The histories of Indian cities are contained in the names of their streets and squares. These come in layers that have to be peeled off, one by one, to reveal the names that once lay below. A street might have been named after a colonial proconsul; later after a Congress nationalist; still later, after a local or regional hero. Or even a local international hero: as in the case of Calcutta's Harrington Street, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh Sarani at the height of the Vietnam War, simply because the American Consulate stood on it.
The names of streets and squares reveal a city's preferences, cultural and ideological, as they change over the decades and through successive political regimes. It was because communists found themselves in power for the first time that Harrington Street was renamed after a communist hero. Likewise, when the vigorously anti-Brahmin Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam first came to office in Madras, it removed caste names from the streets in Mylapore, these mostly honouring Brahmin patriarchs of the recent past. Thus "Kasturi Ranga Iyengar Road", became "K.R. Road". And "Iyer Street" became, simply, "Street". Again, where else but in Bangalore would you find a major junction named after a living (indeed, still playing) cricketer?
I was recently in Mumbai, a place that perhaps has had more reason to change street names than any other. For no other Indian city has had such a tumultuous modern history, no other such a multitude of castes, communities and special interests to be satisfied. Fortunately, the city's ecology here comes to the aid of politics and culture -- for no other Indian city has so many streets and intersections to play around with.
The names that Mumbai's margs and chowks carry are a curious mixture of chauvinism, courage and corruption. Thus the intersection opposite the grand old building of Bombay University is named "Dr G.S. Ghurye Chowk". A long-time professor of sociology at Bombay University, Ghurye was a formidable scholar, but also something of a Hindu parochialist. He wrote some solid works of Indology, but also some paranoid political screeds calling into question the loyalty of the Indian Muslim and the tribals of the North-east. As it happens, it was only in the last decade that this chowk opposite the university was dignified by a name. Since the Shiv Sena was in power, and since they needed a scholar who taught there, the name that naturally came to mind was that of G.S. Ghurye.
Instead of, for example. A A A Fyzee. Fyzee was also a Bombay resident as well as a university man, an eminent professor of law and the author of classic works on Islamic jurisprudence. His academic reputation was arguably as high as Ghurye's. And he had other strings to his bow -- he was a top-class tennis player, and even served as secretary of the Bombay Cricket Association. Ghurye, on the other hand, never played a game in his life. As scholar and sportsman, Fyzee handsomely embodied the classical ideal of mens sana in corpore sano -- a healthy mind in a healthy body. One would think that a university which respects scholarship, and whose graduates include Nandu Natekar and Sunil Gavaskar, might have chosen Fyzee ahead of Ghurye as a representative teacher to be honoured.
One does not know whether the university was at all consulted by the Shiv Sainiks in this matter. In any case, what Fyzee had going against him was his name. In truth, the jurist was a secular nationalist, whose modernist ideas were reviled by the mullahs. But the fact of his being born in a Muslim household would not have endeared him to the chauvinists on the other side. In fact, in the dozen (and more) visits I have made to Mumbai in recent years, I have noticed that there are very few Muslims after whom streets and squares are named. The chowk opposite the Prince of Wales (now Chattrapathi Shivaji) Museum was recently named after Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, although he had nothing to do with the city. It would have been more aptly named after Dr Salim Ali, the great ornithologist and Mumbai native, who spent his working life -- all seven decades of it -- in the museum nearby. (A friend tells me that a small side street somewhere has indeed been named after Salim Ali, but what he really deserves is a decent-size chowk, such as the one next to where he worked.)
Literally and figuratively, Besant and Savarkar collectively provide a path into the great city, and out of it.
There is chauvinism, and there is also corruption. On my most recent trip to Mumbai, I heard of a chowk being named after the son of a society singer who had died, while drunk and driving, at that very spot. The naming, I was told, had been paid for; making this a triple wrong, since the person was undistinguished in the first place, and was here being posthumously rewarded for breaking the law.
Fortunately, signs of an older and more honourable Mumbai survive. Bal Thackeray once expressed his preference for Nathuram Godse over Mahatma Gandhi, but even years of Shiv Sena rule have not been able to revert M G Road to its old name of Esplanade, or to take it further back to remember a reactionary ruler of the medieval past. And the charming circle opposite the Asiatic Society is still named after B G Horniman, the campaigning journalist who founded the Bombay Chronicle as a vehicle for Indian nationalist aspirations. Horniman was a traitor to his (British) nation, but in a higher cause -- namely, freedom for the subject people of the Empire. Exiled by the raj for his views, he later made a triumphant return to start a new newspaper (called Bombay Sentinel). Long after his death, the city he made his own chooses still to remember him.
Leaving Mumbai or flying into it, one takes a long, curving road that runs through the densely packed middle-class localities of the centre of the city. In Shivaji Park this road is named Veer Savarkar Marg, which fits, since this is mostly a Marathi-speaking area. But as it enters Worli, a suburb whose population is more multi-cultural, this acquires the name "Annie Besant (or A B) Road", in honour of a lady whose origins were Irish and whose love of Hinduism was expressed more romantically, that is to say less militantly, than was Savarkar's.
Like them or lump them, Annie Besant and V D Savarkar were both figures of considerable importance. (In Besant's case, the importance was nationalist and mostly in the past, whereas in Savarkar's case it is chauvinist and mostly in the present.) To divide up a major arterial road in Mumbai between them makes sense. Literally and figuratively, Besant and Savarkar collectively provide a path into the great city, and out of it. I have driven down "their" road many times. On my most recent drive, however, I took care to note the other, lesser names that were marked on chowks and side streets along the way. Most of these were Hindu as well as Maharashtrian, but one exception stood out.
This exception occurred at Worli Naka, not long before the lady Besant gives way to the machismo Savarkar. It was a sign that read "Peter Alvares Chowk", but in Hindi, a language that the man being remembered did not himself read. He would have been pleased anyway, as was I, seeing the sign all these years after his death. For Peter Alvarez was a man notable for his courage, and conspicuously free of both chauvinism and corruption. Originally from Mangalore, he made his mark as a trade unionist in Mumbai. Then, in the Fifties, he threw himself into the struggle to free Goa from Portuguese colonial rule. Alvarez led several satyagrahas into Goa, and also drew into the movement more celebrated socialist leaders such as Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. He was that unusual and still rare figure, a radical who was also a patriot.
To see the chowk named after Peter Alvarez positively thrilled me. For this was a good man in danger of being forgotten, here honoured for all the right reasons. Sadly, the signs of our cities mostly honour little men and for the wrong reasons.