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Bombay Vs. Mumbai

Christopher Hitchens writes

When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, that "those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay," he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it — after a Hindu goddess — Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta's work for it by using the fake name Myanmar.

Andrew Sullivan adds:

I wasn't aware of this but now that I am, the Dish will refer to Mumbai by its previous name.

Kevin Drum replies

Hold on a second. The Burma/Myanmar issue hinges on whether you think its ruling military junta is legitimate. No such ambiguity attaches to Mumbai. The Shiv Sena party may indeed be Hindu chauvinists, but Mumbai's name change was eventually approved by the democratically elected municipal corporation of the city, the state of Maharashtra, and the federal government of India, and they've stuck to it for over a decade now. Like it or not, there's no question that this was a legitimate change. Comparing it to the renaming of Burma is absurd.

Drum is right that the Burma/Myanmar comparison is not an ideal one. Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena boss who pushed through the Bombay name change, is not the leader of a junta. And if a democratically elected government wants to institute a name change, then it seems like the rest of us should "go along" with the decision. On the other hand, it does seem wrong--and even perverse--to accept something that was done in large measure to make Muslims (and non-native Hindus) feel unwelcome.

The other strange aspect of the re-naming is that many of the city's other institutions still have 'Bombay' in their title (the Bombay Stock Exchange is the best example here). And of course no one says Mollywood--they say Bollywood. Moreover, while institutions like the University of Mumbai had their official names changed, people still seem to prefer using 'Bombay.' When I wrote a story for TNR about Shiv Sena, I was amused that some of the party leaders would say "Bombay" when talking to me in English.

What is the solution to this mess? Well, there isn't one! If you are filing a news story, you should probably use 'Mumbai." But in casual conversation, I would propose that we stick with Bombay, out of solidarity for the people in that city who are too often treated like second-class citizens. This is having it both ways, to be sure; other, better ideas are welcome.

--Isaac Chotiner