Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Bangalore v2.0

The international Herald Tribune has an item about the Indian city of Bangalore, increasingly synonymous worldwide with a high-technology, globalized India, being about to change its name (back) to its precolonial form, Bengaluru. In this it will join Mumbai (née Bombay) and Chennai (formerly Madras) as Indian cities abandoning their Anglicized names to revert to some linguistically uncontaminated antecedent.

What is of greatest interest to me is how the campaign started. Apparently the prime mover in this change is U.R. Ananthamurthy, an intellectual who specializes in cultural products using a local and hence not widely known tongue:

A name change would serve to awaken the consciousness of people to the existing inequality, said U.R. Ananthamurthy, 73, a noted writer in the local language, Kannada, who first proposed the name change.

"In this city, people can study French or Spanish, shop in a fancy supermarket full of goods produced by multinationals, and ride in cabs driven by English- speaking drivers," said Ananthamurthy, adding, "But do these people living in 'Bangalore' know that there is a 'Bengaluru'?'"

As a specialist in the traditional language of that part of the world, Mr. Ananthamurthy is naturally threatened by competition from other cultural forces, and has every incentive to encourage the state to subsidize and protect his cultural capital. As I have argued before, this kind of thinking is a key part of the anti-globalization movement. The IHT article above describes in some detail the cosmopolitan nature of many of Bangalore's young people. Naturally, if you have a lot invested in the pre-global culture, this is very threatening. This is just as true if you're a violent fanatic of the Bin Laden type or a peaceful academic like Mr. Ananthamurthy. (Just to be clear, I do not mean to morally equate the two, simply to indicate that their behavior is driven by the same economic forces.) Mr. Ananthamurthy even attempts to tie his cultural protectionism to class-warfare considerations:

Home prices are shooting up, and local newspapers advertise apartments and villas costing over $1 million. But the salaries of many of Bangalore's citizens working in jobs outside of the high-growth sectors have not been keeping up. Many government workers still take home about 4,500 rupees, or $100, a month. For the majority, such homes remain distant and extravagant dreams.

There is a distinct divide between "people who dress in a certain way, speak in a certain way and drive a certain type of car," and the rest of the city, said Ananthamurthy.

Cultural purity as the savior of the working class - it is a historical theme that we have seen before. But ultimately it will fail as it always does, and Mr. Ananthamurthy's culture will have to compete on its merits, whatever Bangalore ends up being called.


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