As I have mentioned before, I am a morning walk person. My usual target is to do 5km or so in 60 minutes. This morning it was around Kilpauk, where my mother lives. Her flat is on Landons Road and as I meandered through this very residential locality, the road names caught my attention. So the route I took to cover the 60′ was to turn right at Taylor’s Road, then right again on Kilapuk Garden Road, and thro Harleys, Balfour, Ormes, Miller, Flowers to Poonamallee High Road, then thro’ Barnaby and Waddel to Kilpauk Garden and home.
I have no clue who these venerable Englishmen of yesteryear are, although a few such as Balfour and Ormes ring some distant bell! I am sure i will have to trove thro’ hours of local history to locate all of them in the history of this city. But, that these names exist at all in modern Chennai is a source of wonder. This is something that strikes you in Kolkota also. Of course, Madras State has become Tamilnadu and West Bengal is trying to become Paschim Banga (always wondered why we retained the ‘West’ and want to keep ‘Paschim’ when the East had become Bangladesh long ago!), and Madras city has become Chennai, while Calcutta has become Kolkota. But, the local governments in these two cities are not clamoring to change the local street names with the same mad frenzy we see in many other parts of India.
In fact, Karan Thapar had recently written in HT on a similar theme. Initially, in the days of post-independence euphoria we probably wanted our own heroes to be remembered and so every city/town got a MG Road, though we may have to remind some of the youngsters that the MG stands for Mahatma Gandhi. And as other heroes passed on, sufficiently important roads had to be found for their names – of course, replacing the more familiar older British names. I remember the the anti-colonial wave of the 60s when and all the statues of the viceroys etc were banished from Lutyen’s Delhi and all the roads were systematically renamed! I am sure the powers that be, had to dig deep to find sufficient names for all the roads. I am referring to the days before blatant sycophancy became a part of the political culture and everything was not for sale!! And also, we waited till someone was had passed on to the next world, before we carved their names in stone (or painted them on street names).
But Indira Gandhi changed all that. She was the inventor of ‘sycophancy’ as a culture and never put restraint on all those clamoring to name everything in site after her. She probably inaugurated many an institution named after herself!! This opened the flood gates and every politician worth his salt tried to get a street/road/lane/bylane or even a gully named after an elder in his party to whom he/she was beholden.
This cult is very evident in Maharashtra where we had a personal experience in the early 80s. Subhash had a cousin living in Gigaum, whom we visited occasionally. On such a visit, we found the narrow lane blocked by a shamiana and the usual milling crowds and popular filmy music (in this case, Marathi). When we struggled up to the 3rd floor flat, we had a birds eye view of the activity – the crows were anxiously waiting for the local corporator and other bigwigs who were coming to formally name the small chowk – Veer Ganapat Sawant Rao ___Saheb Chowk (or something similar, I dont remember the exact name). The chowk was just the meeting point of 2 small gullies and no one had heard of this person – even the locals, like our cousin. But, it was common practice that for the right consideration these things could be arranged! The names have to be elaborate with all the titles and the the middle names included. So we have Padma Shree Dr DY Patil Medical College and who can recall that the fairly well known Nair Hospital is actually, BYL Nair or Bai Yamunabai Laxman Nair Hospital?
Tamilnadu politics venerates sycophancy more than any other and has elevated it to a fine art! So, I am a little confused as to how the Orme and Barnaby continue to survive here. Or is it that the British past is looked on more benovalently in these parts? Whatever the reason, a name has a history and associations that go with it, especially for the people who reside at the address. Can we wipe away 200 odd years of our history by renaming a few roads. Does not the very reminder of that history serve a purpose?
Whatever maybe the reasons, I am hoping that I don’t set out for a morning walk a few years from now and find all these names changed. I, for one, am one for keeping the names because, there is a lot in a name!!