Indian cities have always had multiple names, with Benaras coexisting with Kashi and Bombay with Mumbai. But as the clamour for name changes grows, this syncretic approach is under threat
speaking English. This is the ‘Indic’ way, this is the natural code-switching from one register to another, the many versions that we are comfortable with. It is a Western, ‘Cartesian’ mentality where you annihilate one thing and replace it with another,” says Hoskote.
But this project to reduce Indian society to a clash of religions, to identify Hindus with the nation, and cast Muslims as outsiders and invaders, requires ignoring historical facts, it means ignoring the nonreligious motives of rulers, the diversities of both Hinduism and Islam, and the actual mingling of cultures that defines us.
Even in the Gangetic plain, for all the communal tensions of the last century and the frictions before, it is impossible to sever the connections strengthened over hundreds of years — in the language, the clothes, the food, the music and dance. Whether it is kathak or thumri, the churidar pajama and the names we have, these cultures have been too tightly intertwined for us to even tell them apart now. “The Bhakti and Sufi movements influenced each other. Even the Gorakhnath order (the Nath yogis where UP CM Yogi Adityanath is connected to) had connections with the Chishti tradition,” says Rana Safvi, who specialised in medieval history and syncretic culture. She points to the respectful aadaab greeting, a secular gesture rather than a religious one. As the musicologist Peter Manuel writes, Hindustani music tells a story of Muslim patronage and connoisseurship and Hindu themes, and its performers and traditions cannot be categorised as Hindu and Muslim.
Randomly renaming an existing city is an easy thing to do. Building one would be the real achievement, says Safvi. While the UP government may count on the new city names sticking after a generation or two, old memories are also stubborn. For instance, 62 years after its renaming, people still call Varanasi both Benares and Kashi. Signboards may change but it’s difficult to undo the past that produced us.
— With inputs from Shailvee Sarda