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A street name reflects the understanding of history a govt wants its people to have: Adrija Roychowdhary


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There is a very interesting distinction that professor Narayani Gupta makes between a street name and a place name, says Adrija Roychowdhary

In this episode of the Sandip Roy Show, Adrija Roychowdhary talks about her book, Delhi In Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City, and what names of streets and places convey, and how any changes hold cues to the political context of a country. Edited excerpts:

Sandip: The stories behind the names of places are always interesting, but you call your book a response to the sociopolitical times in India at present. How so?

Adrija: The idea of the book was conceptualised in the context of the various name changes that have been going on, and I believe street names hold a very important cue to the present political context of a country. The important thing is not what the name is; it is also a way to decode what are the given political circumstances in which the name is being changed. It is also a way to understand what is the understanding of history that this particular government has, and what is the understanding of history that the government wants its people to have.

Sandip: But it’s not just this government that has done it. All governments have changed names of streets and places to fit their heroes. Do you think this government is especially proactive on it?

Adrija: I wouldn’t say this government is more active on this because this has happened in the past as well, especially with the Congress government when it came to power after independence. We also know the number of names after the Nehru-Gandhi family that continue to exist. The important thing is to also understand that this particular government is in power at a time when social media and the media itself are far more active. The country currently is far more polarised than what it was in the Forties and Fifties That was a time when nationalist sentiment was uniform across the country and so if you changed the name of a street from a British name to say a nationalist leader, it wouldn’t get that kind of media glare.

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Sandip: Do we know when this practice of naming streets to commemorate heroes began? Because other than naming places after kings and emperors traditionally, as you point out in the book, places and streets were named after professions. Like a churiwala place and names even after direction. Like Kashmere Gate faces the direction of Kashmir, etc.

Adrija: There is a very interesting distinction that professor Narayani Gupta makes between a street name and a place name. If you look at it historically, place name is something that we identify as a marker, say if a place is named churiwala, it’s because maybe, historically, this is a place where people sold bangles. The practice of naming places after a particular individual and officer is something that the British brought in because that is when street names were being planned and given a political context as well. In central Delhi, you have streets that are named after Mughal and Mauryan emperors. You have Prithviraj Chauhan’s name. This is something the British were doing, because they wanted to also read Indian history in a certain way that placed themselves in the same historical trajectory as the Mauryans, the Mughals, etc. Then, of course, we have a number of streets named after British officials, like Dalhousie Street or Curzon Road. 

Sandip: In your book you select six neighborhoods in Delhi. Why these six? 

Adrija: My intention was also to look at not just street names, but also to look at how street names tell the history of a city. And I chose these six neighborhoods because each of them also sheds light on six different historical trajectories in Delhi. In Chandni Chowk, you have a space that was being moulded by the Mughals. I looked at Connaught Place as a site that was being built by the British and later, how in post-independence India, what kind of changes were happening. I looked at CR Park and Pamposh Enclave as typically products of Delhi that was being changed during the Partition. Then if I come to Saket, it’s very interesting to look at how Hindu majoritarianism is very unconsciously seeped in our country’s political consciousness. When I come to Shaheen Bagh, it looks at how the minorities have shaped Delhi.

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Sandip: That is interesting because I think Delhi, more than many other cities, has all these layers of history because it has served as the capital for so many different dynasties. And Delhi itself has had so many names from Jahanpanah to Firozabad, then Shahjahanabad, etc. And these neighborhoods do tell that cosmopolitan story in a certain way.

Adrija: Yes, absolutely. I think the most interesting part about looking at Delhi is that this is a city that was built by the migrants and for the migrants. And the street names do tell you something about that. Like the streets, especially the ones that house Partition refugees, are all named after nationalist heroes like Lala Lajpart Rai Road, Malviya Nagar named after Madan Mohan Malviya, and others. If given a choice, perhaps the residents of these neighbourhoods would have named them after the places that they left behind in West Pakistan or in East Pakistan, which happens in the case of CR Park. The original name the residents had chosen was Purbanchal to commemorate the place they had left behind.

Sandip: It’s not a surprise that many of these places are named after men, if you leave Indira Gandhi out of the equation. But should Shahjahanabad have actually been called Jahanarabad?

Adrija: I’m not too sure about that because Jahanara Begum didn’t really build the entire city. She did build the chowk that came to be called Chandni Chowk, which also she commissioned to be built. She was an ambitious woman definitely, and a very key figure in Mughal history. But Shahjahanabad is a product of Shahjahan’s ambitions. As far as places being named only after important male figures, that is also because all of Indian history has been written by male figures.

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