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A Tamil woman’s travelogue of her European adventures

M Lakshmi Ammal was a path-breaker among Tamil women in colonial India, as she went on to study in London in the 1920s and travel through Europe

A group of suffragists picket outside the House of Commons in London in the 1920s.
A group of suffragists picket outside the House of Commons in London in the 1920s. (Getty Images )

M. Lakshmi would have been about twenty-eight when she went to London and wrote this series of letters. She was a mature student and not an impressionable young girl....studying at Bedford College. It was certainly unusual for young Tamil women to go abroad to study at that time—not one of the many women students she met in London seems to have been from the Tamil country. We have no information at all on how Lakshmi made it to London. Until then, no member of the family had travelled abroad. It must have come at great financial cost to the family, and one can only imagine that Madhaviah (her father) must have strained every resource to make this possible. The series of letters Lakshmi wrote was titled ‘Seemai Kaditham’ (Letters from a Foreign Land). This series of ten epistles, plus an essay on her sea voyage to England, constitutes a travelogue where she describes in some detail her life and travels in England and Europe. It includes a great deal of subtle self-reflection. These epistles were originally published in the rich literary monthly review, Panchamirtam, edited by... Madhaviah between April 1924 and April 1925 before his sudden and untimely death in October 1925. (It was left to Lakshmi, along with her younger brother, M. Ananthanarayanan, to bring out the final issue of the journal.) These remain to be published as a stand-alone book.

The first instalment of the travelogue was published in the inaugural number of Panchamirtam. Describing London’s weather in some detail, it begins with Lakshmi’s observations about the worst winter in ten years. Though Lakshmi uses a controlled prose, the excitement of seeing the first snow in her life is palpable. The narrative presupposes an audience which is completely unfamiliar with the West, i.e. Europe. Nowhere in the text does she explicitly compare or contrast her experience in India. Observing that buses are no longer driven by women, she states that this practice stopped after the war (World War I), but adds that it was now quite common for women to earn a living by their own labour. In commenting on this—of women earning their own bread and living on their own—she writes that this was not the case in their grandmothers’ times. And in a sentence pregnant with meaning, evidently talking about herself, she states, ‘Even women from abroad who have no special skills can live here without fear!’ The first chapter thus sets up her narrative with a broadbrush view of the city.

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Lakshmi continues her description of London in the second epistle. This paints the bustling activity in the city with its extensive market streets. Clearly, she was excited by what she saw and commented that such activity could scarcely be seen anywhere else in the world. Little is known of how much Lakshmi might have travelled in India—not much I would surmise—for her father set up his family in Chennai and lived on his own in his various transfer postings. The family first lived in the Chennai neighbourhood of Triplicane before moving to adjacent Mylapore. As such, it is unlikely that the family, especially Lakshmi, travelled much. There’s a reference to Bangalore in this narrative in relation to the time it took to reach the city from Chennai (about eight hours then, according to her).

What was soon to become the standard cliché that anything from ‘a pin to a motor car’ could be bought crops up in the narrative. Shops, salons, promenades, musical events dominate the scene. Lakshmi was particularly fascinated with the electric elevators. The neon-lit advertisements caught her eye, and when she added that the city shone splendidly only in the night, she was perhaps making a statement about her participation in London’s nightlife, something that would have been out of bounds for women in India. She did not fail to note that three-quarters of the shopping crowd consisted of women. Even while she was constantly alert to the presence of women, the standard Indian nationalist response to Western material wealth is articulated at the end of the second epistle.

Is this what is called civilization? Mannequins, which anyone would mistake for real women, strike a pose in shop windows; advertisements—now in green, now in blue, and now in red—glow in mid-air like an astral sign. Are these the signs of civilizational progress! The foundation of this civilization rests on the accumulation of wealth.

A Functioning Anarchy?: Essays for Ramachandra Guha edited by Nandini Sundar and Srinath Raghavan, 370 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
A Functioning Anarchy?: Essays for Ramachandra Guha edited by Nandini Sundar and Srinath Raghavan, 370 pages, 699

After a description of London and its glittering wealth, Lakshmi then moves to Europe. It is May, and Bedford College is on summer vacation. Lakshmi sets out on a tour of Europe, accompanied by a female friend and her parents. Their names are not mentioned, nor does she discuss her relationship with them. One is able to surmise that they were Indians.

