The figurative signs of our times are worrying, scary and even ominous at times. But there are some beacons of light that glow brightly even today. The innocent, cherubic, faces of young children potently signify the fact that humanity shall survive all crises and the forces of Good will surely prevail over those of Evil in the ultimate analysis.
I will focus more on these larger aspects of life and the world some other time; in this particular piece I propose to focus solely on the signs that dot our roads, our railway stations, our airports and sundry other establishments. The first thing that strikes me is that there are not enough signboards which make sense on our streets. Before GPS enabled devices came to the fore, everyone would depend on the age old method of asking the common man on the road about the shortest route to their destination.

Indians have anyway been known to be the most hospitable people in the whole wide world when it comes to explaining directions to strangers. Indian towns would thus get away with having virtually no direction boards on the roads. The local cobbler, rickshaw-wallah or ‘dhobi’ would act as a capable guide to anyone who was lost and clueless on the road. With unerring accuracy this traditional manner of finding one’s way around worked for centuries. Some locals would even offer to accompany the traveler in his or her vehicle to ensure that there is no misunderstanding of instructions, and would doubtless welcome the ‘lift’ that he received in the process!
But those who have travelled to foreign shores, particularly European countries, would vouch for the fact that asking someone on the street for directions could be fraught with the risk that one would receive a glare or even a scowl in return! Western countries expect people to be able to find their way around by reading the well placed and eloquent sign boards which are omnipresent in all their habitations.

Not so in India! Although the authorities of our municipalities have, of late, pulled up their socks all over the land and one finds many more self-speaking road signs these days, there are many lacunae which still exist. For instance there may be huge signboards proclaiming that a particular tourist spot is approaching in a few kilometers but when one actually arrives at the site, the all important final signboard is missing. And at times one finds that a signboard is placed at an angle which defies logic and points towards a tangential direction!
Sign board faux pas abound. They are galling, but even amusing at times. While the railways will tend to use incorrect language such as ‘Do not board in the train while it is moving’ the highway authorities will come up with hilarious ones like ‘Accidents are prohibited on this road’! Spelling errors are another source of entertainment or exasperation, depending on your outlook. The Hindi word ‘kripaya’ (which roughly means ‘Please’) is almost always misspelled across the country. And when our own Indian languages
can be erroneously used in formal signages then how can the poor English
language hope to be utilized correctly? Howlers galore can be found all over the place. Thus, ‘Check Point’ becomes ‘Chick Point’ and ‘Chilled Beer’ becomes ‘Child Bear’. When we spot a road sign advising us to ‘Use diaper at night’ instead of a ‘dipper’, we dare not roll over laughing, because we have to drive safely!
Toilets signs are another recipe for disaster. Instead of writing ‘He’ or ‘She’ boldly, owners of establishments which offer these vital services often opt for bizarre looking symbols, which one has to decipher at lightning speech lest one enter the wrong portal in the haste to relieve oneself!
Sign boards can also be stern. Several parks are adorned by forbidding signages which state in bold letters the words ‘No eating’ or ‘No idling’. And if one searches for a message that should warmly welcome visitors to the same green space, it is likely to be missing!
But one really useful sign which some cafes carry these days avers, almost in admonishment of customers, “We don’t have WiFi. Please talk to each other!’
vivek.atray@gmail.com