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How to name it

More than a sense of power has fuelled the urge to rename places like Allahabad, Faizabad and Mughalsarai. It is also the impulse to erase a part of heritage.

How to name it
Why some old names survive and where they live on after they are forced out of official usage are interesting questions to contemplate. (Illustration: C R sasikumar)

If you are fond of changing place names, you may find the resilience of old names quite annoying. Though pushed out of official usage, they tend to linger. If you want to know why, you can’t do better than talk to a common user. In Allahabad, for instance, if you ask a rickshaw puller to take you to the Amar Shahid Chandra Shekhar Azad Park, he is likely to verify your intent by asking, “Company Bagh?” In Delhi, I haven’t met anyone yet who refers to Connaught Circus as Rajiv Chowk. The only user of this new name is the Delhi Metro.

Whether the new name will stick, literally, like a stamp or label, becomes clear in the moment of change itself. When Ceylon changed to Sri Lanka, one knew that the popularity of Radio Ceylon would not come in the way. That Connaught Circus would not give way to Rajiv Chowk was also equally clear. I suppose they couldn’t call it Rajiv Circus, so they chose the ethnic-sounding Chowk though it wasn’t. Six radial roads meet the inner circle, but Hindi provides no name for such a structure. Years have passed, but even the State Bank branch located in the inner circle has not adopted the new name.

A similar fate awaits the new names of Allahabad and Mughalsarai, or so it seems for now. Noida’s lesson should have sufficed to indicate that once a name has received cosy asylum in vernacular memory and usage, it is not easy to dislodge it.

When old place names are replaced by a person’s, the chances of success are low. The founder of my alma mater had deliberately avoided giving his own name to it. The legend was that Jawaharlal Nehru had advised Hari Singh Gour to use the town’s name, Saugar, otherwise it might get shifted to Jabalpur when he was no more there to protect the magnificent campus in the vicinity of his humble hometown. Years later, when the wave of personalised campus names was sweeping through Madhya Pradesh, the university was renamed after its founder. Those of us whose first degrees had been granted in the old days did worry for some time whether we would need to get our certifying papers re-authenticated. Our worry proved unnecessary. In the old days, young students walked to his modest memorial near the library and felt curious enough about his life to find a biography or his own books in the library. Now, when the university itself has been named after him, apparently against his own wish, I doubt if the name will arouse any curiosity.

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Why some old names survive and where they live on after they are forced out of official usage are interesting questions to contemplate. In many cases, the renaming does not fail entirely and both names co-exist, though in separate spheres. The case of Allahabad will be like that. The name “Prayag” is hardly new. The popular children’s monthly, Balsakha, published by the famous Indian Press, was using Prayag in its postal address in the 1950s. The post-Partition ethos had found resonance in Balsakha’s editorial policy of cultural nationalism. When you went to the post office to send Balsakha’s annual subscription by money order, the postal clerk advised you to put Allahabad in brackets after Prayag. But Allahabad had a larger sphere of use, and that included many other publications of the Indian Press itself. The city was richly diverse, with colonial institutions of repute and a literary renaissance which covered high poetry and socially radical fiction in Hindi. In such an ethos, both Allahabad and Prayag could live with comfort. Now, the renamers want Prayagraj. Thanks to the Indian Railways, Prayagraj already exists, as the name of a train originating in Delhi. I doubt if the city itself will now wriggle into a train’s identity.

The chances of Mughalsarai adopting its new name are equally bleak. It is a hyper-busy railway junction. Trains come and go all night and all day long. The loudest voice sounds like a whisper. It is a junction where people change trains, so the passenger who asks for a ticket to Mughalsarai must be rare. Its new name, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, can at best satisfy the urge to change an old name. This urge might have found similar satisfaction by renaming Gurgaon and Noida. In each case, the ideological imperative is subservient to the impulse to exhibit power. When power is used to vanquish the vernacular, the latter wins by tacit adjustment and patiently sustained passive resistance.

However, in cases like the renaming of Allahabad, Faizabad and Mughalsarai, it is more than a sense of power that is fuelling the urge to rename. It is also the impulse to erase a part of heritage — the part on which a politically cultivated habit has heaped disdain and hate. For the sustenance of this kind of renaming, the vernacular system, which includes language and values, offers little hope. Consider the case of “Bharat”. When this term officially replaced “Hindustan” in the Hindi version of the Constitution, the latter need not have survived. But it does, and not merely in the title of a daily newspaper. More famously, it lives on in Iqbal’s composition which is used by the Indian Army as the final item in its annual Beating the Retreat function, which closes the Republic Day ceremonies. Few moments are as suffused with patriotic sentiments than the sound of bugles playing Iqbal as the marching bands withdraw, walking up Raisina Hill into the sunset.

As for Allahabad, even if they succeed in obliterating it from the railway platforms, degrees and passports, it will live on. Apart from oral memory, where most of the vernacular knowledge resides, Allahabad will also continue to live in poetry. Nirala, the greatest Hindi poet of the last century, immortalised Allahabad when he wrote about a young woman breaking stones: Dekha use mainen Illahabad ke path par (I saw her on a street of Allahabad).

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