Allahabad officially became Prayagraj on October 16. That afternoon, jokes started circulating on local social media sites: “Where were you born?” “In Prayagraj.” “Which coach of Prayagraj?” For Prayagraj Express has so far been a popular train connecting Allahabad with Delhi. This joke provokes bitter laughter, emoticons registering mourning, or wild, scornful one-liners. The funniest name-mutations sprouted in the fertile imaginations of those creative geniuses who generate riotously comic specimens of this new literary genre, the meme. Tom and Jerry became Om and Hari, Obama became Sudama, Putin turned into Puneet, Justin Bieber became Jatin Birbal.
But the jokes came subsequent to the implementation of the decision. In a city known for its argumentative robustness opinions have remained sharply divided. What has come under attack is a certain cultural idea, the idea of an inclusive city. Allahabad has always been deeply entrenched in Hindu mythology and religion. It has a conspicuous place in the Hindu conceptual map as a sacred site of riverine confluence and a spiritual portal to the Hindu idea of salvation. At the same time, Allahabad has had a strong and enriching Muslim presence and an equally transforming and broadening European exposure. Not to forget several other ethnic incursions – Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Huns – spread out across the centuries. All these cultural inputs generated a certain eclectic civilisation, open to all the breezes that may blow in to refresh and vitalise.
The idea of Allahabad
The idea of Allahabad rested on a sangam – confluence – of communities, not as a romantic ideal but as a lived reality till some years back. Even the language that the Allahabadi spoke was a chaste Hindi, flavoured with elegant Urdu and flowing easily into spontaneous English. Its local dialects possess equal variety and richness. It was in this language that the city found expression in a grand lineage of literature, freedom activism and Independence history.
The change of political climate has generated a sharp division of opinion as to the generic character of the city. While an aggressive lobby asserts arguments of antiquity and Hindu self-esteem, an equally vocal number is agonising over the possible loss of a familiar identity that used to be the city’s signature. A highly popular Facebook group recently witnessed impassioned exchanges between those who rejoiced in the new name and those who mourned the loss of the old one. There were various shades of reaction. Triumphant satisfaction and self-congratulation in a fait accompli that was seen as a symbolic victory for Hindus over the “other”, in this case all Muslims represented by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who had named the city Ilahabas, meaning abode of God, a name which the British later distorted to Allahabad, and which has been construed as suggesting a connection with ‘Allah’ repugnant to right-wing Hindus.
Local historians pointed out that Prayag and Ilahabas were never geographically congruent or overlapping entities, Prayag being a sacred area around the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, and Ilahabas created on forest land and flood-plains reclaimed from the rivers by two sturdy embankments built by Akbar. Whether or not an ancient Hindu name was forcefully overthrown by an Islam-slanted name or whether the new city was indeed a contiguous virgin territory without any subject-population at the time of its creation was a point hotly debated. A few stray, moderate voices expressed the hope that although it was not just about “naming” but about “reclaiming” and was an example of healthy correction of a perceived historic wrong, still the secular character of the city would remain intact. More extreme voices, in a rising pitch, indulged in widespread scoffing at the “slavish attachment” to the culture of “invaders and imperialists” like the Muslims and the British.
On the other hand many citizens, both resident and non-resident, lamented the passing of an old and much-loved name, the resonance of which signified home and memories of a different mood and social order and a creative and syncretic culture that was much celebrated. Some citizens banded together to adopt the title ‘Ilahabadi’ and spoke of building a community of Ilahabadis transcending the boundaries of religion, varna and regional origins. Predictably, there were rancorous exchanges between members of the two segments of local opinion. But, equally interesting were those voices which supported both sides, a floating population of fence-sitters and floor-crossers ready to slide into either or both of the two positions.
As I see it, the name Prayagraj will only be the official signifier of the city. There is talk of changing the names of the High Court and the University as well. But the name Allahabad will continue on the tongues of people as a dearly held idea that is symbolic of an alternative civilisation that might well flower under provocation. On the chessboard of politics the two names are shifting pawns, and while the sonority and antiquity of Prayagraj does possess a mantric appeal, the name Allahabad might transmigrate from the mere postal address and the official signboard to a conceptual space which is far more substantial than a name. For it has been ensouled in the way the city imagined itself and as such might continue to speak in the city’s many voices and not the single one decreed by the powers that be.
It is my belief that the names Prayagraj and Allahabad shall be used interchangeably – as Benaras, Kashi and Varanasi are. For a writer like me who has made Allahabad the location of her inner and outer life, this creative challenge might induce a whole new range of negotiations. All my life I have written about the Allahabad I knew – Indic, Islamic, European – and now that the stamp of finality has been officially put on the closure of that name, maybe the world conjured by the name Allahabad will appear that much more vividly in my future work. To many rooted people, at least for some years, the change from one name to another will feel like forced migration to a different place. The compromising imagination might adjust to it, as it must, but inversely the coming of Prayagraj might make Allahabad and all it stood for more real to Allahabadis, now that they have lost Allahabad. That which is gone becomes permanent in the mind, more solid than when it was present and could be overlooked. As the local saying goes, you can take a person out of Allahabad but you cannot take Allahabad out of a person. It may not be easy to take Allahabad out of the consciousness of Allahabadians.
Neelum Saran Gour’s latest book is Requiem In Raga Janki.