One for the road

In the body of a city, roads are the arteries. Life pulsates down their course over centuries, leaving a little history here, some stories there. And road names tell these tales best. Whether named after people who made the city what it is, or places that were once landmarks, after contemporary personalities or iconic events, road names cause us to pause amid the hurry of our everyday lives and ponder for a moment about the city’s making.

History talks loudest on Kochi’s roads. From the colonial times to the rule of the Diwans, our roads reveal quite a few clues. Princess Street, in Fort Kochi, was once called Prince Street, after the Dutch princes Maurits and Wilhelm, notes Dutch anthropologist Bauke Van Der Pol. “After the British took over in 1795, ‘Prince’ was corrupted to ‘Princess’,” he says. Remnants of Dutch times also remain in ‘Peter Celli’ street; ‘peterselie’ is the Dutch word for the herb, parsley.

Fast forward to 1935, when the Diwan of Cochin was R.K. Shanmugham Chetty. He governed until 1941, in a period marked by all-round progress, and is remembered by Shanmugham Road, which was built in his time. Banerji Road too is named after another Diwan of Cochin, Albion Rajkumar Banerjee, known for the distribution of filtered water in Ernakulam and for taking concrete steps toward the Cochin harbour’s development. Diwan’s Road, opposite the Durbar Hall Ground, was once home to two Diwans of Cochin, both from the Thottekkat family, Sankunni Menon and his brother Govinda Menon.

From the years of the Independence struggle, Kochi’s roads have honoured, besides M.G. Road after Mahatma Gandhi, freedom fighter Sainudheen Naina with P.S. Sainudheen Naina Road in Chullickal. It is said that he was asked by Congress leaders to join the freedom movement on his wedding day. He did so and left for Calicut where he was arrested, remained in prison for three years and then threw himself into the freedom struggle upon release. A.B. Salem, fondly called ‘Jewish Gandhi’ is also immortalised by ‘A.B. Selam’ (sic) Road, for using ‘satyagraha’ to fight discrimination against the ‘black’ Jews.

Just beside the Ernakulam Boat Jetty, stretches Cannon Shed Road, thus named for an ammunition store, housing six cannons in the times of the Cochin State, which once stood there. Similarly, Carrier Station Road is so called because during World War II (between 1941-42) in a single-storeyed red brick building functioned the ‘Repeator Station’ which was the routing centre for military telephones under the defence services. Landmarks have also dictated road names at Layam Road, where the kuthiralayam, or royal stables, of the Maharaja of Cochin’s well-manicured horses were maintained. One of Kochi’s earliest cinemas was Ashoka Theatre in Kaloor, which of course functions no more, but the name ‘Ashoka Road’ sticks.

And then there are roads named after Kochi’s prominent personalities, especially its cultural vanguard. Mahakavi G. Road venerates poet G. Sankara Kurup; poet Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon is remembered at his birthplace, Kaloor, by Vyloppilli Road; and P.J. Antony Road is named after the actor who gave us the iconic film Nirmalyam. Beeran Kunju Road, off Banerji Road, is named after a Corporation councillor, while P.T. Usha Road, is among the few that celebrate a living person, who is also a sportswoman.

Modern political history has also found its way into our road naming. That Kerala was the world’s first democratically elected Communist government shows on October Road in Vyttila, which pays homage to the 1917 October Revolution overthrowing the Russian Republic, while Lal Salaam Road in Kadavanthra shouts the ‘Red Salute’. In Mattancherry, Santo Gopalan Road recalls Gopalan, a man who came from Alappuzha to Mattancherry looking for work, became a scullion in the British Cochin Club and rose to be a butler. He was a gymnast and a body builder; his strength earned him the moniker Santo. Gopalan became a member of the Communist party and the Trade Union, championing the cause of the coir workers. His anti-establishment activities led to a confrontation with the police in 1968 and he died from injuries.

Road names have also often been contested territory. When Pallichal Road was changed to V.S. Krishnan Bhagavathar Road, in Palluruthy, people moved the High Court against this ‘arbitrary rechristening’. The court ordered the ‘original’ name be restored. Meanwhile, in Gandhi Nagar, the streets only had numbers, no names. When one was named ‘Vettath Road’ with much fanfare, the public blackened the signboard in protest.

For all this muscling, there are roads whose names none can quite lay claim to. Azad Road in Kaloor could either be after freedom fighter Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, or the revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad, or even a family named Azad who lived down the road. That’s when the utopia U2 sings of entices — “We’re beaten and blown by the wind/trampled in dust/ I’ll show you a place/high on a desert plain/ where the streets have no name.”

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 9:33:31 PM |

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