Prejudice by any name

A SHORT essay ascribed to legendary Khwaja Ahmed Abbas ribs India’s atavistic urge to change names of cities and towns from their extant versions to something old if vague. When Benares was renamed Varanasi to comply with an identity rooted in mythology, Abbas wrote: “I landed at the railway station. The freshly painted signboard celebrated Varanasi. Outside the station, the sweetshop announced itself as Varanasi Mishthaan Bhandaar. At the post office, the clerk was stamping letters and parcels with his new official seal. Varanasi, Varanasi, Varanasi, it went. I asked the man the name of the city we were both in. He said Benares.”

It’s still Banarasi sari, Banarasi thumri and Banarasi paan, however, just as Mumbai continues to have its Bombay High Court or Bombay Stock Exchange and Bombay Duck, which is actually the name of a delicious fish.

Curiously, the politically inspired name-changing spree has ignored a rather obvious foreign influence from its ambit — the keenly sought and embraced identity called Hindu. It is uniformly acknowledged that the name originated in West Asia, apparently as a description of India’s dark-tanned inhabitants.

There’s reference in a Persian verse by Hafiz Shirazi to a black mole on the beloved’s cheek, for which the poet, to his ruler’s chagrin, was willing to surrender the fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. (Agar aa’n Turk-i-Shirazi bidast aarad dil-i-maara’h / Bi khaal-i-hindu yash bakhsham Samarkand-o-Bukhara ra.)

Jawed Naqvi

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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