Tear up the maps: India's cities shed colonial names.
Mention the name Bangalore, and sprawling high-tech campuses of a saffron-scented Silicon Valley come to mind. In short, "New India."Skip to next paragraph
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By year's end, however, Bangalore could go the way of Bombay, changing its name from an international totem to a Jeopardy question. What is the city formerly known as Bangalore: Bengaluru. Or perhaps Bengalooru.
The trend that began vexing cartographers a decade ago when Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, and Calcutta became Kolkata has only gained speed. Last month, the "French Riviera of the East" decided it wasn't so French after all, dropping its Francophile name, Pondicherry, for Puducherry.
In part, India is merely sweeping clean the last corners of colonialism – offending few beyond upper-class English-speaking Indians and outsiders who have wrapped India's identity in its anglicized names. In part, its politicians are using words as a tool – sometimes more to divide than to unite.
But underneath all is a new and unprecedented Indian self-assurance. More than half a century after the British left, India is making a statement that can be seen from politics to its economics: We are now a power in our own right, and the world must come to accept us on our own terms – whether that is nuclear weapons or a high-tech hub that might sound like baby talk to the foreign ear.
"This is a particular conjunction that is happening," says sociologist T.K. Oommen, citing changes in the Indian culture, polity, and economy. "We are gaining in confidence."
The changes sometimes take the guise of reclaiming historic names hopelessly mangled by colonial conquerors. Pondicherry was the best that the Gallic lips could do with Puducherry, and the British simply hit the eject button with Thiruvananthapuram, instead opting for the less tongue-twisting Trivandrum.
Advocates for Bengaluru say this is the case with Bangalore, where the cost of changing names would not be huge, the state chief minister has said. In fact, the local-language press had difficulty even reporting the proposed change: Bangalore is Bengaluru in the local tongue, so the papers duly pronounced that Bengaluru was changing its name to Bengaluru.
In some respects, the revisions are hardly surprising. From Myanmar (still widely known as Burma) to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), newly independent nations frequently find colonial names as ill-fitting as breeches and pointy admiral's hats. What is curious in India's case is that it took 50 years for the purge to start in earnest.
It is a measure of the admiration for Britain that many of India's early leaders shared, says Mr. Oommen – as well as a sign of how much the atmosphere has begun to shift to a new sense of self-worth.
What has emerged is also the logical culmination of a decision by India's first prime minister. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru decided that the country's states should be organized along linguistic lines, essentially creating more than a dozen nationlets within India – each with its own distinct language, culture, and recipe for curry.
For example, Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka, where the local language is Kannada – part of India's mix of 23 official languages, 800 unofficial languages, and an estimated 2,000 dialects. "If in a state that was made to preserve a certain language you can't even call the capital by the name in Kannada," there is something amiss, says Ramachandra Guha, a historian who lives in Bangalore.