WHAT'S in a name? Apparently a lot, when it comes to the streets of Calcutta. The bustling metropolis may be saddled with some of the country's most poorly maintained roads, but they get new names all the time. All in the name of maintaining the city's hoary tradition, wiping out the remaining colonial vestiges and paying tribute to freedom fighters, eminent denizens, and the ideologically friendly international leader, writer or poet.
The upshot: some 820 of the city's 2,027 streets have been renamed by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation since its inception in 1924. This works out to a road renamed every month since the city fathers took responsibility for Calcutta's utilities. An eight-member road naming committee of the civic body meets religiously every month at its chaotic headquarters and works overtime to ensure that streets get new names. "It's an absurd, mad exercise. It also robs streets of their origins and history," fumes Radha Prasad Gupta, eminent Calcutta chronicler.
It looks so. For one, many of the new names are cruel tongue-twisters and agonisingly long. Brabourne Road, the snarl-up street connecting the city with Howrah, is now Biplabi Trailokya Maharaj Sarani. The leafy Southern Avenue, the city's widest road, has been renamed Dr Meghnad Saha Sarani after the scientist. Esplanade East, the busy downtown hub, has become Sidho-Kanho Dahar, evoking the spirit of two tribal revolutionaries. Recently, Cathedral Road became Herasim Lebedeff Sarani, after a Russian who staged Bengali theatre in Calcutta in early 18th century. "We get many proposals to change street names. But the rejection rate is low. If we can't accommodate a proposal for a particular road, we often give it to another road," says Milan Gangopadhyay, secretary of the municipality's Advisory Committee For Naming Of Streets in Calcutta.
Naturally, such manic zeal for renaming can even lead to portions of a road being renamed much to the consternation of the postal authorities. A 'part' of Eastern Metropolitan Bypass expressway, for example, has curiously become Jaya Prakash Narayan Sarani. A 'portion' of Gariahat Road, the major south Calcutta thoroughfare, has been renamed Leela Roy Sarani. And east Calcutta's CIT Road is popularly known as VIP Road, but listed in civic body records as Acharya Satyen Bose Sarani!
That's not all. In one of communism's last bastions, ideological soulmates also find their pride of place on the streets, never mind their giant craters. Circular Garden Reach Road, a thoroughfare on the mafia-infested waterfront, becomes Karl Marx Sarani. Dharmatollah Street is Lenin Sarani. A part of Government Place East, known for its magnificent colonial buildings, is rechristened Marx-Engels Bithi. Harrington Street becomes Ho Chi Minh Sarani to spite ideological foe, the American Consulate, on the street. Other times, the renaming is plain silly—the upscale residential Hungerford Street is now a pathetic Picasso Bithi.
Not surprisingly, few care to find out or use these new names. The Bangladesh Deputy High Commission still uses its old Circus Avenue address inspite of the road being renamed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Sarani after the country's founding father. Even the state government's State Planning Board office on Camac Street—the new name is Abanindranath Tagore Sarani after Tagore's celebrated nephew—sticks to its old moniker in its correspondence.
Such "craze for renaming streets", as city historian P. Thankappan Nair calls it, also throws the postal department and courier services in a tizzy. Arundhaty Ghose, director of the city's postal services, says the Corporation doesn't inform her department of the changes. It's entirely up to the postmen manning the 96 post offices and delivering 50 lakh pieces of mail everyday to trace the new addresses. Kalpataru Sen-gupta, the 82-year-old chairman of the naming committee, admits that mail addressed to Uday Shankar Sarani—the new name for Golf Club Road—was returned. The postmen couldn't trace it.
The wanton exercise often backfires on the civic body. Recently, courier services delivering municipal tax bills returned many addressed to New Alipore, where names of 20 roads have been changed. Clearly, there's no let-up in the renaming exercise. It has gained momentum under the Left Front: nearly 100 roads have been renamed between 1980 and 1996.
The naming committee—freedom fighters, teachers and an odd journalist—sifts through considerable paperwork to get the proposals passed. "But many still don't know the new names," laments Sengupta.
Which really completes the farce. "Why can't they instead build new roads and maintain the existing ones?" wonders Mani Shankar Mukherjee, novelist and RPG Group communications chief. Much of the 1,725 km of city roads remains in a sorry shape—and the renaming of another 12 streets is hanging fire.