Places, spaces and their non-human names

A couple of months ago I moved to Thane. It is a burgeoning city right next to Mumbai although one may find it difficult to separate this out from the mammoth that is Mumbai. The city has been well known for being a ‘city of lakes’ with various lakes dotting the landscape. Most of these lakes are still conserved although there have been concerns about what is termed as ‘lake development’ policy of the municipal corporation. Frankly, it largely means concretising the lake boundary, putting up a jogging/walking track and creating spaces for citizens for recreation, exercise and for spending some quality time around the lake. This has also meant a neglect of local communities that depend on the lake for their livelihoods. I have been myself a beneficiary of such a scheme as I frequent Kala Talao (literally, Black Lake), one of the iconic lakes in my hometown of Kalyan. While walking or running around it, I always see some families on one side of the lake busy in activities linked to fishing highlighting that this place still holds a lot of value, more that recreation for some citizens, from an economy and livelihood perspective. I have known of some organisations and people attempting to create participatory processes of integrating these communities in the ‘lake development’ policies of the urban local bodies.

The iconic Kala Talao of Kalyan. It has been a beneficiary of ‘lake development’ policy of the local municipal body.

By now I have realised that I have deviated a lot from what I had intended to write about. Well, here it goes. So I moved back to Thane and now I frequently come across words like Waghbil, Kolshet and Pokhran. I have known Thane for many years since my childhood, but as they say, you have to live there to understand certain facets of the place. I agree. As I recurrently refer to the words mentioned above, it always sets me thinking about how we can still find ‘remnants’ of certain histories and processes of change in the ever powerful force of ‘urbanisation’. These places are not unique, in a sense if you visit some lanes in these places and click some photos, many people many not necessarily identify anything unique about them (except of course, for some famous eatery, garden, etc.). The names I have mentioned above are special. Especially as I hold a bias thanks to my education in ‘environmental sciences’.

For those who do not know Thane, it is a city right next to the forest that is today officially called as Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). The SGNP is considered to be the lungs for Mumbai city as this forest extends right in the middle of the city with ‘development’ and human activity all around it. The forest if nothing else, creates a series of ideas about us and they, about human and nature, about wild and tamed. I should admit, I love this forest and I am thankful that I moved to a city where I am right next to such forest or as someone should call ‘close to nature’. So given this bordering of forest-city nexus that one tends to see in Thane, we shall see the above routine names in some special light. They refer to some understanding of the communities that have lived and survived this place in the history.

The Forest and the City. Thane is right next to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (the hill you see, is the ‘forest’) also referred locally as Yeoor deriving the name from one of the villages in the forest

Waghbil, literally means Tiger’s burrow. It may also mean Tiger’s den, Tiger’s nest. Frankly, it creates a consciousness in one’s mind about a history of the place that was once ‘infested’ or to use a more appropriate word ‘habituated’ by Tigers. Although the SGNP today does not have any tigers but a not so similar but still ferocious species that is Leopards. Leopards, for some reason have not got the limelight as Tigers, may be because their population has not yet as dwindled as those of Tigers. Still, the name Waghbil ignites a memory or at least a reference to a memory of what was this place before. Today, it is all about human habitations and the myriad activities that humans carry to keep themselves busy and to make a sense of their lives. So much so that not a year goes by where man-animal conflict of the offshoots of the same are not visible. Be it killing of leopards on the roads (accidents, they are called), leopards trespassing in residential areas etc.

Another interesting name is Kolshet. Kolshet, I assume has over the years evolved from Kolhshet which again means a farm infested by ‘jackets’ (Literally Jackal Farm, I guess Orwell might have been happy). I believe the farming communities residing in this area were regularly challenged by ‘jackals’ who may have been interested in the domesticated animals or some farm produce of their interest. Even today, the name still stands and I must ADMIT for sure, I prefer it a thousand times over something like ‘Cadbury Junction’ or Tembhi Naka etc. Pokhran is another area in Thane that again refers to the forested history of the place. Pokhran literally means (Pokh- to scoop/scoop out and Ran means forest, very loosely). Pokhran tells us the history of a forested area that was scooped out by humans for their activities.

The Pokhran today dotted by high rise apartments, residential complexes supported by groundwater markets thanks to bore wells.

As someone interested in water and more so groundwater, another locality in Thane grabs my attention. It is called Kapurbawadi. A Bawadi means a ‘well’ and the name of this locality has emerged from the well, which again traces us back to the history when dug-wells or bawdi’s or Vihir were the frequent source of water. What I thoroughly feel concern about that the ‘modernity’ and urbanisation does not leave us any chance for creating such diversity of spatial connection like we had before. To prove my point, I will ask anyone to tell me an area that has been known thanks to a bore-well? Do you know? I am sure not. I remember in old city area of Pune there is a place called Khajina Vihir, which actually derives a name from the actual ‘Vihir’ (dug well) itself! Or for that matter, Pashan, another place in Pune that is literally reflecting the dominant geology of the region- Deccan Basalts!

A dug-wells in the midst of the city. The area will be ‘converted’ into a ‘biodiversity’ park by the municipal body.

Being a human, I am by default an agent of change. I guess the reference to such names in cities today highlight the often human endeavour about humanising the planet. I agree that has happened, will happen, may happen. But by still identifying with such names, we are ‘made’ conscious of the change that we or our ancestors have been part of. It helps us to connect with our more than human aspect of nature. And to be very frank, it helps erase the monotony that urban areas often depict. I am sure we have such names across each and every city as all such cities have been agents of change and I would strongly argue and even lobby for policies that help protect such names for places and spaces that are so ‘human’ today.

To persist with, and consciously conserve such names will be an important aspect of the processes that shape urbanisation and policies for the same. References to such names for places creates spaces for memories of history, of change and of a transformation that we have all been party to! I hope, in the process of democratisation (democratically naming certain areas/places) of places, we do not lose the ‘non-human’ essence or the ‘more that human’ history of such spaces!

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