Why Bombay is still Bombay here

While listening to the discussion of the dreadful bombings in Bombay yesterday, I could not help noticing the BBC falling over themselves to make sure they called the city by its “real name” of Mumbai. The name was adopted in 1995 by the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition government although it had always been called this by people who speak the local languages of Marathi and Gujarati; Hindi speakers called it Bambai (see this Wikipedia article). The English name has been Bombay for pretty much as long as the city has been in existence, and is not a mutilation of a native name but derives from the Portuguese Boa Baía (good bay).

Listening to those on the BBC London station on the “Jono and Jo” show on BBC London radio this morning, however, you’d think that the name Bombay really was some hideous colonial imposition. Someone would mention Bombay and then say, “sorry, Mumbai” very seriously. Is there some Hindu lobby which furiously writes letters any time someone mentions one of the old names on the radio, similar to the pro-Israeli serial complainers who are known of? Despite the fact that more English speakers have heard of Bombay than of Mumbai, the BBC’s South Asia page right now is full of headlines about Mumbai. Given that the name change was politically-motivated and carried out by a government dominated by parties of communalist bigots, the bombings have been very good publicity for their new brand.

Bombay isn’t the only Indian city name whose name has been changed. Bangalore is changing to Bengaluru, the name already in common use in the vernacular (provoking one local headline, “Bengaluru changes name to Bengaluru”), Madras has become Chennai, Calcutta has become Kolkata which is closer to Bengali pronunciation, and Trivandrum has reverted to the native Thiruvananthapuram. The last, of course, is a mouthful the colonials could not be bothered to learn how to pronounce, so they mangled it and wrote it down, and it stuck. As for Madras, it was derived from a coastal town called Madraspatnam; locals, however, always called the conurbation Channapatnam or Chennapuri.

A lot of people suppose that the reason the English have their own names for cities in India is to do with colonialism and that the names are colonial impositions, as if they were some sort of deliberate show of contempt for local culture. However, India is not the only place where the English names differ from the native ones - it is true for several major cities in Europe, if not in the name then in the pronunciation. However, we are not falling over ourselves to call Copenhagen, Florence and Athens by their native names or pronounce Berlin, Paris or Madrid the way locals pronounce them, though I’m sure the BBC does this in its World Service programmes in those languages. As with city names in every other language, the BBC should reserve Mumbai for its Gujarati and Marathi programmes, and call Bombay by its English name in English programmes.

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