"Mumbai" vs "Bombay": Which is more socially appropriate/PC?
March 8, 2009 11:50 PM   Subscribe

"Mumbai" vs "Bombay": Which is more socially appropriate/PC?

I'm going to be visiting Mumbai for a few days for work (I arrive tomorrow), and am wondering which name for the city is more appropriate to use when talking to locals. I know the basic history of the names (Bombay was the original name given by the Portuguese, switched to Mumbai about a decade ago for very political reasons), but from what I have heard, this isn't the most universally popular case of post-colonial name reclamation, as the name Mumbai doesn't really have a lot of historical backing (the city didn't really exist until it became Bombay) and a decent percentage of residents dislike the new name / the political forces that led to the name change.

So the basic question is, which name should I use while I am there? My inner stickler for political correctness has been using Mumbai almost exclusively, but I still see Bombay in a surprising number of articles/blog posts/etc (from locals and expats). As far as specific context of my visit, the main people I'll be talking to for work purposes will be vendors that have been hired to do work for company (i.e. I'm not there to make business deals or anything). But I'm equally curious as to what the preferred usage is when chatting with locals (hotel staff, taxi drivers, people I meet in bars, etc.).

And if the answer is "both are appropriate", I'd be curious to get a little nuanced context as to when one name is preferable over the other. I'm asking half to be as polite as possible while visiting (I don't want to come across as the obnoxious American), and half because I'm just curious...
posted by stilly to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Indian fellows I work with refer all refer to it as Mumbai.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:56 PM on March 8, 2009

That may just be an unwritten occupational convention.

Both are OK, but use 'Mumbai' at first. With anyone in bureaucracy, 'Mumbai'. With educated folks, Bombay is fine.
posted by Gyan at 12:08 AM on March 9, 2009

I hear Mumbai pretty exclusively now.
posted by sycophant at 12:11 AM on March 9, 2009

The official change back to "Mumbai" happened very recently -- 1996. You're not going to offend anyone by calling it Bombay (many adults still do), but Mumbai is the correct usage.
posted by randomstriker at 1:06 AM on March 9, 2009

All of my Indian co-workers say go with "Mumbai". It's the only "correct" usage. As randomstriker says, nobody will care much if you are wrong, but "Mumbai" is right.
posted by Dunwitty at 2:00 AM on March 9, 2009

My coworker, who was born there & still has a house there, insists on "Bombay". To the point of correcting me when I use "Mumbai".
posted by aramaic at 2:43 AM on March 9, 2009

Just flew in from there, most of our friends use them interchangeably. Some folks are nuts about insisting only on Mumbai, so if you're unsure it's a safe choice.

I noticed the shuttles picking us up from our Air France flight landing in Paris from Mumbai were labeled Bombay.
posted by beowulf573 at 3:11 AM on March 9, 2009

The change from Bombay to Mumbai is a result of nationalistic politics and many of my local friends use Bombay often perhaps to distance themselves from the reason for change. Many people abroad who were introduced to India more recently however do not know Bombay. We will know that the change is complete when Bollywood is renamed Mollywood (= never).
posted by london302 at 3:52 AM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

once you've solved this, you might like to wonder whether or not to use the handy acronym "VT" for the city's main train station, now renamed from Victoria Terminus to the cumbersome Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

or have Mumbaikers started calling it CST?
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:59 AM on March 9, 2009

We will know that the change is complete when Bollywood is renamed Mollywood (= never).

Of course never. Mollywood is the name for the Malayalam language movie industry from the state of Kerala.

One would have thought that Mollywood would've been owned by Madras, and later changed to Chollywood, but the Tamil movie industry from Chennai is actually known as Kollywood, naturally.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:06 AM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

When a person changes their name and announces it, I assume it's polite to use the new name unless otherwise told to use the old name. I can't imagine it's any different for a city.

Use Mumbai unless told otherwise.
posted by explosion at 4:23 AM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

My friend who works in Bollywood, (his claim to fame was being in a Panjabi MC video) told me that among his friends their had been a bit of a backlash and that they all say Bombay now. But as others have said above there is no rule written in stone.
posted by afu at 4:34 AM on March 9, 2009

Best answer: Mumbai is indeed correct these days, so you should use Mumbai in any official communications. The name was changed in the '90s by a right-wing Hindu nationalist government, so its use is inherently political. Some people you meet might interpret the use of 'Bombay' as an imperialist slight.

But there are others, especially those I've heard referred to as the 'South Bombay Elite', who prefer Bombay. According to stereotype, they're upper middle-class, educated, liberal folk who think the rest of the country is terribly backward compared with their bustling metropolis. The New Yorkers of India, if you like.

They know their city is officially Mumbai, but linguistically they've resisted the change. They've always lived in Bombay, and they quietly think the nationalists were being a bit petty when they changed it. It's perhaps analogous to the way the extremes of 'politically correct' language can grate on Western nerves. It's not that you disagree entirely, but the phrase feels weird on your tongue and it just never sticks in your vocabulary.

These people probably won't correct you for saying Mumbai, but you will come across as truly obnoxious if you correct them for saying Bombay. That said, they probably won't mind if you ask them to explain their usage.

