What’s in a name? Chennai is as good as Madras.

This interesting post (by a fellow metblogger) and the even more interesting comments on it led to this post of mine.

I for one, am 100% with the blogger on this issue of names reflecting the culture and people of a place more than any need to preserve status quo (especially the anglicized names that were somehow internalized by our people as though it were more fashionable to say, for example, Mowbrays Road than T.T.K.Salai). It is true that for centuries we had been a dominated landmass, first by a gang of rowdies called the Moghuls and later by another bunch of rowdies, euphemistically referred to as colonialists. Since we had fought with these hooligans throughout history and in the case of one replacing the other, had finally drove them away for good in 1947, a decade more than half a century on, is there any need to maintain the vestiges of their erstwhile civic infrastructure nomenclature?

Let’s face it. These people built railways not for the natives. They created an efficient post and telegraphs system, but not in the interests of the people of this land. They constructed roads and buildings but again using this country’s labor class and to serve their interests. Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence was imported to punish the natives but under the cloak of following some rule book (as the actor Ja(a)var Seetharaman who plays the role of a British Officer says in the classic Thamizh movie – Veera Pa(a)ndiya Katta Bomman, “naangaL oru naayai suduvathendraalum sattam pOttuththaan suttuth thaLLuvOm or in other words “even if we have to kill a dog, we will shoot it only after passing a law as such”).

They did not expect or want to be ousted but it finally happened. Rajeev Srinivasan, a Rediff columnist says in one of his articles that these glorified thieves carted away the equivalent of a trillion dollars (in today’s dollar terms) from this country, the reason being this country’s once-upon-a-time wealth and prosperity acting as a magnet for such vandals to come here in the first place. So, what are we trying to preserve in keeping the names of our roads and towns sounding as though we were all cruising thru the streets and cities of England or some other western hemisphere country?

While in Thamizhnaadu, I don’t agree with the principles of almost all parties that have held power at some time in the past (or are new/existing ones nursing ambitions of doing so) and know very well that all their renaming stunts have been nothing but political games with no underlying love or care for the people, yet I cannot agree more when they want to do away with the colonial-hangover name and substitute it with one named after some “son of the soil” (only disagreeing with their deceptive and double-standards approach of selectively eliminating certain caste surnames of streets with hilarious effects sometimes).

So, I am all for an Edward Elliots Road becoming a Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai and a Lloyds Road becoming an Avvai Shanmugham Salai in a city like “Chennai” (again while also having nothing against “Madras”, a name that I don’t think is any lesser or at the same time, any greater even though that may have been the only name I may have referred to for more than two decades when speaking in this strange language, a language that is so different from my mother-tongue and one that I also use to write such articles to communicate my thoughts to those people who know my mother-tongue and to those who don’t, alike :-)).

31 Comments so far

  1. Kris (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 4:24 am

    i can’t get used to calling Madras “Chennai” and it may be because I’ve called it Madras my whole life but call me crass but it’s also because I think of Madras as a “global brand” at this point and a name that is universally recognized. i guess Madras will fade away if you give it enough time but will people start wearing Chennai shorts :-)

  2. Anand (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 5:35 am

    Even when the offcial name of the city was Madras, in tamil it was always called Chennai. I still remember the announcement on radio used to be ‘chennai vanoli nilayam – vividh barathiyin varthaga oli parappu’. There are many other instances, where in tamil, the usage was always Chennai. So what was in use was only made official. I for one have no problem in calling Chennai as Chennai

  3. randomguy (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 7:57 am

    A thought experiment. Think of your best friend in mind. I mean, really. Imagine that he changes his name overnight to a different name. By what name would you address him after that?
    This did happen to a friend of mine. Trust me, it’s very hard to get used to addressing him by his new name. If you took the thought experiment seriously, you’d realize that. In my mind, the same goes with cities also. And roads.

  4. AB (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 8:02 am

    Nice to see the other side of the debate

  5. Raveendar (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 10:34 am

    I like that ‘THAMIZHNAADU’ in your post, even i try to say ‘THAMIZH’ when i speak in English…

  6. prabhu (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 11:32 am

    probably this is the first time im seein the other side of this debate. u have a supporter in me!

