Street-names are as much a part and parcel of Sri Lanka’s heritage as any other aspect of our intangible culture. Changing names simply because they are thought to be a colonial hangover is a futile one born of an inferiority complex. One might as well insist that all our Pereras, Fernandos and De Silvas change their Lusitanian names for vernacular ones, or fill up the canals built by the Dutch or dismantle the railways laid by the British. Whether we like it or not, the colonial past is part of our national heritage. Likewise, street names, like place names in general, reflect the history of these places, and are, in a sense, heritage.
Unfortunately, the misplaced nationalist fervour that gripped the country shortly after independence and took it back by several decades also had an impact on our street names. This was especially in Colombo where a good many streets with short and sweet names which had come down from colonial times had to face the ignominy of being saddled with long unpronounceable jaw-breaking names So hard on the tongue are they that people are known to curse under their very breath the personalities after whom they have been named.
No really great man would want his name forced down another’s throat, but unfortunately this was not what happened in the zeal of nationalist snobbery. Hero-worshippers of every ilk and others of a pettier mindset obsessed with their ancestors canvassed hard to have a road named after someone or the other. The culture vultures raised their ugly heads during the previous regime to put the country a few more decades back. Fortunately most people do not bother with the new names at all, preferring to use the old ones instead, such as Union Place for Colvin R.De Silva Mawatha, Alexandra Place for C.W.W.Kannangara Mawatha, Green Path for Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha and Flower Road for Earnest De Silva Mawatha. Thus renaming streets after personalities, be they politicians, religious figures or artistes is really counter-productive. In fact they take a toll on their legacy.
The rot, needless to say, began in 1956 and shortly after a good many streets were renamed in keeping with the nationalist agenda of the then government. That was when Flower Road became Sir Ernest De Silva Mawatha, Turret Road became Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha and Stanley Place became Piyadasa Sirisena Mawatha. The 1960s saw another spate of renaming with Armour Street becoming Sri Sumanatissa Mawatha, Bloemendahl Road becoming K.Cyril C Perera Mawatha, Darley Road becoming T.B.Jayah Mawatha, High Street becoming W.A.De Silva Mawatha, Thurston Road becoming Cumaranatunga Munidasa Mawatha and Wolfendahl Street becoming Sri Ratnajothi Saravanamuttu Mawatha Thankfully the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were relatively free of the scourge though there was the unfortunate exception of Messenger Street in Maradana becoming M.J.M Lafir Mawatha in 1981.
That odious trend commenced once again with the previous regime, beginning from 2009 with Reid Avenue becoming Philip Gunawardane Mawatha and Norris Canal Road becoming Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda Mawatha. Guildford Crescent became Dr. Premasiri Khemadasa Mawatha in 2010 and Havelock Road became Sri Sambuddathva Jayanthi Mawatha in 2011.
That was when streets were even being named after living people. A notable example was Dickman’s Road becoming Dr.Lester James Pieris Mawatha. Here was a man I respected very much for his contribution to the arts, but was sad to note that his ego had got the better of him when he consented to have that road named after him, or who knows even canvassed to get it named after him. Then there was Thimbirigasyaya Road in Narahenpita, now called Muruththettuwe Ananda Nahimi Mawatha after the chief incumbent of the Abhayarama Temple located down the road. Interestingly he happens to be the President of the Public Services United Nurses Union. It seems the road was so named because the powers that be wished to curry his favour. Those with bloated egos desiring roads to be named after them deserve no respect from their fellow men and this should be conveyed to them in the strongest terms.
Leafing through Geoff Ells recent book on the origin of the city’s place names, Colombo Jumbo, I was surprised to learn that Union Place was so called because in the olden days, Slave Island, formerly an island, was connected by a road to the mainland by filling in a section somewhere where the present Union Place stands. I had earlier believed that it was the place where the trade unions of old picketed for the rights of the working class as they do even today. There is so much history the original place name preserves. Unfortunately it has been renamed after a political personality who had nothing to do with the place, except perhaps participating in the picketing activity that went on there. It is nevertheless heartening to note that hardly anyone, whether ordinary people or the commercial establishments lining the street, uses the new name. Old habits die hard and hopefully never will. After all, only a moron would take the trouble of using the new five-barreled name in lieu of the much simpler earlier one.
Yet another notable instance is Mosque Lane in Hulftsdorp which has been given the ludicrous name of Ghouse Mohideen Mawatha. The original name, needless to say, signified a religious edifice, a house of God, and a very important and historical one at that, the Colombo Grand Mosque. And now we find that it has been desecrated by the name of an individual whose only ‘merit’ was serving as a trustee of the mosque committee in the 40s and 50s.
Let’s pray those bad days are no more. But what if some moron started this nonsense again. What, one may ask could we do about it? The answer is plenty, provided there’s a strong civil movement with the residents of the road in question having all it takes to oppose the change. The residents of Bagatelle Road led by Former Supreme Court Judge, Dr.A.R.B. Amarasinghe took a bold stand when it was proposed to rename it Dr. Wijayananda Dahanayake Mawatha. This proposal, no doubt at the whims of a bureaucratic ignoramus, had emerged despite the fact that the former premier had never lived there. Galle whence he hailed would have been a more appropriate place to have a road named after him. Thankfully the change never took place because the residents stood united in the face of the proposed move. In this case, objections, if any, from residents of either side of the road, were requested to be submitted. But I was informed by a trustworthy resident of Guildford Crescent that they were never informed of the proposed name change to Premasiri Khemadasa Mawatha. Many are still said to be furious about it and will not content themselves till their road reverts to its original name.
Besides sentimental reasons - for Bagatelle Road has a very long history - Judge Amarasinghe cited practical reasons how street name changes affect people. And not just their addresses which are the sole means of guiding people to one’s residence and which have a long history of association with a particular place. Such changes also have legal implications since addresses figure in legal documents like treasury bonds, title deeds, lease agreements and mortgage bonds. Further they are registered with the Central Depositary System dealing with stocks and shares, Inland Revenue and Municipal Assessment Authorities.
Furthermore, renaming roads will not at all be conducive to the promotion of tourism, especially at a time when the country is keen on attracting foreign tourists. The short English names are easily pronounced and remembered by foreign tourists, wherever they come from. Moreover changing names due to some inferiority complex about a colonial past will send the wrong signals even to foreign investors, who might have second thoughts about investing in a country that is obsessed with regressing to a state detrimental to progress as it once did with disastrous consequences. To an intelligent mind, the mood of a nation could be ascertained by something as trivial as a street name change.
Furthermore, people are sentimental beings and changes like this cause residents immense pain of mind. They are very possessive of the places where they live and will not brook outside interference if they can help it. Indeed this is trespass of another kind. If not for their being on the wrong side of the law, they might even go on a spray paint campaign. Moreover nobody in their right mind is going to switch to these new names in preference to the old ones they are used to. And since such names are painfully long, they’ll just be confined to the name boards or municipal council minutes.
As such, it is best at least at this late stage that there be a concerted campaign to impose a moratorium on renaming street names, or better still introduce blanket legislation to revert back to the original street names, which are after all part of our heritage.