What's in a name?

One indicator of a country’s relationship to its past is how it deals with the reminders of colonial or foreign rule—the statues and plaques honoring administrators and generals, the chapters in school textbooks, the names of cities, towns and streets.

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India has not been in a huge rush to remove reminders of its British colonial past. Since independence in 1947, more than 100 cities and towns have been re-named, but that leaves hundreds more that are still known by their colonial-era names. The changes have included: Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta), Guwahati (Gauhati), Kanpur (Cawnpore), Kochi (Cochin), Mysuru (Mysore), Pune (Poona), Puducherry (Pondicherry), Shimla (Simla), Tiruchiapalli (Trichinapoly), Thiruvananthapram (Trivandrum), and Varanasi (Benares).

The most recent rash of official changes came in 2014 when the federal government finally approved new names for 12 cities. As usual, there was no way to hurry up the bureaucracy. It had been almost a decade since the government of the state of Karnataka had approved changing the name of Bangalore, India’s fifty largest city, to Bengaluru ahead of the city’s official 500th anniversary in 2006. 

A popular, although historically dodgy, legend has it that the place owes its name to a local king who got lost in the forest on a hunting trip. After hours of aimless wandering, the hungry and exhausted king spotted a hut inhabited by an old woman who offered him boiled beans because that was all she had. Impressed by the hospitality, the king named that part of the forest Bendakaalooru in memory of the meal; in old Kannada, the local language, benda means boiled, kaalu  beans and ooru town or city, making it literally the “city of boiled beans”).  Or perhaps the name is derived from Benga-val-ooru (City of Guards), a reference to the city’s military muscle from the 16th to the 18th centuries. When the British captured the fort in 1791, colonial administrators, perhaps struggling to get their tongues around the Kannada name, dubbed the city Bangalore, and that was how it was known for more than two centuries. During the public debate over reverting to the original name, some tourism and business officials fretted about the impact “the city of boiled beans” might have on the image of the country’s leading IT hub, but most on both sides of the issue expected that the similar-sounding name would be quickly adopted.


It didn’t happen quickly. Although the official signs, airport monitors and websites have been changed, some Indians, including Bengaluru natives, continue to use the old name. The same goes for Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, although the latter (the Bengali name) is close enough in pronunciation to Calcutta that sometimes you can’t tell which name is being used. Indeed, many colonial-era city and town names were what the locals called the place, or how the name sounded to the British administrators. There aren’t many real English place names.

Street names are another matter. India’s municipal governments have systematically erased the names of colonial officials from signs and maps. The streets of Central Delhi were once a who’s who of British monarchs, prime ministers, generals, viceroys and colonial administrators—King Edward, King George, Allenby, Canning, Clive, Cornwallis, Curzon, Kitchener, Monto, Reading. They’ve all gone. Kingsway is now Rajpath, Queensway Janpath.

During visits, I try to be culturally sensitive and use the new names, but sometimes get puzzled looks. “Oh, you must mean Bombay. Why didn’t you say so?” My colleague Suruchi Sood, who returns to India at least once a year for work or family visits, reports a moment of panic when she took a domestic flight to Madras. She arrived at the gate and saw that the destination listed was Chennai. For a moment, she thought she was on her way to another city.

Smart city

The city of Ahmedabad sprawls across the scrubby coastal plain of the northwestern state of Gujarat for what seems like an eternity. And perhaps it is an eternity, because it is reportedly the fastest-growing city in India. The 2011 census put its population at 5.6 million; it’s now well over seven million, with a million or so more in the metropolitan area, making it either the fifth or sixth largest city in India, and the seventh largest metropolitan area. By the next census in 2021, 60 years after it first passed the million mark, it could have nine million.

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Ahmedabad was not on my radar until June 2015 when I visited with my UNICEF colleague, Mario Mosquera, to check out the Mudra Institute for Communication (MICA), which had bid to host a workshop on communication for development for UNICEF staff. I had no idea the city was as large as it was, nestled in the population table just below Bangalore and Hyderabad. Flying in from Delhi, I assumed the terminal where we arrived was the airport itself and thought it looked rather empty. I soon saw signs pointing to three more terminals. Ahmedabad was building for future growth.