As far as Indian post-colonial renamings go, Mumbai is one of the more successful ones. Ever heard of Bengaluru?
posted by embrangled at 5:24 AM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mumbai is its official name. Whether it's commonly used there or not, saying Bombay to try and fit in may seem contrived and patronising, especially if you aren't Indian yourself. It's like swearing in a language other than your own. Don't do it - you will invariably use it in the wrong situation or inappropriately - and thus, offend.
posted by ryanbryan at 5:26 AM on March 9, 2009

Best answer: Go with Mumbai, unless someone asks you to call it Bombay.

Although I'm a (transplanted) member of the South Bombay Elite who wouldn't dream of calling it Mumbai, I'd think a foreigner who called it Bombay was a) hopelessly behind the times and b) too ethnocentric to do even basic research about India. The Beeb called Mumbai Bombay for months after the change and it really grated on my nerves. *shrugs* Just my .02.
posted by Tamanna at 6:00 AM on March 9, 2009

a decent percentage of residents dislike the new name / the political forces that led to the name change.

I might dislike the fact that American cities like "Los Angeles" (the angels) and "San Francisco" (St. Francis) violate the principle of separation of church & state. What if I said: everyone needs to exclusively call them "LA" and "SF" so that they're stripped of their religious resonance. Do you think my personal opinion would have anything to do with the correct name of the city?

My understanding is that the change to Mumbai was made through a deliberative, democratic process. That doesn't mean everyone likes the result. But it's different from Burma being changed to Myanmar, which was a totally dictatorial power grab.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:18 AM on March 9, 2009

Best answer: You're going to offend people no matter which one you use. Most of my Indian friends say Bombay, and most of my American friends say Mumbai. The latter group get extremely offended if you get it "wrong." The other day, I heard a college kid who has never left the US "correct" an Indian native who said Bombay.

It's an inherently political issue, and you're not going to be able to please everyone. I'd go with Bombay based on what people I know who are from there say, but as this thread proves, some people believe that's "ethnocentric" or incorrect.
posted by decathecting at 8:31 AM on March 9, 2009

My one friend from Mumbai insists on it being called Bombay. He's says that the name change is all right-wing bullshit and he's in poli-sci so that might further influence his position. As a Brit I'm sensitive to not using colonial names when they've been changed (perhaps apart from Burma) but apparently the name of the city is a contentious issue. That having been said, I think you should say Mumbai and then wait to see if you get corrected. That seems to be the sensible option.
posted by ob at 9:47 AM on March 9, 2009

No one cared which one I used when I was there.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 10:52 AM on March 9, 2009

Best answer: Both names are used, but I would just stick with "Mumbai" for business purposes.

Check out this IHT article from 2005 for the best description of why "Bombay" is still around.

Mumbai connotes seriousness and respectability, Bombay frivolity and glamour. Thus the Times of India, a national broadsheet, writes Mumbai on front-page datelines, while branding its biblically read entertainment insert Bombay Times.

Mumbai connotes public purpose, Bombay private gain. In government meetings, senior mandarins censure Bombay slips of tongue. But the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry refuses to go by Mumbai and will refrain for another generation, its president, Ashwini Kakkar, said.

Mumbai is what you write, Bombay what you say. The region's postmaster general, Atul Srivastava, said 97 percent of intracity mail uses Mumbai. "When you fill up forms and stuff like that, then you go with Mumbai," said Malini, a middle-aged woman scanning titles at a tony south Bombay bookshop. "But when you're talking to someone, it's definitely Bombay."

posted by erlkonig at 12:50 PM on March 9, 2009

I work with lots of Indian people (in America). They generally disliked the new name but have switched over the years. I rarely hear it called Bombay anymore.
posted by chairface at 3:44 PM on March 9, 2009

My personal take on this is that I use Bombay in cases where it would be normal to use an anglicized name of any foreign city or country. For example, most people would think it was silly to correct someone who calls Deutschland "Germany"... that's just what English speakers call it, even if Deutschland is the official name. Yeah, Mumbai is the name in Marathi and is the official name of the city, but I feel just as silly calling it Mumbai as I do calling Florence "Firenze" or pronouncing "Mexico" the Spanish way when I'm among English speakers.
posted by Emanuel at 3:51 PM on March 9, 2009

I just have to respond to that crap IHT article.

The ToI brands its supplement Bombay Times because that is its original name since before the change. Nothing to do with Bombay connoting "frivolity and glamour". 'Bombay' is censured in government meetings because the Mumbai bureaucracy consists mostly of Marathas. The Shiv Sena which renamed Bombay 13 years ago came to power on the basis of reclaiming Bombay as a Marathi city and reasserting Maratha pride. 97% of malls use Mumbai because if you piss off the local politicos, things like this happen.
posted by Gyan at 11:11 AM on March 10, 2009

They stamped my passport "Bombay" as I arrived in the 2000s, a decade after the alleged name change.

When even the federal immigration people still called it Bombay, you get an idea about how ingrained the name is.

Analogy: in New York, 6th Avenue is technically named the Avenue of the Americas. You see that written on letters and official documents, and spoken by non-New Yorkers. Everyone who lives there, and even the Times, calls it 6th Avenue. "Mumbai" is more loaded than this--it is a link to Hindu nationalist politics, which is more serious than a name-only dispute. Still, I call it Bombay, and I think I'm in the majority on that score.
posted by hardcore taters at 12:10 PM on March 10, 2009

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