Cities & Architecture

Sanskar and the City

Changing road names is not about history but about cleansing.

The new sign for Lok Kalyan Marg, formerly Race Course Road, in Delhi. Credit: PTI

The new sign for Lok Kalyan Marg, formerly Race Course Road, in Delhi. Credit: PTI

BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi said that Delhi’s Race Course Road can no longer be the address for the Indian prime minister because it “conveys a feeling of disassociation and it can’t be the inspiration for any PM.”

Narendra Modi will have no such problems. Now that Race Course Road is Lok Kalyan Marg he will wake up every day, look at his address and instantly remember that his first priority is our welfare.

Renaming roads is a beloved pastime of our politicians but it’s tricky business as we who live in Kolkata understand full well. As rail minister, Mamata Banerjee decided to name Kolkata’s subway stations after popular historical and cultural figures. The only problem was the old names like Garia and Tollygunge were actually associated with the neighbourhoods the stations were in. That was rather useful since the trains are underground. Surya Sen station, despite its patriotic ring, offered passengers no clue as to where they had arrived.

When Suchitra Sen died in 2014, Mamata in a fit of largesse decided the street she had lived on, Ballygunge Circular Road, be renamed after the demi-goddess of the Bengali screen. Unfortunately, Ballygunge Circular Road had already been renamed after another screen legend who had lived in the area – Pramathesh Barua. Poor Barua, long dead, ultimately held onto about 350 metres of the road, while Sen got about 2 kilometres. But to this day, no taxi driver in the city knows it as anything but Ballygunge Circular Road. Actually in a world more dependent on Google maps and clueless Uber drivers, name changes just add to the general navigational confusion.

It’s not just about the name. As a status conscious society it has to be a street worth the name. Size matters. There is a street named after Tipu Sultan in Kolkata but his admirers are not satisfied with it. It’s only 200m long. When Manohar Lal Khattar, Haryana’s chief minister wanted to rename Akbar Road as Maharana Pratap Road he was trying to both rewrite history and get the Rajput hero a prime piece of real estate in the heart of imperial Delhi rather than in Karol Bagh. Mamata Banerjee too definitely had size in her mind when she decided to rename a street to honour Satyajit Ray. “We have heard enough of saranis (streets),” she declared. “We will call this Satyajit Ray Dharani (world).” Logic be damned, that was sheer chutzpah as she claimed the world for Ray.

Name changes or proposals for the same come about for many reasons. Historical pique – Maharana Pratap vs Akbar. Fantasies of a golden past – Gurgaon to Gurugram. De-Anglicization – Waltair to Vishakhapatnam. Local chauvinism – Bombay to Mumbai. Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim – Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road. A desire to get ahead  – West Bengal (dead last in the roll call of Indian states) to Bangla (Number 4).  Sheer mischief-making – Harrington Street housing the American and British consulates  in Kolkata to Ho Chi Minh Sarani.

In that context, Race Course to Lok Kalyan is a fairly benign change. No Mughal emperors were hurt in the process. No British governor generals were toppled. No member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was snubbed though goodness knows there is more than enough named after them in this country. Lok Kalyan was the compromise candidate after Lekhi’s original proposal of naming the street Ekatma Marg based on the philosophy of her party’s ideologue Deendayal Upadhyay was rejected. Lekhi said Lok Kalyan was good enough. “Ekatma is a philosophical word while Lok Kalyan is the same thought in simple language,” she said. It was a smart move. Deendayal Upadhyay Marg might have felt too partisan but who can object to welfare of the people?

Of course, renaming streets and cities will do little to solve their problems of drainage or traffic congestion. Gurugram will not be less prone to dengue or chikenguniya than Gurgaon.  Sometimes the names catch on and sometimes they don’t. Marine Drive is really Netaji Subhas Bose Drive but it’s doubtful even Devendra Fadnavis calls it that. Rajiv Chowk is more or less the subway station while Connaught Place remains CP in Delhi. And Kolkata’s lights are kept on literally by the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation.

There is no harm in names that reflect the richness of a city’s heritage and history. The RSS, one of the great champions of the Renaming Project says that’s its goal as well. The problem is whose history is it anyway? Does the RSS get to decide what history is overwritten in the process? Is this about opening up to a more inclusive history or is this about shrinking the lens? For better or for worse, the Mughals and the British are part of our history too and renaming Ahmedabad to Karnavati or  Aurangabad to Sambhaji Nagar will not change that. Whether it’s called 7 Race Course Road or 7 Lok Kalyan Marg will not change the fact that  the bungalow was designed by Robert Tor Russell, the architect of Connaught Place, er Rajiv Chowk. We all know this is not about history as much as it is about cleansing. In a sense Lekhi admitted that as well. “Yes Race Course exists as alcohol and womanising also exist.  They may exist but they are not ideal.”

The “ideal” India is a more sanskari India namely a swachh Bharat unsullied by foreign influences. We cannot turn back time but it seems at least we can do sanskarification via street names.