Germans speaking English call Munchen Munich, Egyptians call Al-Qahirah Cairo, Russians refer to Moskva as Moscow whilst the Czechs say Prague for Praha. Indeed, this is also true of Paris, Rome, Naples, Florence and Egypt itself. In Arabic the country is Misr. However no Arab would use that name when speaking English.
What’s in a name? Unless I’m terribly mistaken, this was the title of a popular strip cartoon in my teens. It would appear in the Sunday papers, which I eagerly anticipated. I’m not sure if it was always funny but it was unfailingly good fun.
Almost four centuries earlier, Shakespeare found better use for this question. “What’s in a name?” his delicate Juliet once asked. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” For her this meant there was no need for a Montague to become a Capulet to be more acceptable.
Unfortunately, Yogi Adityanath disagrees. For him names matter and unlike the strip cartoon he can’t see the humour behind them. So names with Muslim connections like Allahabad, Faizabad and Mughalsarai sound discordant to his ears. With one stroke of his chief ministerial pen he’s changed them to Prayagraj, Ayodhya and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction.
Now it seems the Yogi could have set a trend. Sangeet Som wants to rename Muzaffarnagar Laxmi Nagar. Jagan Prasad Garg believes Agra should be rechristened to Agravan or Agrawal. The chief minister of Gujarat believes Ahmedabad would be better known as Karnavati. (On the last I can’t disagree!)
All of this has provoked a deliciously wicked thought from the 87-year-old renowned historian, Irfan Habib. He says people with names like Munsi, Majumdar and Shah must change them because they have Islamic origins. “Shah is a Farsi word not Sanskrit”, he said.
Of course, this is not the first time we’ve taken to changing names. Earlier, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru were known by different names that were thought to be too British. Today television anchors trip over themselves trying to get the new names right whilst some of the rest of us cheerfully stick to Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Bangalore.
Are we wrong to do so? Are we thereby resisting nationalism and betraying imperial affections? Not necessarily.
In English, regardless of what they’re called in their own language, cities are known by and spoken of in terms of the Anglo-Saxon version of their name. So, Germans speaking English call Munchen Munich; Egyptians call Al-Qahirah Cairo; Russians refer to Moskva as Moscow; whilst the Czechs say Prague for Praha. Indeed, this is also true of Paris, Rome, Naples, Florence and Egypt itself. In Arabic, the country is Misr. However, no Arab would use that name when speaking English.
So what’s my conclusion: call them Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru in Marathi, Bengali and Kannada but let’s accept Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore when we speak in English. Chennai, which is an altogether different name and not just a pronunciation, is the odd one out.
Would this logic work for the Yogi? I doubt it. He’s not just correcting an anglicised pronunciation, he’s come up with a new name altogether. And here, I suspect, the important thing is to get away from any earlier Muslim association. He wants to repudiate history. He wants to erase the past.
Which means for Yogi the answer to the question I started with is that names matter a lot. Call a rose a gulab and its colours seem brighter, its smell sweeter and its thorns less prickly. Alas, gulab is an Urdu word.