By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1996, largely at the instigation of Bal Thackeray, the firebrand politician who died last year. Thackeray founded the Hindu far right Shiv Sena party, which provoked inter-communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims both in the city and across India. As for “Bombay”, he felt the name had too many associations with the city’s colonial past – its replacement is said to honour the city’s patron deity, the Goddess Mumbadevi. What, I wonder, did Thackeray make of his own surname, one which his father adopted out of admiration for the Victorian novelist?
The writer Suketu Mehta relates a tense interview with Thackeray in his brilliant contemporary chronicle of his native city, Maximum City: Bombay lost and found (2004) - what must be one of the last books with the old name in its title. At one point Thackeray firmly corrects Mehta’s use of the name “Bombay”.
Mehta points out that if the fourth largest city in the world in terms of population “were a country by itself in 2004, it would rank fifty-four”. On reflection it’s extraordinary that this megalopolis of 20 million plus should have changed its name so easily – was there any protest? I don’t remember now. Admittedly the old name is clearly recognizable in the new one. But nevertheless can you imagine Boris Johnson as mayor of London deciding to rename the city Londinium? Think of the administrative upheaval.
But as Mehta wrote ten years ago: “name-changing is in vogue in all of India nowadays: Madras has been renamed Chennai, Calcutta, that British-made city, changed its name to Kolkata”. Bangalore has since become Bengaluru (but will that one ever properly catch on, with its unnecessary extra syllable?). I loved the name Madras, but I appreciate these decisions aren’t made with my aesthetic preferences in mind. And there’s something to be said for a proper name change like Madras to Chennai, a clean break. As for Mumbai, it doesn’t trip off the tongue as easily (for me at least) as Bombay, but it’s official and one should respect that - I don't live there after all.
Penguin India seem to view it differently. I had an email exchange with a TLS contributor recently over his use of “Bombay” in a review – I suggested changing it to Mumbai but he pointed out that the author of the book in question opted for Bombay, with the clear blessing of his publishers Penguin. You say Bombay, I say Mumbai . . . .
I think of another megacity and how it has got its naming so right: New York, whose names add up to one big topographical prose poem - this is hardly an original observation I’m sure: Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Lower East Side, Morningside Heights, Columbus Circle, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, F.D.R. Drive, Staten Island - the list goes on.
Martin Amis for one saw the music in these names. Think of this riff on John Self’s travails in Money: “My head is a city, and various pains have now taken up residence in various parts of my face. A gum-and-bone ache has launched a cooperative on my upper west side. Across the park, neuralgia has rented a duplex in my fashionable east seventies. Downtown, my chin throbs with lofts of jaw-loss. As for my brain, it’s Harlem up there, expanding in the summer fires”.
Which brings me to the thought: can place names be ranked aesthetically? I think they can and I’ve compiled a list of twenty that particularly appeal to me. I’ve excluded country names, and written out of contention names that flaunt their beauty, such as Belo Horizonte, Saratoga Springs, Alice Springs, Pacific Palisades, Tierra del Fuego, Martha’s Vineyard, Grimsby . . . .
It’s a very subjective thing of course, and I’m probably revealing a tin ear here (I haven’t tried them out on anybody). I particularly like names that are hybrids, such as Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh - or ones that end in “ville” - excluding the deeply unimaginative Townsville in Australia.
Here they are, in no particular order – I could easily come up with 20 more and call them my favourites too, and 20 more after that: Devizes in Wiltshire, for example, or Galashiels. I kick off with Jacksonville, although it was a close-run thing between it and Galveston, both having that rather beautiful stress on the first syllable.
New Orleans (wherever the stress falls)
Isfahan (and Suza)
Vladivostok (of course)