur to lay the foundation of a new settlement. The British took the name Kolikata and called their new town Calcutta. In 1706 the place had only two streets, two lanes and eight pucca houses. By 1756 this had become 27 streets, 52 lanes and 498 pucca houses. Later it became the seat of British power in India, ultimately emerging as the second city of the British empire (after London) by the end of the 19th century.
It was under British patronage that the city metamorphosed into a torch-bearer for art, culture, literature, journalism, social reform and progressive thinking. It was also owing to British support that renaissance figures like Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and others could bring about momentous social changes in Bengali society, changes that were to have a ripple effect throughout India. While the architectural history of post-Independence Calcutta is one of a tasteless decline towards an unsafe concrete jungle, the now-crumbling buildings of the metropolis built by the British had once earned it the epithet “city of palaces”.
The idea of Kolkata does not seem very amusing to some die-hard Calcuttans, of whom, a recent report from the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority says, ethnic Bengalis account for only 57 percent. Eminent filmmaker and one of the city’s cultural icons, Mrinal Sen, says he is at a loss as to how the change in name would bring about a change in Bengali culture. “They say this is how we can get rid of the colonial legacy. This is one thing I don’t understand at all. How do you do that? To stand shorn of the colonial legacy is not that simple. The only thing I can foresee is that in these days of growing poverty some more money will be spent in effecting the change across the state and at the Centre.”
Shyamanand Jalan, a nonBengali Calcuttan playwright and vice-president of Sangeet Natak Akademy, feels that forcing the city to a single-language identity will only lead to isolation. Hopefully, Calcutta is made of sterner stuff and a mere name-change will not make it lose its soul.