It is fitting that the British newspaper, The Independent, announced its decision to revert to using the name Bombay on the day The Bombay Canteen, arguably the city’s most popular restaurant, celebrated its first birthday on Wednesday. The Bombay Canteen’s success lies in its creative fusion food, stylish Art Deco interiors and friendly staff, but also in its name. At once, customers can expect the city’s famous tiffin, dabba and double peg, and not be disappointed.
Despite being officially renamed to Mumbai in November 1995, Bombay lives – from the Bombay Packing Centre in Kalbadevi to the Bombay Bedlinen store in Gowalia Tank, to the continued use of the "Bombay 400001" pincode on the masthead of Parsiana magazine and the programmes of the Clark House arts initiative. Indeed the practices of naming in the city have always followed their own logic that has both defied the transformations in the built environment and the political landscape.
One hundred and fifty two years after the Fort walls, that protected the city’s original settlement, were demolished to make way for an open city centre, "Fort" continues to be among the most recognisable addresses in the city. The fountain that serves as a centrepiece to the Fort district was always known by its adopted name of "Flora Fountain", after the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring, whose statues decorate the structure, rather than by its official name "Frere Fountain", after the colonial governor Sir Henry Bartle Frere who oversaw the Fort’s redevelopment.
Fifty one years after the Kala Ghoda, as the bronze equestrian statue of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, was colloquially called, was removed from the Fort, the statue continues to lend its name to the area in which it stood and to the city’s largest festival, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. This year, the Festival celebrates the erstwhile kala ghoda with what could be described as a "Kala Ghoda Darwaza", a large cutout of a horse’s head framed within a book sculpture, which visitors can walk through and take selfies with.
While the name Bombay" is being reclaimed in new and bolder ways across the globe, other locational entities such as street names and place names that have been subject to renaming, should also be brought back to common use. Armenian Lane, Mirchi Market Lane, Pathan Street, Chana Street, Kelawadi, Topiwalla Wadi Street all reflect the people, professions and landscape that shaped the image of the city as a commercial cosmopolis. The popular notion that historic names commemorate colonial figures is exaggerated.
Out of the 590 street and place names listed by Samuel T. Sheppard in his book on Bombay published in 1917, only 66 names can be described as "colonial" ‒ that is commemorating a colonial official, nobility or royalty. The rest of the 524 names, reflect local personages, practices of worship, the various communities of early settlers in the city and the towns from which they had migrated. These names are timely reminders that Bombay is a city of migrants, mohallas and Marathi speakers.
Simin Patel runs a blog about Mumbai's past and present at Bombaywalla.org. Her Twitter handle is @siminpatel.