WHAT’S IN A CITY’S NAME, OR RATHER THE SPELLING THEREOF?

The Independent, a British newspaper (ceasing print publication), is reverting to the spelling Bombay rather than Mumbai, its India-born editor Amol Rajan widely quoted as having said that the move was to resist toeing the Hindu nationalists’ line. It’s not so much the spelling change to Bombay now but rather the publication’s previous decision to acquiesce in the Hindu supremacist Shiv Sena’s change to Mumbai that ought to be under the scanner. That is for the paper’s internal ombudsman, if it has one, to attend to.

But what need concern us in India is the bewildering amount of online and print media attention as well as other Internet chatter devoted to this minor decision in just one publication in a faraway city. As is many Indians’ wont, some of the attention has gotten deflected towards the origins of the words Bombay and Mumbai. Bombay is not an Anglicized form Mumbai of The Portuguese words ‘Bom Bahiya’. That much seems to be agreed on. But then some of the chatterati began saying the Portuguese could not possibly have spelt it as Bom but as Bao. What some, though not all, of these commentators fail to reckon with is the crucial squiggle on top of the ‘a’ – missing in English publications – such that the whole syllable is pronounced nasally as in the name of the most populous Brazilian city, Sao Paolo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A3o_Paulo, which, depending on how you wish to hear the two words, sound like Sam/Som/Sum Paulu. Someone transliterated Bao wrongly, perhaps. Big deal. Far too many names in too many climes have been mangled massively. So please: Here’s hoping the Bom/Bao controversy shall be laid to rest at the very least.

But hey, if you are a Marathi speaker, Hindi speaker or, in fact, speaker of any number of languages in this subcontinent and beyond and wish to use the spelling and the pronunciation, Mumbai, please do go ahead. International human rights laws and the laws of almost all constitutions allow you to do so.

Equally, those of us who wish to spell, pronounce, or even alter the names of your, our and other cities the way they wish to, why, I rejoice in that diversity. Thus when I hear a migrant worker from West Bengal in Bangalore (please note the spelling of my city, more anon) referring to a ‘rupee’ as a ‘taka’, I’m genuinely thrilled.

Have the Shiv Sena types protested against the use of “Bollywood”? Have they ever demanded that the Indian media at least – if not the international – use Mullywood? Incidentally, why bother with this –wood stuff? Why look up to Hollywood whereas far more serious cinema is emerging from many other corners of the globe? This is quite an honest question but are the Shiv Sena and other Sangh Parivar outfits listening?

Has the Shiv Sena or BJP sought to change the name of Bombay High Court? Most likely not. Ditto the ruling dispensations in Chennai and Kolkata, whose highest judiciaries bear the names, respectively, Madras High Court and Calcutta High Court. Incidentally, Suketu Mehta’s critically acclaimed book Maximum City: Bombay Lost And Found was thus named in 2004, nine years after the official spelling change. But Mr Mehta’s is an upper caste Hindu sounding name, isn’t it? Any murmur from the Shiv Sainiks?

It is not only rightwingers and Hindutva types who have this name and spelling change obsession. The late Professor UR Ananthamurthy, one of the foremost intellectuals from the southwestern part of southern Asia and a doughty left-liberal intellectual to his last days, unfortunately got off on an ego trip to change Bangalore’s spelling. Now in Kannada, Bangalore has always written as ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು and it is impossible to accurately transliterate the third syllable: ‘lu’ does not equate to ಳೂ which, moreover, comes with a long vowel. Five years ago, the centenarian lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah had spoken against the unnecessary spelling change. But Ananthamurthy misused his proximity to the powers that be to push his hobby horse, thereby causing unnecessary expenditures such as printing of new texts with the altered spelling and repainting of signboards. (More on this: https://walkerjay.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/speaking-well-and-ill-of-u-r-ananthamurthy/)

If the Austrians have no objection to their capital Wien spelled Vienna in English, the Romanians to Bucuresti written Bucharest or the Italians to Roma as Rome, why do Indians make much ado about minor spelling differences? If Peking University can continue to call itself so (http://english.pku.edu.cn/), why do Indian nationalists go breast-beating over changes of couple of letters of the alphabet? And when will Indians focus more on the issues that matter such as farmers’ suicides, the scandalous write-offs of loans owed by big businesses or the Hindutva groups continuing attacks on Dalits, Muslims and Christians?

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About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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