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Ahmedabad was originally a city of textile mills—some called it the “Manchester of India.” It’s in the cotton-growing region of Gujarat, and also imports raw cotton through the ports of Mumbai and Kandla. Climatic conditions are suitable for spinning, and water from the Sabarmati River for dyeing. The city had a large pool of skilled labor, investment capital and good road and rail connections to Mumbai and other cities. The textile industry remains an important part of the economy, but Ahmedabad has diversified. Over the last decade, the main growth has been in sectors such as auto parts and pharmaceuticals, with a business-friendly state government offering cheap land and tax breaks to industry. It was the so-called “Gujarat economic miracle” that helped propel the state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, onto the national stage. He went on to leadership of the Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, and then to become prime minister.

From the airport, Mario and I drove for almost an hour on a freshly tarmacked four-lane ring road across a construction site landscape. Workers were laying water and utility lines on both sides of the highway and planting shrubs on the median. Large areas of former farmland were dotted with signs and surveyors’ stakes announcing future industrial and technology parks. In the sweltering heat of the early afternoon—late June is the start of the monsoon season—workers with scarves tied around their heads clambered between the steel and concrete pillars of half-finished factories and office buildings, hoisted bamboo scaffolding poles into position, mixed cement, and carried bricks, effortlessly balancing them in baskets on their heads. Billboards marked the designation of economic zones, often expressed as acronyms, such as the Gujarat International Finance Tech (GIFT) City, a “smart city” initiative.

Ahmedabad is one of more than 100 urban areas across India designated by the national government to become a “smart city.” It’s a catchy, if vague, slogan. Officially, a smart city is an urban region with top-notch infrastructure, making it attractive to businesses and residents. That means wide roads, commercial and industrial real estate, modern apartments, schools and medical facilities, all wired together with high-speed links. Ahmedabad was one of 20 cities selected in the first round in January 2016 for government funding.


Knowing the average connection speed of Indian bureaucracy, it may take some time for the money to arrive. The state and city governments were not waiting on Delhi but plowing ahead with infrastructure. Ahmedabad will likely always be a work-in-progress, because there are few geographical limits to expansion although eventually the city planners will run up against the Char Desert, which covers a wide area of the northwest in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In late afternoon, as we drove away from the MICA campus through the borderland between construction sites and cotton fields, we passed camels hauling carts of hay for animal feed. Somehow, it did not seem incongruous to see camels and herders on a modern highway among the yellow Tata trucks and SUVs. The line between the urban and rural in modern India is constantly shifting.

I began to wonder if Ahmedabad was anything more than highways and construction sites. I was happy to discover an older city on a one-hour sortie to have my suitcase repaired. The screws securing the pull-out handle on my suitcase had fallen out. One advantage of working in a developing country is that it’s almost always cheaper to have something fixed than to buy a new one. The hotel gave me the name of a shopping center where luggage was sold. My auto rickshaw driver had a better idea. He pulled up beside other drivers who rooted around under the seats in their vehicles for screws. After 10 minutes, I signaled that I wasn’t prepared to wait and we set off again. The next stop was a hole-in-the-wall hardware shop, but again nothing fit. We set off again through the maze of streets of the old city and eventually reached a roundabout. The luggage repair wallah sat under a canopy on the narrow sidewalk, his sewing machine in the road, piles of used luggage behind him. He inspected the suitcase, dipped into a bag, pulled out two bolts and nuts, screwed the suitcase together and fixed a torn zipper. “How much?” I asked. He shrugged. “Whatever you think is right.” I gave him 150 rupees (about $2.25), got back into the auto rickshaw, thought about it again, and gave him another 100. I fear that his days are numbered. There’s no place in the smart city for people who hang out a shingle at a busy roundabout and fix things. Maybe they’ll give him a cubicle on the ring road and a web site domain. And no one will come.

Inexplicable India

As a Westerner visiting India for the first time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Of course, you have read guidebooks and watched TV travel shows to prepare for the trip. You know the basic facts—that India is the second most populous country in the world, diverse in topography, ethnicity, language, religion, culture and cuisine. Nevertheless, after you have pushed your way past the hotel and taxi touts at the airport, shooed away the gaggle of barefoot young boys fighting to carry your bags, and settled into the air-conditioned comfort of the official car or the hotel shuttle, India still assails your senses. 

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There’s no travel show that can prepare you for the crush of people, cars, auto-rickshaws, hand carts, bicycles and people on the city streets. Your driver is nonchalant about the traffic snarls. “Much worse in monsoon season,” he says matter-of-factly. Street vendors, hawking snacks, newspapers, cheap toys, sunglasses, pens, pencils, balloons, coconut slices, and mobile phone car chargers, move among the stalled or slow-moving vehicles.

