By Swapan Dasgupta
To many of the cosmopolitans resident (or working) in Gurgaon, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is a figure of ridicule. This is not on account of his party affiliation or because he was an unexpected choice for the top job after the BJP won power in Haryana. To those educated in the older English-medium schools, Khattar often appears the stereotype of the Sanskrit teacher, the proverbial Pandey-ji who was the resident oddity. His stern and somewhat archaic demeanour has conflicted sharply with the ethos of the gated, high-rise buildings. Khattar epitomised an aspect of the old Punjabi Haryana while the beautiful people working in glass-fronted offices imagined they were in California.
In view of this cultural schism, it is understandable that the reaction of social media to the abrupt renaming of Gurgaon to Gurugram was accompanied by a blend of mirth and outrage. Gurugram, it was proclaimed, was the newest addition to the long list of name changes that the ‘dhotiwalas’ (an archaic term that conveys the sense) and cultural xenophobes had forced on Global India. There was, of course, a small difference. The junking of Gurgaon wasn’t exactly an act of armchair anti-colonialism; it was more a linguistic purification and a turn away from the colloquial. No doubt it also assaulted the rustic ‘Gurgawan’, preferred by those the beautiful people see as today’s ‘criminal tribes’, but it also deflated the handful that preferred calling Delhi’s extension as ‘Gerzhen.’
Name changes, however innocuous, are often a source of momentary inconvenience. Moreover, among a particular class, the persistence with the old name, even the archaic, is often a political statement—a proclamation of detachment from the vernacular. Yet, it is interesting to juxtapose the curious love of Gurgaon as both a city and brand name with the names of the upscale residential complexes that define this corner of Haryana. A glance at a property portal for Gurgaon revealed some names of the high-rise residential buildings: Casa Bella, Tulip Violet, Palm Drive, The Verandas, Merlin, Victory Valley, Palm Springs, The Primus, La Lagune, The Belaire, et al. The nearest to an Indian name was Vaatika.
The mismatch between the professed elite fascination for the Haryanvi colloquial and their preferred building names couldn’t be starker. Maybe the contrived outrage would have been less voluble had the State Government opted for a name that would have fitted easily into a more ‘international’ (euphemism for American) environment. As it is, the only Indian feature of the Gurgaon architecture is the people who live or work in the buildings. And many of them try to pretend otherwise, except during cricket matches.
As controversies go, the storm over Gurugram is likely to blow over quickly. However, the mere fact that it agitates a section of the chattering classes is revealing. The real problem, it seems to me, is not that a variant of the ‘little tradition’ is being subsumed by a Sanskrit-centric ‘high culture’ but that the inspiration for resurrecting an old name has come from Indian mythology.
A local belief that Dronacharya’s gurukul where both the Pandavas and Kauravas were instructed in the martial arts was located in Gurgaon is the basis of the new name. This in itself is not a new phenomenon as many Indian places are named around local beliefs centred on the Epics. Indeed, the historical lineage of Gurgaon and Gurugram are exactly the same, except that some find gram easier to pronounce than gaon.
The protests over commemorating Dronacharya, a guru who was guilty of favouritism and social prejudice, are also contrived. The Mahabharata, unlike the Ramayana, is not about the ideal man. It focuses on ethical and moral conflicts faced in the pursuit of dharma. Dronacharya was an accomplished guru but he was not an individual who is a public role model. Gurugram merely links a place to India’s own tradition of ithihasa. It is a facet of what is called “sacred geography.”
Gurgaon-Gurugram is a needless controversy that, however, has a way out. The Constitution also provides for two place names to exist simultaneously and without attaching value judgments. If India can also be Bharat, Gurgaon and Gurugram can coexist without inviting anguish or turbulence. The country has bigger battles to fight, even in Gurugram.
Sunday Times of India, April 17, 2016