    In the same mood, i also feel ‘madras’ close to me, the reason is not jst that i have been using it for a long time. I like it – thats it.

    On talkin about using the ‘english’ names, i dont think u can put forward this as a reason, as v follow them in a hell a lot of issues. starting from the way we dress to the way v eat.

    im a bit confused, this confusion is because of this change, if it had not happened we would have spent this time on something else rt? :>

  7. Siva (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 12:22 pm

    Nevertheless, all these will create nothing but confusion with the already confusing and chaotic street names, new numbers and old numbers, etc. How about this to write it in your envelope “Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Devar Salai” (I guess we might need to buy another envelope to write the full street name) rather than Chamiers Road. The other day I saw the so-called followers of Pasumpon devar rubbing the name boards with tar in Chamiers Road which has the name Chamiers in it.

  8. Navneeth (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

    Call it what you want. It’s artificial when I try to say ‘Chennai’. But somehow, I feel that it’s Chennai that is more “hep,” rather than antiquated Madras.(I guess it’s the effect of news channels. :D)

    I’m sure most would forget the colonial names in the decades to come, and would start referring to streets and roads by their current names(or whatever they would’ve been changed to by some jobless “vella-vaeti, vella-sattai” in the intervening years.).

  9. JM (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 1:20 pm

    Randomguy, What was your friend’s old and new name? Just curious to know if this was caused by a religious conversion

  10. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 1:22 pm

    Madrassees world-wide seem to dislike the name change. They talk as something has been taken away from them, as well in terms of the practicality of confusion. Many native Madrasees seem to have just ignored the change.

    The only people who find little difficulty are us foreigners and newcomers! Apart from telling other people in the world, ‘Chennai …have you heard of Madras, then?’ (there… that’s that branding thing, I suppose, because everybody has heard of Madras; only those with active interest in India have heard of Chennai. We have taken the change on board, and many of the street names too. I have to think twice when my wife refers to Mounts Road!

    Whilst I entirely sympathise with those who do not want to retain the stamp of colonialism and mispronunciation, I regret that the renaming seems to reflect the wish of politicians to massage their own egos and agendas and push their own heros.

    I cannot see any good reason to change geographical names such as Royapettah High Road —by all means, change the last two words to Tamil, why not?

    —Just, of course, a foreigner’s thoughts…

  11. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 1:26 pm

    Oh, and I’d be interested in the story behind this ‘old number/new number’ thing.

    It isn’t unknown for streets to be renumbered elsewhere in the world — but to keep both numbers?

    The EB and the paper boy refer to my home by the old number. I don’t know about the water/corporation; I’m just a tenant. Everybody else by the new number.

    How about Blog article on this, Metrobloggers?

  12. Chenthil (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 1:38 pm

    Thennavan, thanks for the link. Though I don’t agree with dissing the invaders, but that is another post altogether.

    Thad E ginathom, I have a theory on why some name changes succeed and some do not. Whenever a foreigner’s name is replaced, people accept it without murmur. Example – Edwards Elliotts Road to Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai. However when a functional name is replaced, people don’t accept it. Example – Mount Road (leading to St. Thomas Mount) to Anna Salai, Royapettah High Road to Thiru Vi Ka Salai and so on.

    And on the Old Number / New Number, well that is a nuisance all over Tamilnadu.

  13. Subha (unregistered) on November 9th, 2006 @ 6:04 pm

    I agree too. In some way or the other, these little things form a part of our life. Maybe using an anglicized name unconsciously reinforces our colonialist attitude? I am not necessarily endorsing a renaming spree but then, a few changes here and there are not going to hurt.

  14. Anand (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 3:22 am

    I like the name ‘Chennai’. And as one of the previous blogger mentioned, its not something new and came from the sky all of a sudden. If you had seen state transport buses in the last decades, buses always had ‘Chennai’ on display, not Madras.

  15. sj (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 4:17 am

    I agree with you Anand Chennai was the original name in Tamil and I am glad to see that it has been changed to this many people from the North refer to it as Mudras which does not sound good in anyway.

  16. AB (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 5:54 am

    Any idea how the British came up with the name Madras?