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When I’m stuck in traffic in Delhi or Mumbai, it’s easy to think that the city’s jams are the worst I’ve ever experienced. On reflection I realize that the traffic is just as bad in most other south and southeast Asian cities. The difference is that in India stalled traffic offers a front-seat view of urban poverty. Beggars with long straggly greying hair, sad-eyed children and women with babies bundled on their backs knock on the car windows, holding open their hands. At one intersection, children perform tumbling tricks on the road. “Look away and don’t open the window,” your driver instructs, hitting the automatic door lock.  You feel a little guilty about ignoring suffering, but at the same time you check your billfold or purse to make sure nothing is missing after the jostling at the airport. The guidebook warned you about pickpockets.

Your car passes rows of dilapidated concrete apartment blocks, their courtyards strewn with trash. Along the roadside and the railroad tracks are rough, single-room shanties, bamboo poles framing rusting sheets of metal, cardboard, tarpaulin and plastic; outside, literally on the street, women are cooking on stoves or open fires and bathing children.


In parks, alleys and under bridges, those who do not have a shanty claim a few feet of grass or dirt for a sleeping space, laying out a blanket and a few possessions. Yet, a few hundred yards further on is a residential compound of smart, high-rent apartments, with an electronic security gate, a guard post and security cameras. Your car passes modern office towers, ornate wedding palaces, brightly colored Hindu temples and plain mosques, and a moving window display of commercial signage, some in comic English. The malls are packed with shoppers; at the food court, they go for traditional north or south Indian fare or sample KFC and Subway, before shopping or heading to the multiplex for the latest Bollywood blockbuster.

You arrive at your hotel, surrounded by high brick walls topped with barbed wire and spikes. At the security checkpoint, one guard opens the trunk to inspect the luggage; another slowly circles the vehicle holding a pole with a mirror, checking the underside for suspicious attachments. At the entrance, one hotel staff member opens the car door and two more carry your bags to the metal detector. The doorman looks as if he just stepped out of the military parade ground or a TV period drama. Six feet tall and well built, with a dark beard, he is resplendent in his yellow turban and tailored white suit with a red sash and ornamental sword. He salutes smartly.

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Standing nearby, two less well tailored security guards armed with semi-automatic rifles and perspiring in their flak jackets acknowledge your arrival, although their salutes are more perfunctory. There’s more saluting and door-opening as you enter the lobby and approach the reception desk, where a waiter offers you a welcome drink of watermelon juice. For an instant, you imagine you’re back in the time of the Raj, that you’re a British colonial officer with a small army of staff at your bidding. Then reality returns. You’re in a modern hotel with air conditioning, wi-fi, and room service. BBC World is on the TV monitor, the sound muted.  The low-level muzak sounds familiar, but somehow out of place.  Then you catch the tune. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …” Surreal.  The dark-suited desk clerk smiles and gives you your key. “Welcome to the Taj, sir. I hope you have a pleasant stay.”

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Statistically, the wealth gap in urban India may be no greater than it is in other countries. To me, the poverty of Delhi or Mumbai seems more apparent, more emotionally draining. The wealth gap in urban India, perhaps more than in any other country I’ve visited, is striking and ever-present, sometimes within the same field of view. In some countries, most poor people are geographically segregated, confined to the outer limits of cities in shanty towns or informal settlements. In urban India, outside the oases of hotels and offices, the poor are with you all the time, often right in your face or following you down the street. Do you hand over that 20 rupee note (about 30 cents) with its image of that champion of the poor, Mahatma Gandhi, to make the woman with her baby go away? How do you know that she’s not part of an organized begging ring?  In India, moral dilemmas await you around almost every corner.

Faced with crowds, poverty, pollution, trash, traffic congestion, and crime, some people find India too much to bear. There’s always a danger of getting sick—from tap water at a budget hotel or restaurant, or from street food. Except in the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s usually hot—in some months, almost unbearably so.  If you’re prepared to take India for what it is—often messy and disorganized, occasionally dangerous and always unpredictable—and put up with unanticipated inconveniences and hardships, you will be well rewarded, and relish its smells, sounds, sights, culture and people.

You may also feel humble, as I do when Indian friends and colleagues start talking about  history, religion and culture. India is an epic of epics, spanning thousands of years—of war and conquest, of the rise and fall of great civilizations, of architecture, literature and art, of migration and settlement, of commerce with Asia, Europe and Africa. I know some of this, but have much more to learn.

Most visitors to India long ago accepted that any generalizations are at best tentative, at worst misleading. There is not one but many Indias. India is not only, as its tourism slogan goes, “incredible.”  It’s inexplicable.