Let’s get one thing straight: Bombay was never renamed Mumbai. Prior to 1995, the city shifted easily between Bombay, Bambai and Mumbai. Official documents in Marathi referred to it as Mumbai, and those in English called it Bombay without any confusion resulting. What happened in 1995 was not a renaming but an attempt at programmatically suppressing two of the city’s three commonly used names.

Let’s get another thing straight: It is perfectly normal for names of towns and countries to change according to language. The French call London Londres, the English for München is Munich, Syrians switch from Haleb to Aleppo when they address non-Arabs, and locals know Japan as Nippon. Our own country has two names right up there in the first article of the constitution, which begins, ”India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” A third name, Hindustan, is preferred by those to our immediate west. Mercifully, nobody has as yet tried to censor Iqbal’s Tarānah-e-Hindī, with its opening lines Sāre jahāṉ se acchā, Hindositān hamārāon the grounds that only India and Bharat are allowable according to the Constitution.

Since the suppression of Bombay and Bambai, an entire generation has grown to adulthood knowing only one official name for the capital of Maharashtra. And yet, Bombay persists in everyday English speech, as do Bangalore, Baroda, Trivandrum and a number of other town names whose imposed vernacular appears odd in English conversation, just as the English variant does in the local language. I wrote last week about how some things remain in popular memory while others fade

On the money

I have no idea what fate awaits Bombay 50 years down the road, but I know of instances where unofficial names have persisted for decades. The strangest such example relates not to a nation or metropolis, but to money. Iran made the Rial its official currency in 1932 replacing the Toman but, more than 80 years later, Iranians continue quoting prices in Tomans while transacting in Rials. The Rial has been devalued substantially over the past decades, and so calculations are invariably in the hundreds of thousands. The replacement currency was introduced at the rate of 10 Rials to one Toman, and shopkeepers quote prices at one-tenth of their Rial value. This confuses tourists, making everything seem much cheaper than it actually is.

When I visited Iran a few years ago, I wished to change dollars on arrival at Shiraz airport. I was offered assistance by an Iranian who’d been on my flight and was a student in Poona (officially Pune, but its retroflex ‘n’ is difficult for foreigners, and even for many Indians whose mother tongues do not include the sound). As I attempted to tot up what I was owed, “50,000… 1,00,000”, the student butted in, saying, “You’re counting wrong, it is 5,000, not 50,000”. I showed him a note I was holding saying, “Look, it is 50,000.” He responded, “No, no, there’s a mistake in our currency, there is an extra zero, it should actually be 5,000.”

I never learned what it was about the Rial that made Iranians born 50 years after its introduction reject it in favour of a phantom currency, but the episode proved that, while cultural memory is selective, the things it chooses to remember can stay in mind for very long indeed.

Coming back to Bombay, it’s in the news because censors prohibited a song from carrying the word, and because the new administration wants to change institutions, such as the Bombay High Court, which did not alter nomenclature in 1995. This has sparked a new battle of words between votaries of switching completely to Mumbai and those who resist. The first group dismisses the second as snobbish and privileged, a charge that isn’t without foundation, since only the privileged speak English in India. One must be wary about speaking from privileged positions, but privilege in itself is insufficient cause to reject a point of view.

Story in a song

Those who would force everybody to use a single name, like the two censor board members who objected to Mihir Joshi’s song, make a claim on the city. They say, “This place must be called Mumbai in all languages because it is essentially a Marathi city.” Their opponents view Bombay as a cosmopolitan metropolis to which no single linguistic group has special claim. I’m firmly in the second camp, and believe it’s no coincidence that Bombay’s relative decline began at the same time that Marathi chauvinists gained political ascendance. Just because a party speaks for a community doesn’t mean its policies serve that community well, as the example of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe demonstrates.

Bombay being the capital of Maharashtra, a number of laws favouring Marathi speakers already exist in the city’s administration. Few people object to them. Since states were organised along linguistic lines, virtually each one has instituted similar policies. Despite pronounced advantages in getting government jobs, however, many Marathis see themselves as put upon, exploited. Chauvinist parties cultivate these grievances, using naming and renaming as wedge issues in their effort. These symbols of pride mask the failure of leaders to provide affordable housing, clean water, open spaces, and secure jobs, things that all communities agree are desperately needed.

In the past, progressives rejected symbolic skirmishes entirely, insisting on focussing on the real issues. Their aim was worthy but, having forfeited the arena of symbols, they never got a chance to implement practical solutions. It is evident today that symbolic battles are worth fighting, and that the act of saying ”Bombay” is a tiny but worthwhile bit of resistance against narrow-mindedness.