  17. Siva (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 7:35 am

    Though I want to say Chennai, most of the times I end up saying Madras. But I welcome the name change, coz Chennai sounds more Tamizh to me than Madras. Here(US) most of my clients who also have a office in Chennai, refer the name Chennai only. I have never seen them calling Madras.

    As Anand rightly mentioned, the name Chennai has always been in use. Chennai was always referred to as Chennai in Tamizh, be it Tamizh newspapers, magazines or any form of media. Even the government was using Chennai in all its correspondences. Before name change it was Madras officially and Chennai unofficially and now it is Chennai officially and Madras unofficially. That’s the only change I see, both names will exist and people will continue to use them.

  18. david appasamy (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 8:49 am

    I guess the city one grows up in becomes part of one’s identity. I grew up in Madras. Even if it was called Chennai in Tamil, it was madras that became part of my identity because of its widespread recognition. Thats what makes accepting the change difficult, although both names have their root in Tamil.

  19. raj (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 9:18 am

    thad e ginathom – thadeginathom – thathinginathom – is it just me or do I suspect a madrasee hand behind that post. Is there any foreigner who would name himself Thad.E.Ginathom? :-)

  20. annoynomas (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 10:31 am

    che~n~nai = tamil ‘che’ and hindi ‘nai’

    says it all for ‘NO’

    I propose a compromise may be ‘MuKaPoohar’
    ‘Mu’ttal ‘Ka’zhuthaigal ‘Poohar’
    Place for Jack Asses to Complain ..

    It is representative of this old dump, town, city, metro or whatever ‘this’ today is..

    All the parties has representation in the letters
    M and K. ‘Poohar’ is what people do every day
    about potholes, prices, castism, parking, food, bad roads, bad movies, bad theaters, teachers, bosses, wives, husbands, brahmins, dravidians, christians, muslims, hindis, banglas, lankans, bad connections from SIFY and bad cell phone service.

    But, they never complain about politicians, parties, or even their symbols..

    I know the name will catch up with a phrase like
    ‘Only in MukaPoohar!’…..

    Theenavan please show your lingustic expertise
    in Tamlish pleae and translate the above..

    I am sure friends of metblogs will spam everywhere and spread the new name..

  21. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on November 12th, 2006 @ 3:09 am

    (Raj… foreigners learn mridangam too ;) and while the sun may work on my skin, I’m afraid the fair hair and blue eyes are there for life — well, the eyes, anyway.)

    Chenthil, I agree about the functional names: there we see political nonsense at work — let them get rid of Mr Elliot and Mr Mowbray if they will…

    The only thing I can say in favour of my countrymen is that they did not rename Madras as it didn’t really exist before someone in the East India Company fancied the look of a piece of sand! I understand that ‘Madras’ came from a nearby village, just as ‘Chennai’ did. But all I know about it comes from S. Muthiah’s book, and I have a bad memory for history.

    …And I’d have called it Myalai… even foreigners have their biases and affections within Chennai/Madras ;)

  22. vasu (unregistered) on November 12th, 2006 @ 10:56 am

    Chennai is a city that is not mentioned in the news, people from other metros in India look down on it due to a number of things language and water issues. Chennai has always been Anti Hindi in the past and to a certain extent still is, however it seems that Hindi will soon become the official language here. For some unknown reason locals here prefer to talk in this trashy language than there own. Politicians are helpless as everything India has to be done through Delhi which will never favour other languages in India besides Hindi. The government of Hindia wants to and still does impose Hindi language and culture on all of India.

    Seems even Chennai these days is far too Hindianised. The Hindi movement is growing stronger the only way to stop it is too stop is to have independant states within India.

  23. vishal (unregistered) on November 15th, 2006 @ 3:53 am

    Vasu very strong comments here I agree with what you are saying, Chennai and its politicians and people are unable to stand up to Delhi that is why Hindi is imposed on it and they seem helpless to remove this silly restriction from not just Chennai but any other region that has no need for this language.

  24. thennavan (unregistered) on November 17th, 2006 @ 12:19 am

    Kris, I guess time changes everything :-).

    Anand, Chennai being called as Chennai is probably equivalent to Burma reverting to Myanmar :-).

    Randomguy, I agree that the hardest thing to throw away is a habit :-).

