Ho Chi Minh Sarani in Kolkata is just another busy street in a city where most streets are busy. Ordinarily, passers by would hardly notice the name or find anything odd about it. But the presence of the American Consulate building on a street named after someone who defied American might in Vietnam for years, gives it a unique twist. At the height of the Vietnam war the Left Front government in Bengal played a really mean trick on the Americans, changing its name from Harrington Street, after John Herbert Harrington, a British orientalist, colonial administrator and judge who published a two-volume edition of the Arabic and Persian works of the poet and writer Saadi Shirazi, to its present calling.
Many street names in older Indian cities have had similarly wicked antecedents though few embody such delicious irony. I have always found Khooni Darwaza near Delhi Gate on Delhi’s Fleet Street, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, of particular interest, thanks to its gory history. Built by Sher Shah Suri in the middle of the 16th century, it was initially named Lal Darwaza. But over the years, it became the site of several gory murders specially during the Mughal rule, leading to its present name.
The business of identifying streets by their official names is of relatively recent vintage. In fact, it is only thanks to Google Maps that I have discovered names of streets which were earlier purely of functional value. So the road that I have used often enough as a shortcut home, was for long a nameless half-kilometer stretch. Now I am informed it is actually Sardar Resham Singh Marg leading to Govind Lal Sikka Marg. My curiosity piqued, I tried to figure out the antecedents of the two gentlemen. Sadly, neither Wikipedia nor Google search throw up anything on them.
The magic of street names, as indeed of streets, is best experienced on foot. It is only then that you notice why a street is so named. From the smells that waft into your nose you can figure out in Old Delhi that you are on Gali Paranthe Wali, or if you are in Mumbai, the clotheslines will tell you why that particular area was called Dhobi Ghat though now it has been renamed as K. Vasudeo B. Phadke Chowk.
The renaming bug has indeed spoilt many wonderful streets in the popular consciousness. The Congress got into the act first with its Rajiv Chowk and Indira Chowk replacing Connaught Place and Connaught Circus in Delhi though I daresay hardly anyone refers to the area by anything other than CP. Can you imagine the confusion if you told a friend, an old timer like me, “I will see you at Indira Chowk!”
While one appreciates the desire to banish the legacy of the British colonizers, and pay our respects to home-grown heroes, many such streets are named after obscure British-era officials and most locals hardly ever bothered about their antecedents. In Chennai, for instance, one of the best-known roads was Chamiers Road named after a nondescript civil servant Henry Chamier. Only an avid historian would know who he was nor would anyone have bothered. Renaming it Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar Road, while it honours a wonderful freedom fighter and a spiritual leader, may not have been worthwhile. It is understandable that just after Independence, the nation wanted to rid itself of colonial vestiges which is why renaming Kingsway Road to Rajpath and Queensway to Janpath, had some justification. But after 74 years, we ought to be a lot more comfortable in our skin to not feel the need for such cosmetic changes.
With no central authorities in charge of renaming, the traditional names of streets were both occupationally accurate and easy-to-find. If you wanted to visit a tailor in Old Delhi, you just asked for the Sui Walan Gali (the tailor’s lane), and if you needed something more elaborate, you hurried across to Kinari Bazar (the brocade market). And Peepul Wali Gali was easy to identify, till of course they decided to chop down the magnificent tree. Now many of the names are just tongue twisters and hardly embody the spirit of the place. Would you ever want Dalal Street renamed?Also read: A walk down the new-look Chandni Chowk