A Letter from Bombay, or Mumbai: On the Troubles of Renaming as a Decolonial Act

Published by The Pantograph Punch

In the home studio of artists Shreyas Karle and Hemali Bhuta, tucked into a rocky cliff on the edge of the Borivali forest, my references to our locale disrupt the easy flow of our conversation. In describing my experience of returning to India from Aotearoa, I self-consciously stumble between referring to this city as Bombay, then Mumbai. When my family was preparing to emigrate in the 1990s, the city was called Bombay on the streets, even though it had been officially renamed Mumbai. This year, I have returned to relearn this city through its artists and galleries, and yet everywhere I go, I am alerted to people’s inconsistent use of the two place names – from art-world affiliates and conglomerate giants, from born-bred Maharashtrians and regional migrants, from expat communities and repatriate groups. In doing so, I discover that my feeling of being tongue-tied in this city is not unique, but is the result of a power struggle over space in the form of its naming and renaming, from the colonial period and before, and to the present day.

In the South Asian subcontinent, it’s possible to track the footprints of European colonialism through toponymy – in the names of cities, in the divisions of polities, in borders and boundaries. Even in the naming of India, there is a trace of what the ancient Greeks called the people of the Indus River, Indoi. In Aotearoa too, European expansionists methodically overwrote Māori names of coastlines and landscapes. On October 6, 1769, a cabin boy aboard Captain James Cook’s Endeavour had sighted Te Kurī-a-Pāoa from its masthead, ‘the dog of Pāoa.’ But the headlands were renamed Young Nick’s Head and Nicholas was rewarded with a barrel of rum.[1] These new place names are our inheritance in a landscape that has been spatially segregated by Europeans. In the ongoing and multifaceted project for the restitution of justice, what is the role of naming and renaming? What is the relationship between toponymy and decolonisation?

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Balamohan Shingade