(First appeared in The Bengal Post, Kolkata)
The first time I set foot on Shakespeare Sarani—in 1968 on my first visit to Kolkata—I was struck by how strange that sounded. What was the antiquity of the name, I wondered; was it the whim of some legislator who fancied the bard’s works? Where did the impulse to rename Theatre Road—back in 1964 to commemorate the great playwright’s 400th birth anniversary, I have since learnt—spring from? Where today is that wonderful spirit that could celebrate a writer from another continent, unsullied by parochial considerations?
Here is my favourite story about a road name from the same city of Kolkata—where else could it happen? Harrington Street, on which was situated the American Consulate, was renamed Ho Chi Minh Sarani during the Viet Nam War. What a delicious piece of (no doubt deliberate) irony! Politically motivated the move might have been, but it was at least prompted by considerations beyond the need to accommodate narrow sectarian or local interests. Ideology rather than chauvinism was perhaps the driving force behind it.
The grand sweep of an extra-national vision appears to be lacking in the recent flurry of name changes for Kolkata streets, roads and avenues, with history taking the back seat and making way for populism. The only problem with such attempts to glorify personalities through road names is that they seldom work. Can you imagine the most devout worshipper of the venerable saint referring to Park Street as Mother Teresa Sarani or the most ardent Congressman calling Red Road Indira Gandhi Sarani, the new names given to these famous locations? How does anyone expect the average Kolkatan to call Ballygunge Circular Road by any other name?
In Chennai, decades after the state government renamed Mount Road—the arterial road that connects the city to St. Thomas Mount—Anna Salai, people still call it Mount Road. Many other such ‘reforms’ have met with a similar fate.
The city has a long history of street names receiving the wrath of its politicians and politickers, but of organic changes too, with often hilarious results. Hamilton Bridge during British times became Ambattan Varavadi, an adaptation of the name by the local populace, and eventually came to be known as Barber’s Bridge—a reverse translation of the word ambattan now considered derogatory but a perfectly acceptable Tamil word for barber back then. More recent examples of mutilation include the four Seaward Roads of Valmiki Nagar, a south Chennai suburb, by the corporation to read ‘C’ Ward Roads. D’Monte in D’Monte Colony has been variously misspelt as D Mandi or D Mondy, and Turnbulls Avenue becomes Turn Bull Avenue.
The drive launched a few decades ago to eliminate caste from the city’s street names overlooked the minor detail that the revised versions were not the real names of the persons commemorated. Official abbreviations like Krishnama for Krishnamachari proved quite ludicrous, while Nair Road and Chari Street posed serious challenges to the painters of the roadsigns: removing the caste left them with no name. At the same time, powerful lobbies seemed to be at work—or was it sheer ignorance?—in the retention of names like Muthuramalinga Thevar Salai.
The latest attempt to rewrite the history of the city’s streets is the announcement by the Mayor that 52 Chennai streets will have new names to pay homage to Tamil scholars acknowledged by the state government. While this will be the first mega swoop of its kind, British street names have been systematically replaced with Indian names for many years now as in other parts of India. Many old streets retain their British names despite these periodic attempts.
Though renaming streets has rarely worked, the names of political and other leaders given to new suburbs have naturally always stuck. No problem whatever with Indira Nagar, Nehru Nagar, Kamaraj Nagar, Gandhi Nagar, Kasturba Nagar and so on, but Rajiv Gandhi Salai for Old Mahabalipuram Road, Kalki Krishnamurti Road for Lattice Bridge Road, or Uttamar Gandhi Road for Nungambakkam High Road? No way. (‘Uttamar’ was an absurd attempt to Tamilise ‘Mahatma’ by someone in power who apparently knew neither Tamil nor Sanskrit. Elsewhere in the city are numerous Mahatma Gandhi Roads, each of which is of course known as MG Road, as in every other Indian city).
In his final decade, the late Semmangudi Srinivasier, doyen of Carnatic music and a great raconteur, was fond of regaling his friends with the story of how Yama, the god of death, took away his neighbour instead of him, misled by the old number-new number confusion that followed the renumbering campaign the corporation launched then. A decade later, the chaos continues, with Chennaivasis still unsure of addresses. They await the 52 new street names with bated breath, sure that they will add to their woes of missed letters and conducted tours by the city’s famed autorickshaws.
The author is Editor-in-chief, SRUTI magazine, author, translator, cricket columnist, teacher and former first class cricketer.