A little more on names and naming in Suketu Mehta

Pennathur's criticisms prompted me to read past the first 50 pages of Suketu Mehta's book Maximum City, partly in the interest of finding out the exact quote.

But it's also true that it's when you see real criticism of a book that you start to think seriously about it. What will its staying power be? Is it just this year's Desi publishing sensation, or is it going to be something you can come back to, and maybe teach from?

As an early general assessment, I do think this book will be of value as a source of pretty solid ideas and information about Bombay. It does have quite a few moments of diasporic writerly Romanticism (show-offy self-reflexivity), but it also has a lot of concrete information about unromantic things like architecture, the economics of the city, the politics of water, the changing dynamics of labor, and immigration to the city. Mehta's arguments will need to be verified and checked, but together they do offer a lot that will be new to non-Bombayites.

Ok, here are the two paragraphs where the Bombay/Mumbai issue comes to the forefront. He mentions it a few times earlier (the early history of the Portuguese settlers) -- you might want to read the whole "Mumbai" chapter of the book before forming a final judgment -- but these are the two key paragraphs:

A name is such that if you grow up with it you get attached to it, whatever its origins. I grew up on Nepean Sea Road, which is now Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg. I have no idea who Sir Ernest Nepean was nor do I know who Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas was, but I am attached to the original name and see no reason why it should change. The name has acquired a resonance, over time, distinct from its origin; as Rue Pascal or West 4th Street or Maiden Lane might ahve for someone who has grown up in those cities. I got used to the sound of it. It is incorporated into my address, into my dream life. I can come back to Nepean Sea Road; if some municipal functionary bent on exacting revenge on history changes it to Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg, he is doing a disservice to my memory.

Name-changing is in vogue all over India nowadays: Madras has been renamed Chennai; Calcutta, that British-made city, has changed its name to Kolkata. A BJP member of parliament has demanded that India's name be changed to Bharat. This is a process not just of decolonization but of de-Islamicization. The idea is to go back not just to past but an idealized past, in all cases a Hindu past. But to change a name, for a person or a road or a city, there had better be a very good reason. And there was no good reason to change the name of Bombay. It is nonsense to say that Mumbai was the original name. Bombay was created by the Portuguese and the British from a cluster of malarial islands, and to them should go the baptismal rights. The Gujuratis and Maharashtrians always called it Mumbai when speaking Gujurati or Marathi, and Bombay when speaking English. There was no need to choose. In 1995, the Sena demanded that we choose, in all our languages, Mumbai. This is how the ghatis took revenge on us. They renamed everything after their politicians, and finally they renamed even the city. If they couldn't afford to live on our roads, they could at least occupy the road signs.

Mehta's resistance seems to be a conflation two rather different sorts of issues. He first mentions the renaming of Bombay's streets and chowks (corners), before he gets to the renaming of the city; he seems to be considering them as of a piece. On the one hand, he is clinging to the place names he grew up with, out of what might be called nostalgia. He points out that there is a significant degree of corruption behind the street-name changes going on in Bombay. He also points out (rightly, from my experience) that practically no one knows the names of the minor figures who get slices of the city named after them. The names aren't being used. In my view, this argument is a bit self-indulgent, but I don't see that he will generate a great deal of vehement opposition.

The name of the city is a different matter, and his statements on it now seem (after hearing people's objections) a little sloppy. Unlike Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg (which no taxi driver in Bombay is likely to recognize), the name of a city is big enough that its official name absolutely does matter, both to inhabitants and to others; it can't be cheekily ignored. Further, I gather that a pretty substantial number of people actually use the new name. In my experience, the people who are most likely to resist it are the "English-medium" educated Indians -- who also happen constitute the bulk of my friends and family. But I'm willing to accept that large numbers of Indians now accept the name "Mumbai," even when speaking English. Non-Indians are forced to accept the name by default.

Mehta should probably have kept the two issues separate.

One further thought: It also seems to me that Mehta's class bias is a little unbecoming in the passage quoted above. The line about the 'revenge of the ghatis' is a reference to the following paragraph from earlier in the book:

I did not know many Maharashtrians when I was growing up. There was the world I lived in on Nepean Sea Road, and there was nother world whose people came to wash our clothes, look at our electric meters, drive our cars, inhabit our nightmares. We lived in Bombay and never had much to do with Mumbai. Maharashtra to us was our servants, the banana lady downstairs, the textbooks we were force-fed in school. We had a term for them: ghatis--literally, the people from the ghats, or hills. It was also the word we used, generically, for "servant."

Mehta is well aware of the power of a slur (this book as a whole is quite sensitive to the question of the language one uses), so it's unclear to me why he allows this one to slip out unchallenged in the passage about "Mumbai."