Frankly, my dear: Rebranding Bombay

Last Updated: Wed, May 21, 2008 12:33 hrs

Antara Dev Senis Editor of The Little Magazine, an independent publication devoted to essays, literature and criticism on social concerns and issues neglected by mainstream media ( Sen has earlier worked as a senior editor with The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express, among other assignments. She can be contacted at

The re-branding is in full swing. Alarmed that they are losing their niche as the emperor of xenophobia to family challenger Raj Thackeray, the Shiv Sena has pounced on the Bombay/ Mumbai bandwagon once again. Now they want the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) to be renamed the Mumbai Stock Exchange (MSE?), like all other names that have Bombay in them. Last week, apart from targeting the BSE, the Shiv Sainiks attacked billboards and other public signs – including vandalising the signboards of textile brand Bombay Dyeing and the prestigious 160-year-old Bombay Scottish School. But more than signboards, the acts of vandalism and mob fury attacked history and reason.

Which was in tune with the new ‘Mumbai’ that Bal Thackeray and sons wish to replace ‘Bombay’ with. ‘Bombay’ had a colonial stink to it, they thundered, the city must get back to its roots! Which lay with Mumba Devi, from whom the name Mumbai is derived. This may not be entirely correct. Dear old Mumba Devi is a deity of a community of fisherfolk, and not really the goddess of India’s business capital and Bollywood lifestyle. Mumbai has simply been the local name for the city in Marathi and Gujarati.

Saamna supports Raj Thackeray, frowns at 'Bombay'

Besides, ‘Bombay’ (from ‘Bom Bahia’ or ‘beautiful bay’ in Portuguese) was a colonial creation – of course it would have a colonial feel. It was fashioned out of a group of islands that the Portuguese had snatched, and then passed on to the British as part of Portuguese Queen Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married King Charles II. The British then built Bombay out of that clutch of islands.

Then they moved their holdings from Surat to Bombay, drawing skilled labour and traders from elsewhere by offering attractive opportunities and incentives. And with business houses, artisans and a variety of skilled and unskilled people moving here, Bombay blossomed rapidly. Most of these skilled migrants were Gujaratis and Marwaris and some from Andhra. Later, people poured in from all parts of India to this city of opportunities. So Bombay was never really a Marathi city, in spite of some Maratha presence.

But the Shiv Sena (in short, SS – aptly enough) would have you believe otherwise. So they set to work with their cudgels and pickaxe, hoping to dismantle the idea of Bombay and install a new concept for the same city. Bombay was a modern, free, open, cosmopolitan city, a city of enormous linguistic, religious and cultural diversity, a city nurtured by and nurturing migrants who made it India’s business hub and entertainment capital, the city of dreams. The city of Bimal Roy and Vijay Tendulkar, of Progressive Theatre and Progressive Artists.

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The Mumbai Bal Thackeray aims for is a xenophobic, regionalist, closed, violent, hate-filled, Hindu Marathi hub. Not surprisingly, the process of transforming the liberal metro into a bigoted city is taking longer than he expected. Even though Thackeray has been breeding hatred in the city for decades.

He has ranted against Muslims, calling them traitors and terrorists, inciting Hindus to kill them, commanding the slaughter of Muslims during the 1993 Bombay riots. He has ranted against South Indians, branding them the enemy who ate into job markets and opportunities in Bombay, depriving the common Marathi manoos, and who needed to be kicked out of Maharashtra (his vulgar slogan “lungi hatao, pungi bajao!” still resonates). He raged against communists (calling them ‘red monkeys’), and the SS is widely believed to have bumped off some powerful communist leaders. Through all this hatred and violence, Bombay still largely remained an open, liberal, cosmopolitan city that welcomed migrants. The new, imagined city could only be born if Bombay was dead.

So the city had to be renamed. After years of trying, Thackeray finally managed to change Bombay to Mumbai in 1997. The name change was crucial for the change in identity that the Shiv Sena wanted. For whenever you wish to change your identity, or when you impose a new identity on someone or something, you give a new name. So when she marries, a maiden is expected to change her name, dropping her parental surname to take on her husband’s. If divorced, many women go back to their maiden names. On entering a new faith, you are given a new name. And so on.

Similarly, when a product changes identity, it is often renamed. Air Sahara has become Jet Lite, Hutch is now Vodafone, UTI Bank is Axis Bank, Grindlays Bank is now Standard Chartered, Hindustan Lever is Hindustan Unilever. The name change announces the end of the old identity and introduces a new one. Old brand equity is discarded to give the new brand space to grow.

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But a dead brand, if powerful enough, can defy extinction and live on, in our memory and habits, as a ghost brand. This is what bothers the SS. They haven’t been able to snuff out Bombay. And until they did, the transformation of the city would not be complete. Re-branding was essential.

But every re-branding comes with a high-profile advertising campaign. Crores are spent to make an impact. It isn’t any different for Mumbai. Only the crores being spent here for impact is coming out of taxpayers’ money. The high-profile campaign here consists of savaging the city and ravaging its services, vandalising public property and attacking residents. It sure makes an impact. And you know that the open-armed, cosmopolitan city of dreams is on its way to be reborn as a claustrophobic, outsider-hating, intolerant hovel of Hindutva.

Finally, for a campaign to be successful, it needs to have high recall value. And it needs to deliver its new identity at every ‘touch point’. So anything linked with the old brand has to be renamed to incorporate the new brand. The simplistic SS was doing just that, wiping out Bombay from every ‘touch point’ they could find, and replacing it with Mumbai. Just for high recall value. It may have worked if it wasn’t such an insane plan.

For you may change the future by changing names, but you cannot erase history. The SS’s zealous attempt to reach into the past and blindly change ‘Bombay’ to ‘Mumbai’ even in proper nouns – like company names and brand names – is amazingly absurd. And hitting out at the BSE, the country’s financial pulse, just to prove a point is shockingly irresponsible. How far will they stretch this exercise in absurdity?
Once they are through with textile giant Bombay Dyeing, maybe the diligent SS will turn to replacing ‘Bombay’ with ‘Mumbai’ in good old Bombay Sapphire (the gin), Bombay Duck (the fish dish), Bombay Cat (the pedigreed breed), Bombay Dreams (the musical), Bombay Dost (the gay magazine) and even films like Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay or the classic Bombay to Goa, or books like Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay. If the world followed its lead, we would be renaming Siamese twins as Thai twins, Siamese and Persian cats as Thai and Iranian cats, Persian carpets as Iranian carpets, Burma teak as Myanmar teak, Ceylon tea as Sri Lanka tea, and even apna East Bengal football Club as the Bangladesh club. Life would not be easy.

But it never is, when we attempt to erase history. Whether through tinkering with history books, banning works we disagree with, or railing against an imagined ‘outsider’, we have been increasingly doing just that. And as Bombay steadily morphs into Mumbai, Mumbaikars themselves have to choose whether they want to stand empowered by history or fall fighting it.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not of

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