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Call it Nostalgia

December 2004
Call it Nostalgia

In a recent article that lovingly dwells on his obsession with Indian masala films, Suketu Mehta, the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, mentions that he refuses to call this city Mumbai. For Mehta, and countless others everywhere, the place that's synonymous with Bollywood will always be known as Bombay. Hence, one might add, it's possible for them to think of the musical Bombay Dreams as Bollywood Dreams but never as Mumbai Dreams.

Mehta's disdain for Bombay's new name is noteworthy, given that his widely acclaimed work is likely to supersede numerous other books about India's largest city. His view prompted me to reflect on my own misgivings over this pointless renaming of cities in India. For a long time, ever since these metropolitan centers came into existence, people had no problem with Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Coimbatore, Cochin. Then, one by one ? following a wave of nationalistic fervor (or is it parochialism and opportunism?) ? the names were ?Indianized' by the few residents who had the power to do so. So, of course, now these same cities are known as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Kovai, Kochi.

It's true that these and other places, which grew and became cities mostly during the colonial era, didn't have purely indigenous names. But then, isn't that the nature of cities? A rural area that turns into an urban center over time sheds some of its local character and, by acquiring a cosmopolitan flavor, becomes a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Being pluralistic rather than pure, cities are usually an amalgam of various ethnic groups, cultures, religions and ideas. Some time ago, while talking about New York in an interview, Salman Rushdie pointed out that "layer after layer of people arrive with their stories from elsewhere ? Serbia, Afghanistan, Fiji ? that's the city culture. There's no dominant culture."

Names that endure become widely recognized and attain a certain mystique, especially for people who associate those names with the rich history of cities. Mumbai does not have the same resonance as Bombay. According to one dictionary definition, names can have "a distinguished, famous, or great reputation." So changing well-known names can greatly diminish that allure.

I suppose what's required is the passage of enough time ? perhaps a generation or more in some cases ? so that everybody can get used to the new name. After all, people no longer refer to Beijing as Peking or even to Yangon as Rangoon. NRIs are often accused of clinging to the India they'd known even though the country has moved along. That's certainly not my intention.

Instead, call it nostalgia.

One can only be thankful that more and more names are not being changed in India at this time. Otherwise the whole country could become unrecognizable to the unsuspecting traveler! Sometimes I fantasize about flying from here to Mumbai or Kolkata and then taking a train to Chennai. While waiting to board the Nilgiri Express that night, I will call my former schoolmate in Kochi. The following morning, in Kovai, I will catch a bus that will take me to the lovely hill station of Udhagamandalam (or Ooty). Although this trip would be entirely familiar to me, all the names will still sound strange. Still, as William Harrison once said, "Times change, and we change with them."

By Murali Kamma

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