What’s in a name? Go on then, say it with me: Pa-La-Shi

I have a bee in my bonnet. It involves me having many sleepless nights, and plaguing family and friends over the loss of the Battle for Palashi. Some of you may recognise the proper noun and venture to point out, ‘Son, it’s the Battle of Plassey. Some of us were there.’ But it’s not the actual 11-odd-hour battle that happened 265 years ago on June 23 between the 18th century version of the Sith and the Jedi orders which started a whole franchise that I give a toss about.

What bothers me to the point of me wanting to storm Raisina Hill wearing a horned head-dress is how everyone and their khansama has taken it for granted that the place is Plassey, not Palashi or, the phonetically more correct Polashi. I know, I know, it’s how the place is called and spelt in English, a language I’m happy to go all diphthong with. I also know that some places have multiple names in multiple languages — Londres (London) in French, Delhi (Dilli) in English, Glostar (Gloucester) in Bengali….

But somehow, ‘Plassey’ gets my bakri. It’s especially infuriating when never mind fellow Indians, but even fellow non-Bangladeshi Bengalis call this site of history —and present ramshackle village in West Bengal’s Nadia village — in that ridiculously pissant way. Once again, I know it’s an illogical rage against some very decent folks calling (what should be) familiar things the ‘wrong’ way to sound ‘international’.

But then, I have no skin in the game when it comes to those old bakwaas debates about Kolkata/Calcutta (as if ‘Kalkatta’ never matters) or Mumbai/Bombay. And yet, when ‘Plassey’ comes up, especially in any conversation in English in Hindustan (Hindi for India), I politely interject, ‘You mean Palashi.’

What is it that the Bob Clive bunch — and I don’t mean the English — find so hard to wrap around their tongues that they continue to mispronounce Palashi and thereby show their ‘club membership’? That double vowel bump at ‘Pa-la’? Or the fondness of the Loch Bengal Club sibilant ‘sss’ that’s misssing in the lusher ‘sh’ in the actual place name? There are errors that the herd follows. Like calling West Asia ‘Middle East’ even if you’re having a cuppa east of the Suez.

It makes total sense if you’re west of Baghdad. But to call it that is as ridiculous as calling one’s grandmother mother-in-law just because you’ve heard your father call your mother’s mum that. Then there’s the dinner side chatter in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, Madras… when en passant, the conversation moves to the subject of ‘women of colour in Hollywood’. I’m not going to go all woke on your albumen and insist that people start describing Scarlett Johansson as a ‘woman of no colour’. But calling Priyanka Chopa a WoC is, for brown people, as ludicrous as calling out for milagu thanni in a Chennai canteen and expecting mulligatawny soup — which would be rasaism.

‘Plassey,’ admittedly does not fall into that category of that kind of wrong. After all, calling Varanasi or Banaras ‘wrongly’ ‘Benaras’ is a far cry from moving the goalposts, field and syllables of Palashi to Plassey. The fact that the place is named after the red-flowering palash tree — the flame-of-the-forest — is buried deep to the point of oblivion even while it’s breathing in its own language.

But it’s not even that loss of name origin that gives me the gripes. It’s the servility camouflaged as arrogance that breaks the bee in my bonnet into hives. It’s the same sense of misplaced (and irrational) language-usage superiority that finds ‘bhetki’ on the menus of posh restaurants turned into ‘bhekti,’ as if a whole class of managers and/or printers suffer from dyslexia. How hard can it be to keep that ‘k’ before the ‘t’?

It’s for the same nyakeri (translate that, boffins!) that Plassey continues to be also trotted out as an English translation, when all that saying it that way is saying this: ‘I’ll say it because I can. The other word sounds so… native.’


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