Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This is going to be the longest post ever on this blog. Amardeep wrote about Ruchir Joshi's reaction to Bangalore being renamed Bengaluru. Most of the discussion there is on the local context. I wanted to show here just how the West reacted to the name change of Bombay to Mumbai. So here's something I wrote a few years ago on the subject.

As early as 1981 the push to rename Bombay was underway. One account among many – an editorial in The Christian Science Monitor dated June 3, 1981 – serves particularly well in illustrating the prevailing view from the West on the subject. The importance of the Monitor editorial relies specifically upon four factors – 1.) its position as an international newspaper (originating from the West), 2.) its early entry into the discussion, 3.) its choice to editorialize instead of report on the matter, and 4.) its decision to ignore entirely the local context.

Under the headline of “So Long Bombay; Hello Mumbai.” the body of the editorial began with the statement “Bombay means India – at least to many of us remote…” The editorial enlightens discussion on how this change from Bombay to Mumbai symbolizes (and attempts to actualize) a concurrent change in the perception of place. This opinion clearly emphasizes the place of Bombay in the global context – particularly from the West. By first claiming that “Bombay means India” (and by doing so implying that Mumbai does not) the Monitor asserted that the name Bombay held a unique significance from the perspective of the West. “Bombay” evoked a sense of place so important to the West that it symbolized not only itself but also the Western idea(l) of India as a whole. Therefore, the name change from Bombay to Mumbai threatened the certainty of that historic view. It disrupted a narrative defined by the West that nearly stretched back to the origins of the East India Company.

In contrast, “Mumbai” suggests that the view of India from the West requires some revision engendering a new uncertainty coinciding with a loss of power over a formerly subservient space. The editorial suggests that relationship between India and the West changed when Bombay became Mumbai. Previously, “Bombay” evoked a sense of control by the West over India and its identity. “Mumbai,” on the other hand, elicits liberation from the West. The change in toponymy signals an Indian will to claim its own identity and foster new relationships with the West as an equal.
Nevertheless, The Monitor immediately follows this statement with a betrayal by adding, “-- at least to many of us remote…” Here it confesses its privileged Western view and half-heartedly apologizes for it. This honesty serves as an implicit admission that the West no longer has a firm control over India. Once, India was an occupied space controlled by the West with little regard for its previous inhabitants. However, since Midnight, India has progressed away from its colonial legacy. While the Monitor does not revisit the historical arrogance of colonial control, it does concede that, today, a different relationship would likely exist. By proceeding to shed its colonial past, India steadily reinvents its identity and relationship with the West. According to the Monitor, changing the name of Bombay to Mumbai exemplifies this factuality.

The editorial goes on to lament the removal of erstwhile Bombay from the world. It romanticizes “Bombay” and complains of the myriad practical matters that will arise with the arrival of “Mumbai.” The Monitor cites that, “Airline schedules that will have to be changed,” and that someday a new generation will have forgotten Bombay altogether. Additionally, one can imagine that government documents and official references required updating. Meanwhile, the Marathi and Indian governments likely need to inform people of the change – both inside and outside of India. Although these concerns have some validity (airline schedules have been changed to list Mumbai not Bombay as a destination), their genuine purpose is to conceal the West’s unspoken yet utmost anxiety – the erosion of its privileged status.

After registering their complaints, the editors conclude in a contradictory manner that attempts to both reestablish Western authority over Bombay and recognize the arrival of Mumbai. The editors proclaim, “Bombay could never be anything except Bombay. But, but…Welcome, Mumbai!” evincing an unmistakably less than sincere welcome to a new challenging perception of India. First, by iterating the position that Bombay will always be what the West says it is/was perhaps the editors have surrendered to the reality of a postcolonial present. Whereas the Monitor reluctantly concedes that this new existence incorporates multiple perspectives, it also contemporaneously claims Western authority over the truth of the past. It is as if to say never mind “Mumbai’s” new identity increasingly defined by India in the present. The West will not allow such a happening to alter the identity of “Bombay.” That identity has been established and sanctioned. It will always remain intact. The West will not condone any threat to its authority of the past – name change or not.

Second, the editors finally welcome Mumbai. At this point in the editorial, the welcoming serves a dual role. It is at once an olive branch and at the same instant a reluctant admission of powerlessness. The olive branch offering both a half-hearted apology for the West’s colonial transgressions and a gesture encouraging a fruitful future relationship. The admission signaling an awakening to the restlessness of postcolonial space freeing itself from the regulation of the colonial era. A space that, since 1947, finds itself defined more and more by India and less and less by the West. That therefore grants India the ability to determine how the world should perceive it instead of allowing the world to continue to define India. The Maharashtra government proposed to rename Bombay Mumbai. The Indian government approved the change. The West had little choice but to formally recognize it. Meanwhile, the world witnessed another demonstration of the dynamic nature of social space - a quality that cultivates ever-changing perceptions of space and place. The Monitor’s salutation suggests the West endeavors to cope with this reality. Still, its reluctant and qualified welcome suggests one last attack. An assertion that Mumbai’s authenticity still necessitates a blessing from the West.

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