Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Politics of Name

Juliet, a character created by a stupid fellow called Shakespeare, had foolishly observed

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Yes, I don't think anyone can be more stupid than Juliet or her creator Shakespeare. How could they forget that name is the most important identity of a nation, culture and society - that if you change the name then the very existence of a nation or a civilization is at stake? How could they not understand that the names 'Rose' and 'Ghulab' and 'Rosa Californica' and 'Rosa Bracteata' are totally different things? How could he miss that the rose that grows in Bengal is totally different than that which grows in Maharastra or Timbuktu or Honolulu or Ghana or Uganda?

Well, no one more than Raj Thackeray, would criticize Shakespeare for his stupid verses. If you go by Raj's ideology then nothing is more important than the name, whatever be it. According to him the respect of a person lies in his name - it doesn't matter what's the name and what's the background. He himself is the sole authority to decide what should be the name of a person and then he assigns everything to that name according to his whims!! According to him the name 'Mumbai' signifies everything that stands for the respect and pride of the Marathas, and calling by any other name tantamounts to stripping off all the respect and dignity.

Let me just point out how ridiculous and futile it is to associate a name with chauvinism of a regional culture or civilization. Forget about a small region, even the names of countries, more often than not, signify the collective impact of so many foreign entities that it's really stupid to associate much of the in-house culture on them. For example the very name 'India', or 'Hindustan' or 'Hindu' etc are totally foreign in origin - all of these are of Persian origin, popularized by Greeks and other people of the west. The culture of India is to a large extent India's own. But there also it's a mixture of so many cultures of so many people over a span of 4000 years. When we should be really proud of our culture, we shouldn't put any royalty on anything, specially the names. The Indian culture is the same irrespective of the name by which it's called - Indian, Hindi, Hindustani, Hindu, oriental, South Asian etc. It's ridiculous to force people to use one particular name and reject anything else just because one 'sounds' more Indian and the other Western!! That's exactly the case with Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai. Let me take the case on Mumbai only because I've spoken about Raj Thackeray.

Let's first start with the word Maratha, whose origin itself is shrouded in obscurity. One theory says that it could have come from the word 'Ratta', which is believed to be a short of Rashtrakuta, the dynasty that ruled regions in and around present day Maharastra in the past. That makes the Marathas of Aryan origin coming from the North. Alternatively it's also believed that Ratta may be of Dravidian origin, equivalent to Kanarese and Telegu Raddi or Redi denoting the caste of aboriginal Telegu farmers. Another theory also says that the Maharastrians may be the Rashtrikas referred to in many Ashoka's inscriptions as the people of this region. The Maratha language no doubt came from the Prakrit (post Sanskrit) language known as Maharashtri, used in many Jain literature. The word Marhatta used in the Jain Maharashtri literature/language comes from Sanskrit Maha Rashtra. So out of all the names from which 'Maratha' may have come, none is or local origin. So what is that the Maratha's should identify with as absolutely their own name? I think it should be the name by which they are popularly called or referred to. If they are called by multiple names let all the names be used.

Next let's come to the name Bombay. One of the oldest coins found in Bombay is attributed to one Krishna Raja Rashtrakuta, believed to have ruled between 375-400AD. No specific name of Bombay is available from that age. Bombay may be Ptolemy's Heptanesia (2nd century AD), the name for a harbor formed of seven islands.

One of the earliest inhabitants of regions in and around present Bombay were the Kolis, a Dravidian fishermen tribe. Other early tribes were Prabhus, Bhandari (palm juice drawers), Bhanguli, Palshi and Pachkalshi - none of whom can be claimed to be the original inhabitants of this region - they had all migrated from other parts of India - the same way the North Indians have migrated recently to Bombay for livelihood. The Walkeshwar and Mumbadevi temples, two important temples of the local inhabitants, were already existing when the Portuguese arrived in this region in the 16th century AD. The origin of the name Mumbadevi or Mumba-ai (ai means mother in Marathi) is also not clear. It's believed that some 600 years ago a Koli fisherman by the name Munga founded a temple and called it Mungachi Amba, which contracted to Devi Mumba or Mumba-ai or Mumbai. It was the practice of the time to name temples in the name of the founder.

There's no doubt that all forms of names by which the city was called or referred to in the past 600 years have been derived from Mumbadevi or Mumbai. But then what does the name of a Dravidian fisherman have to do with the chauvinism of the residents of present day Bombay or the Marathas. The Kolis were exactly same as the Biharis and other North Indians who are now branded as outsiders. More importantly the place where the Koli Munga built a temple and the subsequent metropolis of Bombay are totally different entities. They are as different as Mr. Narendra Nath Dutta is from Swami Vivekananda or Mr. M K Gandhi is from Mahatma Gandhi. It's true that in Marathi and Gujrati language the city has been always referred to as Mumbai, but to the majority of people outside Bombay, the city has been known in various names since 16th century and Bombay is by far the most popular of all.

After Ptolemy's reference as Heptanesia in the 2nd century AD, the first reference to the city in the recent past was perhaps in 1516 by writer Duarte Barbosa in the strange form of Tana Maiambu. In the Portuguese edition it became Benamajambu, where Bena may be Thana and Majambu may be Mahim. First reference of Bombay was by Portuguese writer Gaspar Correa as Bombaim. He came to India in 1512. Next writer to refer to Bombay (also as Bombaim) was in 1538. In 1554 it was referred as Bombaym and Monbaym. Bombaim is often believed to be the Portuguese of Boon Bay (Good Bay), though it may not be correct.

Each of the names by which the city has been called in the past are part of the history and culture of the city and ignoring any one of the names would mean stripping off a part of history from the city. Erasing the name Bombay from Mumbai is as criminal an offence as erasing the Mahatma from Gandhi, who was born Mohandas, but became famous as Mahatma. The present day city might have been born as Mumbai, but it grew up to be Bombay. Does a Raj or any tom-dick-harry have the right to rip off the adult name of the city?

More over having multiple names is a part of Indian tradition. The Hindu Gods have thousand names and people are supposed to chant all thousand names as part of rituals. So why can't Bombay have many names?

How stupid was Shakespeare!! Silly fellow, you know!!



Prashant said...


I wouldn't really say that names don't mean anything. A symbol or sentiments are attached to names. Having said that, Raj Thackray didn't really mean anything when he threatened to stop the screening of 'Wake Up Sid'. It was just an opportunity for him to prove his might. To prove that he's the 'dada' of the region. And to score a brownie political point. We have seen this earlier as well - when he asked Jaya Bachchan to apologize for not speaking in Marathi

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