Wednesday, 5 December 2012

You say Kolkata, I say Calcutta… For goodness sake, just stop it!

From reading various blog comments, it’s obvious I’m not the only one who’s been irked by the decision by British broadcasters to “respect” Indian politicians’ decision to come over all symbolically post-colonial by officially renaming Bombay as Mumbai (1995) and Calcutta as Kolkata (2011). Because - like most Europeans, I suspect – I only really pay attention to India when they suffer a terrorist attack, or there’s a test series on, or there’s a row over foreign aid, or I’m reading a novel set there, I didn’t realise that this has been going on since Independence.

For instance, while I vaguely knew that (very) Simla had morphed into Shimla at some point, I had no idea that Cawnpore disappeared in 1948. Or that Chennai used to be Madras (it changed in ’96). Or that Bangalore went West (East?) seven years ago, or that Pondicherry disappeared at the top of an Indian rope in 2006. Or that the rich mystery of Mandav Nagar has been ditched in favour of Mandi (leave him, Poona – he’s not worf it!). But Poona’s gone as well, along with Benares and Calicut, and dozens of other names that – in these islands, at least - vibrate with exotic romance and history.

Obviously the wrong kind of history, as far as Indian politicians are concerned.

There are also proposals to change Ahmedabad, Allahabad and Patna, which seems a shame. I can’t imagine many Brits would be sorry to see Mysore turning Japanese (Mysooru), as it does tend to make one wince, but I wonder if it’s really necessary to change Bhopal to Bhojpal? (I really hope the “j” isn’t silent.)

Mind you, Indians can be changeable when it comes to names. When our much-loved local corner-shop proprietor, Mr Lad ("Hello, my friend!"), retired two years' ago, he revealed that he was actually Mr Mistri (the reason for the name change remains opaque, despite him carefully explaining it to me on two separate occasions). Imagine voluntarily giving up a fabulous Cluedo-style name like Mister Mistri!

I’ve no idea whether the large mass of people who live in these Indian towns and cities give or gave a toss – perhaps there were large-scale riots demanding the changes – but I suspect it’s down to silly, puffed-up, posturing politicians and their love of pointless but expensive gestures. After all, changing place-names is so much easier than rooting out corruption, or taking a chainsaw to bureaucracy, or making sure children are educated, or clearing slums, or stopping people dying of disease and starvation.

All it needs is for the BBC to start referring to Rugby’s Calcutta Cup as the Kolkata Cup and I think we should stage a riot of our own.


  1. The capital city of Norway once had the the great name "Christiania" [after Christian IV of Denmark - see Thirty Years War]. Then some group of ["but I suspect it’s down to silly, puffed-up, posturing politicians and their love of pointless but expensive gestures"]of jerks in 1923 changed it back to the spurious Viking title of "Oslo". Possibly the only European city to have had a name-change for no reason [Russia excepted - what are Stalingrad and Leningrad called these days?] in recent times.

    Anyway, they can call Calcutta what they like as long as El Capitano Cook et al continue on their way. "The Calcutta Cup" must never be changed. The Scottish team has reached a low point in spite of bristling with talent [see British Army and MOD] and is still capable of giving the English a bloody nose.

  2. Only the occasionally snarky Brit has ever bothered to call at some of the airheads on our TV programs. The ones that selectively insist on native pronunciation.

    "What do you mean you also say Meh-he-co?"

    If we lose y'all, on this one...we're lost.

    1. The worst examples I came across in TV news were a prominent newsreader who'd evidently just been on holiday to Spain, who started calling Barcelona "Barthelona" (I asked him him if he intended referring to Paris as "Paree" from then on ann he desisted) and another even more prominent newsreader - a former Moscow Correspondent - who started pronouncing Boris (as in Yeltsin) as "Berris" on the grounds that that was more authentic. Unfortunately, nothing would make him stop!

      The one that's driving me nuts at the moment is the vogue for pronouncing "chilli" and "Chile" as "Chill-AY". Grrr.

  3. What's in a name? "Formerly known as New Harrogate" as Peter Simple used to say.

    Some of these Indian city name changes are simply reversions to the original pre-Colonial names or spellings, which is fine with me although my old Colonialist parents might have disagreed. That doesn't excuse the relish with which BBC announcers celebrate the changes with their elaborate pronunciations of the new versions, a trend which Mr Bartlam has nailed. On the other hand, Angela Rippon used to enunciate the word "Zimbabwe" as if she thoroughly disapproved of the new order. It was almost worth sitting through the rest of the 9 o'clock news for.

    Other name changes, however, are simply exercises in political re-branding along the lines of the trend in the 80s for Labour Councils to go through the list of streets with Empire-celebrating names and turn them into Mandela Cuttings or Len McCluskey Lane. You can imagine the endless committee meetings in the BBC to decide whether it was more correct to use the name Myanmar to mark the change from the Imperialist "Burma", or to express the right degree of reverence for Ang Sang Susie Chi by denying the military their preferred choice. I wonder what my Uncle who never really got over his war service in that country would have made of it.

    In the unlikely event that anyone ever consults me about the naming of a new capital city, I shall opt for "Christiania" with thanks to SDG for the information.

    1. I agree – it’s the waves of self-righteousness emanating from presenters over-enunciating the new names that really gets on one’s wick. I get similarly annoyed when broadcasters suddenly realise they’ve been pronouncing something incorrectly and then go overboard to make up for it (remember when they all started saying “Chechen-YAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH”?).

      The main problem broadcasters faced after Bombay was changed to Mumbai, I remember, was that almost every Indian they interviewed afterwards insisted on calling it Bombay, which must have had a lot of viewers scratching their heads.

      It’s just that, every time you hear the new (or resurrected) names, you know that 98% of the people who live there simply couldn’t give a rat’s bottom – like Avon and Humberside here, not to mention the plodding awfulness of the technocratic New English Bible.

      I thought it was Aung San-Sue-SHEE. Mind you, I rested on my laurels after mastering "Vytautas Landsbergis" while working on News - no one else could be bothered!

  4. Not to be confused with Dale Hawkins's classic about his modest and self- effacing Burmese high school girlfriend "Unsung Susie Q".