We are a strange people. We file mandamus writ petitions in our august Supreme Court to get our government to change names of cities, towns, and streets. And the court takes time to hear these petitions, and issues judgments. It is not as if genuinely aggrieved citizens are not waiting years on end to get their timorous and tearful pleas heard. But then names are important. In fact, more important than weary long suffering, patient citizens waiting for judgments and justice.
In Indic aesthetics and epistemology, there is an obsession with “nama-rupa” (name and form). The petitioner and the court are therefore in the sanctified company of our ancients. And it is important to salute departed ancients. Living litigants can and should wait.
What is fascinating is the selective nature of our public debates. No newspaper editorialised when Curzon Road was renamed Kasturba Gandhi Marg. This is because our glorious acronym loving NCERT has ensured that no Indian child knows that in Curzon’s absence, we may not today be aware that there ever was a magnificent Stupa at Amaravati or gorgeous railings at Bharhut. Curzon just preserved our monuments for us. Not such a big deal anyway! We were and are not lovers of ruins. We think ruins make for good stone quarries.
No luminaries objected when Irwin Road was renamed. Again, our academic czars have ensured that no Indian school child is ever told that the courageous Irwin invited opprobrium from many of his countrymen when he signed the Gandhi-Irwin pact. The Raj is hated by the pompous Leftists who were earlier in power. The present dispensation has at least acknowledged Indian soldiers who fought for the Raj in far-off places like Flanders and Haifa. Perhaps it might help if a mischief-maker made the case that the British Raj did liberate our ancestors from Nawabs, Sultans and even Padshahs. But I guess the anti-Raj sentiment is almost a required entrance ticket into the halls of Indian politics.
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Names are important
Fortunately, in the southern half of our puzzling peninsula, better sense has prevailed. We have changed Madras to Chennai, Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore to Bengaluru. But arguably, the latter two are just orthographic corrections, even if many of us find the changes uncomfortable. We have retained Cubbon Park, Cunningham Road, Bowring Hospital, Casa Major Road, Boag Road and Queen Mary’s College (we fondly refer to it as Rani Mary Kalloori). In my native Coimbatore, we still have Sullivan Street and Stanes High School. Ooty (sorry Udhagamandalam) still has the graceful Lushington Hall and the charming Lawley Institute.
North Indians cannot take credit for the fact that they have not imitated their Pakistani cousins who have changed Lyallpur to Faisalabad. The Saudi monarch who was honored must have been beneficent, even as some of his nephews practiced the ancient art of falconry on endangered bustards. The Pakistanis are so comically absurd that they have named a stadium after Gaddafi, a North African leader, a possessor of decidedly dubious credentials. But Delhi, or New Delhi, to be more precise, is not exempt. It is full of outré names that cannot be explained to anyone. There is Josef Broz Tito Road. I don’t think even Belgrade has such a road. There is also Archbishop Makarios Road. Well, well…bless me! Let us try to find one in Nicosia. We should be thankful that in our golden socialist epoch, we did not create a Marshal Stalin Road. Or have we? Have I just missed it?
Names are important. The much-maligned Khan Market in Delhi is named for Dr. Khan Sahib, who saved the lives of Hindus and Sikhs in Peshawar. When these bruised refugees turned up in Delhi and opened a few shops with the hope of standing on their own feet and not relying on state largesse, they thought it was important to commemorate the memory of their savior, defender, and benefactor. Many may not know that T. Nagar in Madras (sorry Chennai) is named after Sir P. Theagaraya Chetty and of course I don’t expect the NCERT-educated readers of this column to know that R.S. Puram in Coimbatore is named after Dewan Bahadur Ratnasabhapathy Mudaliar. Both were eminent persons, great philanthropists and just incidentally, pro-British. Some of us have no problems with this. In Bangalore (sorry Bengaluru), we have a C.V. Raman Nagar. He was a Nobel-laureate and an eminent citizen. Again, he was knighted by the British and again, we have no problems with that also.
Next time the Supreme Court decides to hear “Nama-Rupa” petitions, perhaps they can attempt to restore the integrity of our history in every way. This childish and fundamentally ill-conceived hatred of the Raj, a legitimate, real, consequential part of our history needs to be gotten rid of. If our politicians won’t do it, our judges who swear by the very English Magna Carta should take the initiative.
Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)