What’s in a name? A lot, Really

Twenty Six years ago I was born into an Anglo-Indian family in the great city of Calcutta, the commercial capital of Eastern India located in West Bengal. Calcutta and Bengal in general, have long been known for its literary and cultural heritage which has been enriched because of the potpourri of cultures found here. Calcuttans have always had a special appreciation for the traditions of the myriad communities that have called this state ‘home’ for decades and are known to be inclusive and welcoming in their ways.

In an attempt to step away from western culture and eliminate any traces of a colonial hangover, the anglicized name ‘Calcutta’ was unceremoniously dropped and replaced with ‘Kolkata’ in the year 2001.The altered name was seen as an innovative move on the part of the Government to give the city a more recognizably ‘Bengali’ identity. The change however, was a difficult one to get used to.  This most peculiar distortion, though effortless for the Bengali community to pronounce, took a lot of getting used to. Even today, non Bengali speakers find themselves slipping back into the old familiar comfort of referring to their home as good old Calcutta.

Lately the internet has been abuzz with drastic reactions pouring in from across the globe. The bone of contention this time is the State Governments decision to rename West Bengal as ‘Paschimbanga’, the Bengali alternative for the original name. The decision to make this sudden change was taken over a hushed weekend meeting where thirteen members of the State Government ‘unanimously’ decided FOR the ninety million people of the state.

The people in power claim that the name change was envisaged to gain strategic governmental advantages, a claim that has been rendered completely redundant in this morning’s Telegraph.

The thing that gets me most riled up about this entire situation is that, our leaders don’t seem to understand that this move has cost the people so much more than that which meets the eye. They have shown marked apathy towards the feelings and sentiments of the people and utter disregard for the opinions of the non Bengali communities. I am led to believe that these powerful futurists were unable to fathom the far-reaching ramifications of their decision and the inconvenience and displeasure it would cause for the people who live and work here.

In my opinion, a great injustice has been done to communities such as the Anglo-Indians, the Chinese or the Parsis of Calcutta. In their rush to make superfluous changes, the feelings and views of these people (who may I add, feel isolated from the general community in spite of their long association with the state) have been categorically ignored. The government has failed to use this as an opportunity to unite these communities and include them in such a critical decision that will affect them and their sense of belonging to the state.

I remember the strange feeling I was left with each time I  had to correct myself and say ‘Kolkata’ or write the word on an official document. I wasn’t born in Kolkata; I was born in Calcutta, no matter what the pseudo intellectuals have to say. The change back then, caused a mini upheaval in my teenage mind. My sense of belonging and my sense of identity were affected. Even though I spoke the local language it wasn’t the way people around me were speaking it and suddenly I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my city properly enough.  

Who I am today and my sense of personal identity is largely based on the city I was born and raised in and a state I love dearly. As luck would have it, today again there is a sense of unwanted déjà vu. The old horrid feeling is back. If I can’t even pronounce the name of the state I come from: do I really belong here? I earnestly hope that the backlash the government continues to receive on a daily basis is enough to alter their hashed logic and impulsive decision. There has been a unanimous cry of disagreement. The people of the state have spoken. This is an unnecessary and unwelcome move. It continues to be open speculation whether or not the change will become official. If it does, the message to the people of West Bengal will be loud and clear – your opinions don’t matter.


13 comments on “What’s in a name? A lot, Really

  1. I can understand your feelings very well here. Even, for us, Bengalis, the name change took a long bit of time to set in. The melody, the memories, the maladies…..everything that was associated with the name ‘Calcutta’ was gone in a jiffy! It’s like losing one’s identity. There’s much in a name, I agree to disagree with the Bard of Eton.

    P.S. A superbly written piece…loved it… 🙂

  2. Very well said … it touched a chord with me!

  3. syd…publish this!! its very nice 🙂

  4. ..At a time when the entire country is busying itself to Anna’s revolutionary tunes, one state chooses to shift focus to a comparatively trivial issue of a name change, that too the most stupid of it’s kinds.

    Anyway being a non-bengali Calcuttan myself, I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written! And as for the other Bengalis I know, they hate this rechristening themselves.
    I refuse to call my city by any other name other than “Calcutta”. Ditto for the state.

  5. You should start sending in your pieces to the National newspapers Sydney.

  6. loss of identity *of* sorts….. *why we, in Bombay, always*…

    • Many have claimed that ‘it is our garb middle-class anglicised elitism’ which prevents us from accepting the change or the anglicised name never caught on with the local people . If that’s the argument, then why has Delhi not been renamed Dilli? To break any misconception connected to this; I would like to draw your attention to the fact that in English while its written Delhi while in Hindi its दिल्ली. The local Punjabi trader while refers to as Dilli, the world knows it as Delhi. The same was the case with Calcutta, where the Marwari businessmen or the Bihari taxi driver called it Kalkatta, the traditional Bengali population – Kolkata and the educated class and tourists Calcutta. Also we should not run away from the fact and educate the people that it is this renaming exercise which has costed the country about ₹ 65 Crores & ₹ 80 Crores respectively for renaming Calcutta and Bombay. Which is why as a protest, I have refused to use either Kolkata or Mumbai. I was taught Bombay and school and thats how it shall be for me. I was born in Calcutta, and I will die in Calcutta

  7. This is very nicely written! It engaged me more than your other posts. However, I do think that your reaction is a bit too dramatic. The name change is, of course, very unfortunate, but to suggest that it could almost cause a loss of identity or sorts, is a bit of a stretch. And, it’s naive to think that the decision makers would even bother with how this would affect the Anglo-Indian, Chinese or Parsi communities in ‘Calcutta’. Having lived in ‘Poona’ and ‘Bombay’ for almost eleven years now, I’ve realised that these political forces have only one concern in such affairs–integrating the local population, to reinforce a sense of belonging, which ‘immigrants and outsiders’ shouldn’t have. That is why we, in Bombay, we always take a look around before saying anything that could be even remotely offensive to the ‘Marathi maanus’, and also why all we can do is roll our eyes when we hear someone shouting ‘Jai Maharashtra!’ A name change is not a major matter of concern. One should just make the most of it and move on.

    Place of Birth: Calcutta (now, Kolkata)

  8. Laughably, the justification for their intent to change the name, was that WB comes towards the end of the alphabet, and at nation level meetings all presentations by WB had to come at the end!

  9. Good thinking and flow of words.

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