Farrukh Dhondy | What’s in a name? From Persia to Iran & Mumbai: The rise of Bharat

The Asian Age.  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Columnists

Ironically, the ideological embrace of the powers that want to change the name of India to Bharat is called “Hindutva”.

Hindutva is a direct derivative of the name of the land of the Indus whereas Bharat derives from respected ancient Indian epic lore. (Image: Freepik)

“A stitch in Time repairs the past!

If Paris was all Gay it wouldn’t last;

Pride Marches come before the Fall

A Rolling Stone gathers wrinkles

Bhagwan, bless us all…”

— From The Dancing of Mansingh, by Bachchoo

I was induced by Sir Vidia Naipaul to accompany him to the inaugural editorial meeting of a frightful right-wing magazine called Standpoint. There were maybe 12 people of some repute gathered round a board table, including Nigel Lawson, the sometime chancellor of the exchequer in Margaret Thatcher’s government and the most distinguished personage, David Hockney.

Daniel Johnson, the appointed editor, opened the discussion outlining the proposed magazine’s ultra-right stance, the ideological gap Standpoint was going to fill. As I listened in humble silence to the contributions, I noticed that Hockney was staring steadily at me.

Then, apropos of nothing, he pointed to me at the other end of the table and interrupted the proceedings by asking me if I was Indian. I said I was.

“So, why have you changed the name of Bombay to Mumbai?” he asked, a bit aggressively.

Silence. Neither Johnson nor the others felt bold enough to stop Hockney going off on this absurd tangent. I supposed I had to answer and muttered something to the effect that it was to erase the colonial legacy inherent in the name and revert to what may have been the origin of “Bombay” from a patron goddess of the islands, Mumba Devi.

I don’t think Hockney was interested in my answer as he went on to remonstrate about the change in the names of Yorkshire counties.

Though very many of my friends and acquaintances, old Mumbaikars, still use the name Bombay, I have no animosity towards calling the city — the city of my paternal ancestors and my present base when I am in India — after Mumba Devi. Names change: Britain is no longer called “Albion”; Madras becomes Chennai, Calcutta reinstates the Bengali pronunciation, current bigotry rids Allahabad of its Islamic connotations… authority is the instrument of christening.

The latest change proposed — of India to Bharat — leaves a few paradoxical puzzles. It was probably the Muslim invaders of India, the early dynasties and then the Mughals, who called the country “Hindustan” — the land of the Hindus. This was an accurate description from their point of view. And when, through the evolutionary process that all languages undergo, the old Sanskritic and Prakritic languages, having acquired some words from the invading army’s vocabulary, fashioned the “Urdu” tongue, the popular version was still known as Hindustani. The words Hindu, Sindhu, Hindi all owe their origin to the original name of the river Indus. Obviously. “Hinduism” has its origins in the same historical evolution.

Ironically, the ideological embrace of the powers that want to change the name of India to Bharat is called “Hindutva”. This “philosophy” will, we must assume, still retain its name and not be changed to “Bharatsutra”, “Bharatva” or something derived from or related to the proposed new name of the country. Of course, the name-changers may not have noticed or care that Hindutva is a direct derivative of the name of the land of the Indus whereas Bharat derives from respected ancient Indian epic lore.

Yes, names change or co-exist. The world outside refers to Deutschland as Germany.

Mohammed Reza Shah, the monarch overthrown by the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, had decreed that the names “Iran” and “Persia” could both be used officially.

My barber happens to be from Iran, and when we first struck up a conversation, as one does when having a trim, he asked me my name and when I told him, he said: “So you are Muslim?”

I said: “No, I am a Parsi, a Zoroastrian!”

“Ah,” he said, “I want to be Zoroastrian”.

“Really? I can tell you are from Iran,” I said, staring into the mirror as he paused using his scissors and comb.

“Don’t say Iran. I am from Persia,” he said.

I didn’t ask him what ideology led him to prefer one name rather than the other. Neither did I go into any pedantic etymology about how the name Iran originated in the ancient Avestan language and was meant to indicate that the country so named was the land of the Aryan people. The word Persia derives from the words used by the Greek enemies of the Achaemenid empire of Iran under Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes.

So why my hairdresser (a barber by any other name cuts as stylishly!) chooses the Greek name is mysterious. Perhaps he associates the word Iran with the fundamentalist Islamic regime that, he assures me, will be overthrown by a revolution in favour of modern democracy. He also assures me that the majority of Persians want to revert from Islam to Zoroastrianism but dare not declare this as, in the eyes and laws of the ayatollahs, this desire or determination is a capital offence.

I didn’t ask if using the word “Persia” to describe the country is a capital offence in Iran but my stylist’s use of it indicated that it was part of the defiance of the regime.

I must take a Tube to the Aldwych to see if the Indian high commission at India House is now the Bharat high commission at Bharat House. The building’s name is engraved in stone, so the change may well take some effort, expenditure and time.