A Tamil woman’s travelogue on her European adventures


Tottenham Court Road at the junction with Oxford Street. The building on the left was demolished in 1928 to make way for the Dominion Theater.

In the following epistles, Lakshmi provides vivid and happy descriptions of summer in London. Commenting on the English response to summer and sunlight, she compared them to camels which store water when it is available; people could never get enough of the summer and the sun. Lakshmi also played golf, tennis and rode a boat. During the weekends, in the company of her friends, she visited Cambridge, Windsor and Canterbury.

Lakshmi devotes an epistle to the Exhibition of the British Empire at Wembley, the event lasting more than a year and a half (April 1924-October 1925) intended to herald a great imperial revival. Once again, in an implicit contrast to India, she noted the regularity with which the huge crowds of sheep behaved. On this occasion, a British friend accompanied her. At the India booth, there was reason to rejoice as his companion had misinterpreted the meaning and function of many artifacts. Inevitably, there was a dispute over the state of industry and business in India. The nationalism latent in her broke out. When Lakshmi highlighted the achievements of Indian pre-colonial industry, her friend was the least impressed. She also visited the fun fair, took a ride on the roller coaster train and enjoyed it “on her own terms”. At the end of a long and tiring eight-hour day, she vowed that, to avoid the crowds, she would return to the Wembley Exhibition when it rained.

In a separate letter, Lakshmi provides a full account of a student’s day-to-day life in England, observing that she was little different from her experience in Chennai, although she noted that all generalizations had an element of lying. Unlike Tamil women who were raised to believe that eating in moderation was their duty, she noted that English girls ate excessively and tastefully; she was amazed that four large meals were served at the college. She also believed that English women were stronger than even Indian men, let alone women.

The women in her college were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. They came from modest, middle-class families. They were not, Lakshmi observed, characterized by modesty and restraint – which she said without passing judgment, if not approvingly. Rather than being slim and full of beauty, they were well built and had a straight gait (a posture, one might add, strongly frowned upon for women by Indian tradition). They had a radiant face. She noted with approval that the English women displayed unlimited enthusiasm and energy to study and play.

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Interested in wearing trendy clothes, they loved to dance and visit the theater. She also argued – with admiration, one might say – that their hearts were not stained with fear, lies and hypocrisy. Although having a deep love for their family, they looked forward to the day when they would leave their homes and lead independent domestic lives. They were also touched by compassion and showed great openness. Deeply patriotic, they believed that no nation in the world was equal to theirs.

Although written in soft prose that reveals no emotion, Lakshmi is clearly critical of her Indian / Tamil compatriots rather than providing an objective description of English women. Was she also expressing her desire to imitate them? It should be noted that his positive comments on young English women are in marked contrast to the Indian stereotypes then in force on them as permissive, uneducated and materialistic.

While his many friends went on vacation to Europe, Lakshmi now wanted to spend time in the English countryside. While browsing through the newspaper advertisements, she came across a village called Vantage. Surely that would have been unthinkable at her home in Chennai. The village had never seen an Indian woman, and she was initially mistaken for a Chinese or Japanese woman. Lakshmi was amused by the prejudices and stereotypes the local villagers harbored about Indians: as a people who were only interested in luxury goods and wasted time on cheap labor. The villagers believed that India only survived thanks to the diligence of its white masters. Lakshmi stayed with an elderly woman, tea time being the occasion for jokes and laughter. Lakshmi was impressed that this woman was interested in books and reading. As it turned out to be a rather rainy summer, on the advice of the owner, Lakshmi visited Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon. Unsurprisingly, given her interest in English literature, visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace deeply impressed her.

A late 1920s photograph of Dean's Yard with the Westminster School buildings to the right.

A late 1920s photograph of Dean’s Yard with the Westminster School buildings to the right.
(Creative Commons)

At the start of her new academic year, it was now Lakshmi’s turn to act as a guide for newly arrived students from India. She had earlier experienced them as purdanashin (isolated) women in India. She guided them through the main sights and oriented them towards life in London. This provided an opportunity for self-reflection. She remembered that arriving in London a year earlier she had been bombarded with questions such as “How do you like England?” “Does London look like you imagined? “What do the views here remind you of?” Confused by her movement, and confused by anticipation and desire, she had been unable to respond clearly by then. Bearing this in mind, Lakshmi noticed with sensitivity that she had given up on asking such questions of newly arrived students.

It was also an opportunity for Lakshmi to give practical advice for living in London. Among the many sentences she wrote, hidden in a neutral tone, is the statement: Women can live alone in London without any fear. Here, in one of the very few references to missionaries, she mentions the assistance provided by some Christian agencies to Indian women.

But his one-year stay in England left Lakshmi with mixed feelings. While admitting that she had learned a lot from London, visiting its many museums, studying at college and traveling through Europe, she said she still wanted to return to India.

The last part of his travelogue ends with the end-of-year Christmas celebrations. She joined in the Christmas party hosted by her fellow Indian students – whether the party included men or whether it was an all-female affair is unclear. Thirty poor children were invited to the party. Lakshmi recounted the comment of one of the Indian students who played with them, cuddling and lifting some of them: “I am a Christian and I don’t appreciate caste differences. But until I arrived in England, I had never mingled with poor and lower caste children. From now on, no Christmas would be festive without playing with poor children ”. Once again we find Lakshmi recording remarks and statements without gloss or comment. But it is obvious that these are conscious recordings written with intention.

The story ends on a rather symbolic note. One of her breakfast companions said she could smell spring in the air. Lakshmi and his friends rushed for a walk in the garden but could only feel a cold wind. Lakshmi made an ironic remark: “Spring will come at its time, but it will not be late.”

Edited and taken from A Functional Anarchy ?: Essays for Ramachandra Guha, edited by Srinath Raghavan and Nandini Sundar with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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