Giving and receiving geographical directions are art forms! They require geographical communication abilities. Miscommunication can be utterly hilarious.

Or dangerous! In an emergency, it could be vital that you be able to give clear directions to where you wan the help to reach.

My father used to regale me with his description of a native Thanjavur person’s way of giving directions. This dialogue is based on how my father used to construct the scene. The Tamizh original used to make me laugh so hard that my mother would have to intervene and ask my father to stop it! He wouldn’t, of course.

Anyway, here goes:

Innocent Traveler (in Thanjavur): <addressing local on the street> “How do I get to the post office?”

Local Thanjavur Fellow: “Do you want to go to the post office, oy?” [Confirmation of IT’s destination]

IT: “Yes.” [Destination confirmed]

LTF: <pointing into a distance down the street> “Do you see that big banyan tree, oy?”

IT: <keeping silent>

LTF: <slightly peeved> “Do you see that big banyan tree, OYY?”

IT: <startled> “Huh? Yes. Yes, yes, yes! I can see it.”

LTF: “When you reach that tree, turn left. Did you turn left, oy?”

IT: <now very alert!> “Yes, I turned left.”

LTF: “You walk down about 2 furlongs, there is a large hotel on your right. Do you see the hotel, oy?”

IT: <now fully into the rhythm of this wholesome geographical give and take> “Yes-yes-yes, I see the hotel.”

LTF: “At the hotel, turn right. Did you turn right, oy?”

IT: <now breathless with suspense> “Yes! I turned right.”

LTF: “The post office is the second building on the left. Go.”

And IT biffs off. No “thank you” and all that. That thanking for everything is a western import for most of us.

When I was a kid and my father told me this, it was only hilariously funny. Now, as a geographer, I find it very interesting. I’ll come back to this anon.

We all have mental maps – maps of places in our minds. These maps are not necessarily 100% accurate or precise. They are enough for the purposes of our getting around.

The mind is a strange thing, you know. When it constructs these maps, it does not put every single detail of the landscape into them. It focuses on particularly important features. You can easily verify this by trying to recall the name of the 7th shop on a street with a row of 12 shops. If it is not one you frequent or a big or unusual shop, you are not likely to remember it.

Mental maps of the same place, but among different people, may be very different from each other. They will still conform to some of the broad details. This is why, if we get a group of people from the same neighborhood and ask them to draw maps of their neighborhoods, the maps are likely to be very different from each other.


When we give directions to places, we take this mental map of ours and convert those mental pictures (symbols) into spoken words. (Occasionally into written maps.) When we speak these words, the person receiving the directions hears the words, and these words evoke symbols in their minds. And as we continue with our verbal directions, usually accompanied by gestures, the recipient assembles a mental map. For this mental map to be truly useful, both the transmitter and the recipient of directions must be good communicators. It’s a two-way street! (Ha ha ha).

In India, when asked for directions, most people don’t tell you that they haven’t a clue. Instead they valiantly try to give you some vague indications. For some reason, in Tamil Nadu and somewhat less in Karnataka (in my experience), giving directions is preceded by a punctuation sound. “Ptsch!”

“How do I go to New Modern Hotel for breakfast?”

“New Modern Hotel, is it?”


“Ptsch! See … you go straaaaaight like this, just 1 kilometer, then turn left, go another 1 kilometer … thennnn … mmmmmm … ask anyone there.”

The “ptsch” is VERY important. Please use it whenever you give directions!

Back to the dialogue we started with. What the LTF is doing is very sensible and clever. He gives the IT one piece of the map at a time, verifies if the IT has comprehended it, and only then goes on to the next bit. Excellent method.

In the USA, it took me some time to get used to hearing directions such as, “Go south on 14th Ave., then east on 4th street …” Slightly tough when it is dark, you know? Or if there is a blizzard on!

However, Americans have another practice that is very helpful. “Keep going down 4th street, the utility building is on the right. If you see the Post Office, you have gone too far. Turn back.” Very useful when you don’t know exactly how many miles or blocks or streets you need to cross before getting to the utility building.

Here, in India, we have this other weird question.

Random Person: “HULLOOO, Sir! Where Government Women’s Maternity Hospital comes?”

I: “Ptsch, it doesn’t come anywhere, it stays right there, YOU have to go there.” – well, this is what I am tempted to say. Instead, I give the proper directions – “Ptsch, you go straight, just 1 kilometer…”

Also, we are very lazy with receiving directions. When I invite friends over for lunch or dinner and give them directions the first time, this routinely happens:

I: “Ptsch, take a left at the bus stand, then the 3rd right opposite the helmet shop, and I live in the 4th house on the right.”

Friend: “Okay, okay, okay. I will call from the bus stand.”

I: “No you won’t! You will remember the directions and get yourself over here! I am busy cooking the poison and can’t be taking your phone calls every 5 minutes.”


(A version of this appears in the Deccan Herald student edition
on 03 December 2013, page 1)


7 Responses

  1. Hilarious!!

    I realised many things from this very well written post. Firstly the Ptsch…now that you mention it..yes indeed. Secondly, whenever I give directions to people and say “if you see so and so, you’ve gone too far” people here in Chennai look at me like I’m an alien..they take a couple of minutes to grasp what I’m saying but I never realised that it was my American-ness. Thirdly, that people have their own version of the map of their neighborhood, is frankly, a revelation to me. Especially, because it comes from you – an expert on the topic. My husband grew up in this neighborhood of Chennai, where we now live, after we returned to India. He knows the map of all the sorrounding places like the back of his hand but it is VERY difficult for him to communicate directions to me. I use street names, landmarks etc. He goes by his internal map. I couldn’t believe someone could grow up in a place and not know street names. Initially, we fought all the time because I felt like a lost child in this part of the city and he found it frustrating to see me struggling while it was all so easy for him. I explored on my own and now I come back and tell him the street names !

    • Ms Padma: Thanks for sharing this interesting experience of you and your husband. It illustrates the differences in mental maps very well.

      – Chandra Shekhar Balachandran

  2. Reminds me of -somewhere in a South/Central American country, when asked for directions ,the reply: `Go straight to the tree a furlong from here under which is the cow is resting & there take a left’.Well…:) it’s based on some incident based on a cow resting there i believe, so for a newcomer, the most absurd response…:) Supposedly true, read in Time/Newsweek years ago.

    • How amusing! Transient items on the landscape are very unreliable as spatial markers.

      One of my sisters-in-law used to turn right at the Bangalore City Corporation garbage bin at a particular corner to reach home. (She has just married my brother and moved into our family recently.) My brother used to go and meet her at the corner and bring her home, just to be sure. On day 3 or 4, the Corporation removed the bin. My brother decided to see what his wife would do. So, he hid at a shop nearby and watched as she came to the corner, looked around, went back and forth several times … then, he emerged from hiding and brought her home. We all (including her) used to laugh about this for years afterwards.

  3. The blog reminded me how learning to give and receive directions to places as a child. sans a telephone or signages….i got interested in the landmarks not wishing to follow the example of Hansel and Gretel who got easily lost in the woods….Atlas, grids and contours (mostly by discover) …i can still give vivid directions and get baffled by the series of reminders by a GPS device acting as my navigator…with modern apps there is a lot of exciting possibility available…yet i love the helpful local giving detailed directions ..saying left and shooting out his arm in the right

    • Ha ha ha. What a hoot … saying left and shooting his arm in the right! I have seen this so MANY times!! Thanks for sharing!

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