Bhaiya, I need to go to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road,” will be an unlikely request to autorickshaw drivers on the busy streets of Delhi. Commuters tend to convey their destination briefly and without fuss. Drivers move quickly to matters of negotiating a fare, with little interest in exchanging pleasantries and honorifics. “Shreemati, the fare to go to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road will be about Rs 50,” will also be an unlikely reply.

Indeed, this is quite simply why the name Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road won’t stick – its semiotics are not suited to the rush and tumble of modern life. The boulevard’s original name, Aurangzeb Road, works because of its brevity and speakerly sociability. “12 Aurangzeb Road please.” Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor, here appears quite the modern man, without his imperial titles, long name, seal or stamp. Kalam, the popular former president, on the other hand, is commemorated in what could be mistaken as the courtly culture of Delhi – with his honorary doctorate and full name in tow.

Delhi, in its gusto and with its new graces of renaming, could learn from Mumbai. Mumbai’s only successful example of renaming – that is an address that has thoroughly permeated the public imagination and entirely replaced the original – is of Horniman Circle replacing Elphinstone Circle in the Fort area of the city. Here one worthy’s surname was replaced with another, but the “Circle” not altered to a Chowk or Marg. And the speakerly sociability of the new name is high. Of course it is another story that a Scottish, colonial governor’s surname was replaced by a pro-Indian, gay, Irish editor’s one.

Nepeansea Road or Ninepence Road?

Why did all the other renaming projects in Mumbai backfire? Dadabhai Naoroji Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road (originally Hornby Road and Esplanade Road) have been clipped, both officially and colloquially, to DN Road and MG Road. The Maratha warrior king Shivaji is everywhere and nowhere, with a host of major public institutions, amenities and thoroughfares named after him, though Shivaji’s name is seldom spoken. Even the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) lists its address on the English version of its website as “Mumbai C.S.T. 400001” rather than the more accurate, “Opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai 400001”. Again, long names are to blame as well as factors like poorly designed signboards. Bombaywallas now map the city using the familiar markers of cinemas, hotels, shops and other establishments. “Boss, I need to go to Metro,” is a reliable request to taxi drivers.

More personal reasons for the failure of the renaming projects are that Bombaywallas are perfectly happy with the original names of their roads, streets and lanes. Altamount Road, Nepeansea Road, Grant Road, Carter Road, Apollo Bunder, all flourish in common speech and the press. The computers of The Indian Express recently auto-corrected Nepeansea Road to Ninepence Road. It so irked the cartoonist Hemant Morparia that he chose to point this out in a Facebook post. But it was all still in the realm of speakerly sociability and jocularity. “I quite like Ninepence road.” “Penny for your thought!” were some of the responses to his complaint. All daggers were drawn on Facebook a few months ago, however, when the Mumbai Mirror  mistakenly identified the landmark structure Jer Mahal as Jeera Mahal. Perhaps if the paper had misnamed it Jerry Mahal instead, everyone would have been more forgiving.

This brings us to the awkward question of whether we are more comfortable with colonial names and their trappings. One would think we are in medieval England on New Queen’s Road in Mumbai, as a battle of the knights ensues between two deceased Gujarati seths over the fate of a hospital. Sir Harkisondas Narotumdas and Sir HN Reliance, armed with swords and Golden Star thalis, defend to their last dhokla their right over the medical establishment’s name. Will the original name of Sir Hurkisondas Nurrotumdas Hospital continue to be used or will the new one, of Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital And Research Centre, prevail? That is the question.

Things seem much calmer in Delhi, with Aurangzeb and Abdul, in the tradition of Muslim Brotherhood, making way for the new.