Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Renaming cities and countries, and Hitchens

I was reading Christopher Hitchens' latest article in Slate, where he says the US must come out more openly in support of India and against Pakistan-based terrorists.  That is a good read, though it might follow Hitchens' known tendencies against religion, particularly Islam.
In the article, Hitchens decries the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai, claiming that to be the work of Hindu chauvinists, and comparing it to the "fake name Myanmar" for Burma.  The latter article - also by Hitchens - riles against the renaming of Ceylon to Sri Lanka, as the work of Buddhist/Sinhala nationalists and apparently against the wishes of the Tamils.

I agree with Hitchens partially - that the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai was the result of an incredibly restrictive sons-of-the-soil policy implemented by a right-wing party, the Shiv Sena.  [A class-mate once said the Shiv Sena is not communalist, it is opportunist.  True.  At one point, it was anti-Communist/labor union; once anti-South Indian, now anti-North Indian.  And in the past 15 years, anti-Muslim.]

However, Hitchens fails to mention that both Bombay and Ceylon are Anglicized versions of Portuguese names.  The Portuguese were NOT the original residents; they were colonizers.  So neither the residents of Bombay/Mumbai, nor, probably, the natives of Sri Lanka/Ceylon, have a vested interest in the name, other than being used to it for many generations.  That's why I continue to refer to Bombay as such.  But the name Lanka is Sanskrit in origin, apparently meaning "island."  The Hindu epic Ramayana refers to Lanka, AFAIK.  So is it against the wishes of the Tamils?  I seriously doubt it - the Portuguese were not good rulers; colonizers never are.
[Of course, one could argue that Sanskrit and the Ramayana are impositions by Aryan invaders and thus Lanka is against the wishes of native Dravidians/Tamils... But what did the Tamils call it?  Definitely not Ceylon (before the Portuguese).]

Anyway.  The point of this post is to point out where Hitchens is seriously wrong - the renaming of Bombay and Ceylon may be the work of native "nationalists," but they at least were the work of natives (even if of a particular political/ethnic persuasion).  But the deposed names themselves are the imposition of colonizers - Roman Catholic Europeans of Mediterranean stock - and so are NOT native to the land.

Disclaimer: I am a native of Bombay, though from South India a couple generations back.  So to the Shiv Sena, I'd be a foreigner... I am also Tamil.  But I am really a Bombayite - that where I was born, brought up, and what I call home.

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