    AB, in other words, you are saying “let the games begin” :-).

    Raveendar, enku Tamil pesa varadu. Thamizhnu dhaan varudhu ;-).

    Prabhu, or you could say we learn something unnecessarily and later have to “unlearn” it :-).

    Siva, let’s do out bit to add to the confusion. What say? ;-

    Navneeth, best then to refer to streets by numbers and cities by some code, like in some futuristic sci-fi movies, so Chennai/Madras will be known as CMX2050D :-).

    JM, now you are starting another controversial topic :-).

    Thad – on both of your comments, I must say you make valid points but who to fix the blame on? :-)

    Chen, glad to debate with you on the “dissing part” any day. Naan ready – neenga readyaa? ;-)

    Subha, the way popular sentiment works is on a “principled stand”, either there is one broad sweep of changes or none at all. A few here and there would be political suicide for those who initiate the process in the first place :-).

    Anand, point noted :-).

    SJ, maybe they were referring to the ad agency? ;-)

    AB, reg. your question, here you go :-).

    Siva, I think therein lies the beauty and the inherent essence of India – “peaceful co-existence” :-).

    David, I agree since I can relate to that view but my point was more about the general trend to resist the change from the Anglicized version of the names as though they were sacrosanct. When the stakeholders have left, what is really left of the stakes? :-)

    Raj, indha keLvi roobaai aindhai parisaaga perugiradhu :-).

    Annoynomas, I definitely don’t want to show my non-existent linguistic expertise in Tamlish and “annoy” everybody :-).

    Thad, now you are talking (going by the Mylai example) :-).

    Vasu and Vishal, in the manner of one more guy in Thamizh cinema whose name starts with V, I mean “Vedivelu”, I must say to both of your Hindia rant – “Vandhuttaangayyaa, vandhuttaanga” (The “V” factor again) :-).

  25. Govind (unregistered) on November 17th, 2006 @ 12:42 pm

    Nice to hear….

  26. musafir (unregistered) on November 17th, 2006 @ 6:03 pm

    Something I wanted to ask every citizen of this city. One of my associates once asked me why the city is called Chennai? His logic was 1. “Chen” means “red”, and 2.”nai” means “dog”. 2+2=4. Therefore “chennai” means “red dog”.
    I could not even refute his logic. Every day on Radio Mirchi we can hear one irritating voice say “Hello chenn..naai”. I suppose that reaffirms his logic.

  27. sj (unregistered) on November 19th, 2006 @ 10:00 am

    Musafir you are full of it, which language does Che mean red I would like to know you s___ talker. Your name means dog did you know that.

  28. musafir (unregistered) on November 20th, 2006 @ 4:26 pm

    hey buddy, (sj),
    i thought we were into good blogging.
    Anyways, just for your info, “chen” in tamil is understood as red. Not “che” as you have printed.
    By the way its your turn to explain.
    In which language does “musafir” mean dog?

  29. sj (unregistered) on November 22nd, 2006 @ 10:38 am

    Well Musafir, I have never heard the word Chen meaning red where did you get this from? I have never heard this word used before. In Kenyan your name means that anyway.

  30. musafir (unregistered) on November 22nd, 2006 @ 11:11 am

    Man u are way outta your league here.
    “Kenyan” indeed!
    Had u mentioned any other country or language I would have been tempted to believe you. But Kenyan (sic)!.
    Just for your info, my ignorant chennai blogger, I have migrated to chennai some years back.
    So don’t give me this nonsense about “Kenyan”. And another piece of info too (for you).
    We call the country’s language as “Swahili”.
    Okay man?
    A third piece of info (again for you). My good friends in chennai assure me that “Chen” in tamil is indeed identified with the colour red. To give you one example only – “chen kal” meaning brick, literally means “red stone”.
    Moral of the story – don’t put ur head so up your ass that u can’t breathe or shit!
    “Kenyan indeed”

  31. sj (unregistered) on November 23rd, 2006 @ 8:41 am

    I though you were into good blogging Musharif, which shit hole in India did you crawl out off, probably in North India I am assuming. Maybe you should think about migrating to Pakistan or something. My advise to you is to f off.

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