Shimla or Shyamala: Why is India So Hell Bent on Digging Up the Past?


Shimla or Shyamala: Why is India So Hell Bent on Digging Up the Past?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

It is one of those moments when you feel everything you knew about the world is wrong, your political acuity stretched with it. There is a good chance that the street you visit today might not be the same the next time you come around to it. It could be a scene from a sci-fi film – except it is lived reality.

The absurd and overactive naming squads of India are for some reason working around the clock, to turn it back. Not interested in pushing the needle forward, mind you, but back to some imagined world where names and labels are evidence of a utopia. Prayagraj, therefore, must be a better place to live in compared to Allahabad and Shyamala will surely outdo Shimla in so many ways that I personally don’t mind sleeping in one and waking up in the other.

But here’s the thing. It won’t. Things will be just the way they were when you went to sleep. And thankfully, the proposal has been rejected.

But what atavistic impulse lies behind this renaming spree? The cheapest illusions always occur through memory. There must be then an astounding lack of conviction in our present that the government seems bent on searching the past for something that holds promise.

Most advocates of the name-change epidemic want us to believe the change to something more native serves some cause, maybe it will elevate day-to-day morale, boost self-esteem, even if it as avoidable as the next film in the Housefull franchise. There is then the cause of ridding some of these places of either colonial or Mughal baggage, though not colonial or Mughal assets mind you.

Of course the names proposed for some places point to a pre-election stunt.

Shimla depends on its colonial heritage to survive, and like other colonial towns its history, however painful, adds testimony to its identity. Did the name-change squad want its colonial buildings razed to the ground too? Might you do the same with Rashtrapati Bhawan, or does the name alone smudge and blur its architecture into an orgy of vedic subtexts? Only a level of senselessness born out of lethargic lives could propose that Shimla is any less an Indian town than Shyamala. It offers un-Indian pastures, yes, but it is no less Indian at heart. Not for nothing does the national flag stand high and clear on its ridge.

Several people I know have offered indifference toward this rebranding exercise. That it wouldn’t matter to Illahabadis what some paper on some document wants to call their city. And why should it, Prayagraj offers nothing dissimilar from Allahabad for those who call it home. Other than maybe some additional bureaucratic nuisance and fresh strain on tolerance – a characteristic that has waned considerably over the last four-and-a-half years. Then what, or who, does this consistent obsession with linguistics serve?

For one – and this is perhaps not even a joke anymore – it gives a lot of people in the government something to do. That anyone in the UP government might have spent more than a day, more than a sheet of paper on this needless activity is breathtaking; that the exercise would have, and will cost a lot more in reality is simply overwhelming. But the people it was supposed to have directly affected, care the least for it.

We should perhaps think of this as an indication of how constructive or imaginative people in the government are when it comes to addressing the future. Surely, at some point this obsession with the back of the register that everyone has during their childhood scribbled in, will read as an inability to etch something worthwhile in its front pages.  

The method here is more of a condition. Memory, perhaps, also serves as a cheap escape from living nightmares. Other than the unrealism of bullet trains and the surrealism of thain thain guns what really is there to offer people the view of? If names can do so much for malfunctioning towns, can we not simply paint the Rajdhani to look like a bullet train, and be done with it to save some money?

Of course the names proposed for some places point to a pre-election stunt. But even for an electoral tactic, imagine how yawningly empty the whiteboards in government offices must be, all to usher in what is perhaps the most underwhelming aftermath of bureaucratic process that snakes from one table to the other… all the time biting a hole into the pocket of the country. Money that could be used for something, hell, anything else.

For me personally, it sounds nightmarish that I might wake up in Shyamala instead of Shimla. Not because I care for it either way, but because it is prioritised over several infrastructural and law and order problems that plague the town, where the past can for some inexplicable reason still override the present.

Just how intellectually unreasonable and hollow can a conversation further become? Might we next witness the change of Mughal-E-Azam? To which I quote Camus, “Should I kill myself or get a cup of coffee?”