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Paschimbanga Takes A Bow

Legislators in West Bengal, the formerly Marxist-ruled Indian state in northeastern India, kept foreign investment out of their state for years by the simple expedient of being communist.  Just to make sure nobody missed their message, they renamed the street where the US Consulate stands after Ho Chi Minh.

Driving into the provincial capital of Kolkata (formerly famous as Calcutta, the capital of British India for almost 200 years), I saw the hammer and sickle emblem of the Communist Party fluttering gaily in the breeze almost everywhere I looked.  Where the hammer and sickle wasn’t proudly waving the swastika was.  The swastika of course had thousands of years of use in India as a religious symbol before Hitler twisted and misappropriated it, but to American eyes it was as if the city were decked out to celebrate the Hitler Stalin Pact of 1939, and it was about as startling a visual effect as I’ve ever seen.

In any case, now that the communists are out, the West Bengalis have another plan to keep the investors at bay with all that dangerous cash: they want to change the name of the state to Paschimbanga, apparently pronounced “Poshchimbongo”.  It won out over its leading rival Bangabhumi, perhaps because it was longer, less memorable and harder to pronounce.

A few years ago many people in South Africa were excited about changing the name of Johannesburg to something less Boer: Egoli, meaning “City of Gold” was the leading contender.  Common sense prevailed as many South Africans agreed that attracting foreign investment to a familiar brand name was more important than spending a lot of money repainting street signs.

In India, the debate usually goes the other way; just ask residents of Mumbai and Chennai (Bombay and Madras).

The biggest winners are probably the producers of atlases and maps; every few years the number of place name changes accumulates to the point where new editions of standard works are required.

At the Mead manor, we are geographically conservative, preferring the good old name of Byzantium to such nonsensical neologisms as ‘Constantinople’.  But we also try to be well bred, and will use whatever name the inhabitants of a particular place ask us to use.  On our next visit to Pashchimbanga we will struggle to remember and pronounce its new name, and rejoice that the swastika now flies there alone.

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  • Joe

    Bombay and Madras were renamed by bjp initiatives and I refuse to play along with that sort of chauvinistic silliness. Should we start calling Leghorn, Turin or Nuremberg by the same awful name the local [people] came up with?

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