The Indian Road Sign: LJMU English Abroad

Ruth Childerhouse is just completing her second year as an English student at LJMU. Early this year she was given the chance of travelling to Tirunelveli in India to visit a range of schools and colleges there. Here, she reflects upon her experiences in the context of her studies of post colonialism. 

Group Discussions at St Johns College Tirunelveli

Our focus on the trip was special needs schools,  and coming back I was completely emotionally exhausted. I am so incredibly grateful that I was given this chance to explore the differences in culture and I was constantly on the lookout for evidence of a British colonial legacy.

The best way I can explain my impression of this legacy is through road signs. When we got off the aeroplane in Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that after a few drinks!), my first thought was, ‘Oh help, I’m going to get run over’. Actually, my first thought was ‘I’m going to die in this heat’, but the prospect of being squished by a van was a close second. Compared to home, the way people drive is almost manic. Car horns blare constantly, people fit five to a motorbike and tuk-tuks try to squeeze through two foot gaps. It’s a little bit terrifying. But the road signs don’t look that much different from home. If you ignore the bilingual lettering, you could be fooled into thinking you are on a rural English road.

And this seems to reflect every imported western ideal. The information is the same. What people choose to do with that information is vastly different.

Take religion. The district I stayed in has a large Christian population and this is visible in the landscape. There are roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary draped in garlands and fairy lights and clean, white church spires rise over the houses at frequent intervals. Church spires which, at night, are smothered in neon lights glowing red, violet and blue. On the bishop’s coffee table sits a flashing LED portrait of Jesus. Maybe in England these adornments would be called gaudy or crass, or even verging on disrespectful, but here it is evidence of the unreserved love of the people for their beliefs.

In religion, in education, and even in the road signs, Tamil Nadu’s western influences seem to follow a simple formula. Take the basic elements and add passion. Drive louder. Preach with more colour. Exist with more vibrancy. We have all heard the stereotype about the British being mild-mannered and reserved. Until I visited India, I had no idea how true that was.

I could talk about it forever, but I don’t think I could fully explain how important those ten days were to me.

Ruth (right) at Sarah Tucker College, Tirunelveli

In the Sarah Tucker Girls College, I chatted with the most wonderful, bright and funny women about their English MA. I played football in the evening with boys from the school for the deaf. I fumbled with a mixture of my limited British Sign Language and vague gesturing, learning a tiny bit of Indian Sign, too. I met a four year old girl with Down’s syndrome who insisted on wearing my sunglasses upside down in between being taught to make garlands and jewellery. (In the schools I visited, children with special needs are taught a trade to give them a better chance when they are older). I attended a church service for the deaf. I taught a little girl in an orphanage to make origami fortune tellers, and in return she made me a paper frog.

I have a thousand little stories about my time in Tirunelveli. Some of them are silly, some of them are a little sad, at least fifty of them involve misadventures crossing the road. It was like nowhere else I have ever been and I cannot get over the kindness and vibrancy of everyone I met. I won’t lie, it was hard work. It was unreasonably warm and emotionally draining and every day was exhausting. But it was worth it. As difficult as it could be, I loved it.

I got lucky when I was given a place on this trip. Really, really lucky. It was one of the most valuable and rewarding things I have ever done. I got to experience a whole different way of being and I really hope I can bring some of that joyfulness into my own life. I hope I can live that loudly, and make things beautiful for beauty’s sake. Maybe I won’t take inspiration from the driving though. That would not end well.

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