Crossing the English Channel on the ferry, they arrive in Paris. One of the first comments that she makes is about ‘the ample facilities for people to travel independently without troubling others’ (emphasis added). This is one of the many comments that she makes which implies a criticism of the Indian situation though she makes no explicit contrast. This is a strategy that is employed throughout the text.

Interestingly, in describing her Parisian experiences the contrast is with London and not India. Lakshmi and company follow the usual touristy route, and there are funny moments with their broken French that doesn’t take them far. After the incessant chattering of the guide, she jokes that she would be happy to see even a ruined wall as long as no one was dinning information into her ears. After visiting the Palace of Versailles, she astutely observes that, unlike what the English said, the Orient was not the only place to be marked by extravagance.

From Paris they proceed to Switzerland. Lakshmi eagerly looks forward to seeing the Alps. At the Grindelwald Glacier, she hires skiing equipment. Lakshmi was possibly the first Tamil women to ski. The blue light in the resorts that shone on the snowy slopes remind her of fantastic descriptions from The Arabian Nights. All through the text Lakshmi tries to relate her experiences to her own reading.

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When Lakshmi reaches Zurich, after travelling to Berne and Lucerne, the spring festival is in progress. In a Zurich bookshop she espies a book on Gandhi on display. It further pleases her that the local guide was familiar with the Mahatma’s name and reputation.

The group then proceeds to Munich. Visiting cathedrals, chapels and museums form the staple of their tour. But in Munich Lakshmi is wonderstruck to meet an Orientalist—unfortunately he is not identified—well versed in both Tamil and Sanskrit. Being interested in folklore, he enquires if such oral traditions were available in print—a question only her father could have answered.

From Munich they move on to Vienna. Lakshmi is impressed by the palaces of the erstwhile Habsburg Empire which now functioned as museums. From there they travel to Italy where Lakshmi feels very much at home. The sights and the people remind her of India. At Venice she goes rowing on a gondola. The places she travels to include Milan, Florence, Naples and Pisa. On visiting Mount Vesuvius, she peers into the volcano, and takes a tour around Pompeii. The text is peppered with gentle but astute comments. Lakshmi expresses annoyance at the guides who repeated memorized lines. The rest of the tour takes her to Genoa, Nice and Monte Carlo. As she takes the train from Naples to Nice, the scenic beauty of the mountains reminds her of descriptions from Nala Venba, a medieval Tamil poem narrating the story of Nala and Damayanti. From Nice they return to London as her summer vacation comes to an end. I am unable to calculate how much time she may have spent on the continental tour—it was probably more than a couple of weeks.

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

In subsequent epistles Lakshmi provides vivid and happy descriptions of summer in London. Commenting on the English response to the summer and sunlight, she compared them to camels that store up water when available; the people could never have enough of the summer and the sun. Lakshmi also played golf, tennis and went punting. During the weekends, in the company of her female friends, she visited Cambridge, Windsor and Canterbury.

Lakshmi devotes one epistle to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, the over a year-and-a-half (April 1924–October 1925) event planned to herald a great imperial revival. Once again, in an implied contrast to India, she noted the orderliness with which the huge, milling crowds conducted themselves. On this occasion, a British friend accompanied her. At the India stall there was reason for mirth as her companion misread the significance and function of many of the artefacts. Inevitably, there was an argument about the state of industry and enterprise in India. The latent nationalism in her burst out. When Lakshmi emphasized the achievements of precolonial Indian industry, her friend was least impressed. She also visited the funfair, and took a ride on the rollercoaster train and enjoyed it ‘to her heart’s content’. At the end of a long and tiring eight-hour day, she promised herself that, in order to avoid the crowd, she would return to the Wembley Exhibition when it rained.

In a separate letter Lakshmi provides a full account of the daily life of a college student in England, observing that it was little different from her Chennai experience, even as she noted that all generalizations had an element of falsehood. Unlike Tamil women who were raised to believe that eating frugally was their duty, she noted that English girls ate excessively and with relish; she was amazed that four heavy meals were served in the college. She also thought that Englishwomen were stronger than even Indian men, not to mention women.

