Afew months ago, historian Sunil Khilnani brought out Incarnations—India in 50 Lives, short essays on 50 minds which made our country. If you leave out the big five—Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bose, Tagore and Indira Gandhi (the book didn’t have Nehru)—there are hardly any infrastructural edifices or institutions named after the other 45 on a national level. Sure, there is a Visvesvarya University in Karnataka and Ranchi airport is named after Birsa Munda, both in Khilnani’s 50, but they are few and restricted to their own regions.
There is no quarrel that our first prime minister was a great man. But do we have to meet him at every turn in the capital? In Delhi, you can raise a few slogans at Jawaharlal Nehru University, quickly hop on to a low-floor JnNurm (Jawharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) bus to Nehru Place to buy pirated software to upload the police atrocity at the protest on social media, hoping it will go viral and fill up Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, or at least the Nehru Park. If doesn’t work, you can curse your stars at Nehru Planetarium or sink yourself into a tome at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library next door. All this in a radius of six km in the heart of town.
Likewise, do we need to thrust any more greatness upon Chhatrapati Shivaji so that in Mumbai whether you take the lowly local train or charter a jet it has to be from one CST or the other? Wouldn’t it have been better to call the Mumbai airport after J.R.D. Tata, who pioneered aviation in India, or the planetarium in Delhi after Aryabhatta, the fifth century astronomer and mathematician? Why, for god’s sake, Sanjay Van and Sanjay Jheel? Sanjay Gandhi may have loved birds and trees but surely a legend like Salim Ali has done more for ornithology? Why do we name roads, airports, railway stations, roundabouts, stadiums, institutions, schemes, plans, programmes only after politicians or warriors? Why don’t we honour our thinkers, artists, musicians, scientists, economists, poets, sportspersons, filmmakers, jurists, scholars with roads or parks?
It’s true that Lal Bahadur Shastri may have got the short shrift in the Nehru-Gandhi name game, but how wonderful it would have been to call the Banaras airport after Bismillah Khan, the legendary shehnai ustad who enthralled millions by playing on the ghats of that town, rather than after Shastri. I am not sure if M.S. Subbulakshmi gets even a street or park or an auditorium named after her in Chennai. There is certainly nothing named after the great Ghalib in Delhi, except a cobwebbed INStitute which teaches his work. Do Firaq and Faiz have anything after their names? Or Kabir or Andal or Amir Khusrau? Saadat Hasan Manto may be too edgy for any political dispensation to touch but why not Premchand or R.K. Narayan? (A group of well-wishers had to move mountains to name a street after him in Mysore. And after years of battle, a passenger train to Mysore was finally called Malgudi Express). How about an Ismat Chughtai National Commission for Women or Srinivasa Ramanujan Institute of Technology? And yes, Peddar Road in Mumbai can certainly be named after Lata Mangeshkar.
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