While the ‘national media’ is fixated on things of ‘national importance’, the media in Karnataka, both Kannada and English, is abuzz with the news that the Centre has agreed to the Government of Karnataka’s proposal to ‘rename’ several cities in the state. Bangalore is now officially Bengaluru, Mysore is Mysuru, Belgaum is Belagavi, and so on and so forth.
Despite all the hype, celebrations, and the occasional mention of the late U R Ananthamurthy’s name (he stood for this cause), it’s important to pause and understand what exactly has happened here. Are the names really new? Who are they new to? In which language or languages are they new? All in all, does it matter?
These names, Bengaluru, Mysuru, Belagavi, etc., are not new to the people of these cities or of Karnataka as a whole. Nor are they new entrants to the Kannada language. Nobody has ever used the words Bangalore, Mysore, Belgaum, etc., in Kannada; it has always been these ‘new’ names. It is, in fact, impossible to use them because it’s foreign pronunciation. British pronunciation, to be precise.
So what’s happening now is not ‘renaming’ from the point of view of those Kannadigas who take their own language more seriously than others. Yes, it’s true that the India outside of Karnataka is going to try and use the same names as used within Karnataka. I say ‘try and use’ because Kannada names cannot necessarily be pronounced by non-Kannadigas. The ‘l’ in Bengaluru, for example, is not pronounced north of the Vindhyas – at least not any more.
So, is this whole thing a sort of an achievement? Does it call for a celebration?
To get some perspective, consider the fact that Germany is not pleading with the EU to be ‘renamed’ as Deutschland; The Netherlands is not pleading to be ‘renamed’ as Nederland; France isn’t pleading to be ‘renamed’ as République Française; the number of such examples is not even countable. In fact, people worldwide have their own names for all the countries and cities they’ve had the opportunity to talk about.
To take one example of a city, what the British call London is known and written in some of the world’s languages as follows: Llundain, Londër, Londain, Londan, Londe, Londen, Londhíno, Londinium, Londona, Londonas, Londra, Londres, Londrez, Londyn, Londýn, Lontoo, Loundres, Luân Đôn, Lundenwic, Lúndūn, Lundúnir, Lunnainn, Reondeon, Rŏndŏn, Rondon, and Londoni. Is this a let-down of the people of London? No. In fact, it’s a matter of Londoner pride for their city, like all living things, to have a Vishnu Sahasranama of its own.
So then, why did some Kannadigas ask for this, why do they call it ‘renaming’, and why are they celebrating now? There is only one answer. They have resigned to the fate, decided for them by the Government of India, of Hindi and English being more important than Kannada. To ask for the Kannada names to be approximated in Hindi and English is, first and foremost, to accept the over-lordship of these two hegemonic languages. Even U R Ananthamurthy advocated for Hindi’s emergence as a pan-India link language; I don’t think he worked out the full impact of such a disaster on Kannada. Perhaps it gives the celebrators some solace now to think that the hordes of migrants who are coming into these cities from the North will at least try and preserve the names of their cities – if not Kannadigas’ existence in them.