Women in her college were aged between eighteen and twenty-five. They hailed from modest middle-class families. They were not, Lakshmi observed, characterized by modesty and restraint—this she stated in a non-judgemental, if not in an approving, manner. Rather than being slim and full of beauty, they were well built and had an upright gait (a posture, one may add, disapproved strongly for women by Indian tradition). They possessed a glowing face. She noted approvingly that Englishwomen demonstrated unlimited enthusiasm and energy for studying and playing.

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Showing interest in wearing fashionable clothes, they loved to dance and visit the theatre. She also contended—with admiration, one could say—that their hearts were unsullied by fear, falsehood and hypocrisy. Though having a deep love for their family, they nevertheless looked forward to the day when they would leave their homes and lead an independent domestic life. They were also moved by compassion and displayed considerable broad-mindedness. Deeply patriotic, they believed that no nation in the world equalled theirs.

Though written in a gentle prose that reveals no emotion, Lakshmi is clearly making a criticism of her fellow Indian/Tamil women rather than providing an objective description of Englishwomen. Was she also expressing her desire to emulate them? One must emphasize that her positive comments on young Englishwomen are in marked contrast to the then current Indian stereotypes about them as permissive, uncultured and materialistic.

As her many friends went off to Europe on a holiday, Lakshmi now desired to spend some time in the English countryside. Browsing through newspaper advertisements, she hit upon a village called Vantage. This would surely have been unthinkable in her home in Chennai. The village had never seen an Indian woman, and she was at first mistaken for a Chinese or a Japanese woman. Lakshmi was amused by the prejudices and stereotypes that the local villagers harboured about Indians: as a people who were only interested in and wasted time on luxuries and who used cheap labour. The villagers believed that India survived only through the industriousness of its white masters. Lakshmi lodged with an elderly woman, with teatime providing the occasion for jokes and laughter. Lakshmi was impressed that this woman was interested in books and reading. As it proved to be a rather rainy summer, on the advice of the landlady, Lakshmi visited Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon. Not surprisingly, given her interest in English literature, the visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace left her deeply impressed.

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

At the beginning of her new academic year, it was now Lakshmi’s turn to act as guide to the women students arriving fresh from India. She them had earlier lived as purdanashin (secluded) women in India. She guided them through the major tourist spots, and oriented them to living in London. This provided an occasion for self-reflection. She recollected that, on arriving in London a year earlier, she had been bombarded with such questions as ‘How do you like England?’ ‘Does London look like what you had imagined?’ ‘What do the sights here remind you of?’ Disoriented by her displacement, and confused by anticipation and longing, she had been unable then to respond clearly. Keeping this in mind, Lakshmi sensitively remarked that she desisted from inflicting such questions on the newly arrived students.

This also provided the occasion for Lakshmi to give practical tips for living in London. Among the many sentences that she wrote, tucked away in a matter-of-fact tone, is the statement: women can live in London on their own 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 her year-long sojourn in England left Lakshmi with mixed feelings. While she conceded that she had learnt a lot from London, visiting its many museums and studying in the college and travelling across Europe, she stated that she still longed to return to India.

The last instalment of her travel narrative ends with the year-end Christmas celebrations. She joined the Christmas party hosted by fellow Indian students—whether the party included men or it was an all-woman affair is not clear. Thirty poor children had been invited to the party. Lakshmi recounted the comment of one of the Indian girl students who played with them by cuddling and lifting some of them: ‘I’m a Christian, and I do not entertain caste differences. But until coming to England I had never mingled with lower-caste and poor children. Henceforth no Christmas would be festive without playing with poor children’. Once again we find Lakshmi recording remarks and statements without a gloss or comment. But it is evident that these are conscious recordings written with intent.

The narrative ends on a rather symbolic note. One of her companions at breakfast commented that she could smell spring in the air. Lakshmi and her friends rushed out for a stroll in the garden but could only experience a cold wind. Lakshmi remarked wryly, ‘Spring will come in its own time, but it won’t be late’.

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

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