Saturday, February 26, 2011

What's in a Name?

Most places are content with one name.  It makes life easy; you know THIS name refers to THAT place, everyone understands what you’re talking about and it’s clear where you’re going or where you are.

But India, inevitably, has other ideas.  (I’m starting to think this country deliberately sets out to do everything as differently as possible from the rest of the world, just for the hell of it.)

Most places have at least two names, and in some cases more.  You`ll know some of these pairs of names — Mumbai/Bombay, Delhi/New Delhi — and, even if you didn’t, it would be easy enough to figure out what place the alternate name referred to as they sound kind of similar.  Calcutta/Kolkata … … Pondicherry/Puducherry … Bangalore/Bengaluru … you get the idea.  Sometimes, the name of a place has been reinvented as a nearly-identical English word; “cashmere”, for example, comes from the name “Kashmir”, the northernmost region of India (and the source of all that soft goat’s wool that makes up the product we know and love).

There`s not a lot of consistency as to which name is used, either.  For India’s largest city, for example, most people will refer to it by the “new” name of Mumbai (new, although it’s actually an older name than the “old” British name of Bombay), but it may show up on train and bus schedules as Bombay, 60-odd years after Indian independence.  Some people adamantly refuse to use the name Mumbai, clinging stubbornly to all traces of things British (these are usually the same people who speak the Queen’s English better than Elizabeth herself).    But it’s still easy enough to sort yourself out, given the similarity of names.

But there are other cases where the alternate names bear no resemblance to each other, so you could get really confused waiting for a bus or train, if it showed up under the “other” name that you didn’t know.  Would you guess, without prior knowledge, that Chennai and Madras were the same place?  Varanasi and Banaras? Thekkady and Kumily and Periyar? (That place is really special, it has three names instead of the usual two.)

And sometimes the names sound alike, but don’t refer to exactly the same place.  The “new” name for the largest city in Kerala — Kochi — encompasses a number of smaller areas with individual names.  The “old” name of Cochin (or Fort Cochin) refers to one of the neighbourhoods within Kochi, not the entire urban area; to make it even more confusing, your train from Kochi will depart from Ernakalum, which is another of those neighbourhoods within Kochi.  The name of the city itself probably won`t show up on a train schedule, so good luck figuring out how to get there if you don`t know what to look for.

There are “new” names that haven’t stuck, for whatever reason; the cities show up on signs and on schedules under the new name but are informally referred to by the old.  Sometimes the reason why is obvious:  given a choice between the “old” Trivandrum and trying to get your tongue around the the “new” Thiruvananthapuram, wouldn’t you use the old name, too?

Apparently the names have all been changing over the last couple of decades for a few different reasons:  to “de-anglicise” the name or the spelling thereof, and make it more consistent with the local language; to revert back to a pre-colonial name; or to get rid of European or Persian or Arabic or other influences and establish Indian names for places.  Not everyone wants to go along with these changes, and some haven’t happened yet; for example, the proposed name change from “Ahmedabad” to “Karnavati” (to de-Arabicize the name) is proving controversial.

Varkala — my current home on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea — adds another twist to the confusing world of Indian nomenclature.  The name “Varkala” is always used, but it refers to more than one place:  it might mean the beach itself, down at the bottom of the cliff; it might mean the tourist strip of hotels and restaurants and shops strung out along the cliff top; or it might mean the town where local Indian folk go about their daily business, and where useful things like train stations and ATMs are.  So mostly, here, “Varkala” doesn’t show up on road signs around the area:  they’ll refer simply to “Town” or “Cliff” or “Beach”.

India can even have a different name, once in a long while; try “Hindustan” on for size.  (One of the English-language newspapers here is called the “Hindustan Times”.)  I have long been saying I wanted to visit the “ ‘Stans” (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kryrgystan, Kazakhstan, and so on), but I didn’t know I’d be doing that here.  It isn’t commonly used; while Hindus might make up 80% of the population, there are a plethora of other religious groups that might feel excluded.

Mind-boggling, really.   I’m getting to the point where I’m never quite sure where I am or where I’m going.  If this naming confusion keeps up, I might have trouble remembering what my own name is — or perhaps I’ll come up with my own, alternate Indian name.

Hmmm … I’ll work on that.  In the meantime, this is the traveller formerly known as Carol signing off, from Varkala Cliff. 

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