To walk or not to walk

‘Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.’—Rebecca Solnit

I keep hearing many people in Delhi grumble that the city is not meant to be walked in—pavements are perpetually ‘in-repair’ or encroached upon, roads unsafe, pollution levels perilous, the crowd on the street uncouth. Whether the city is meant to be walked in or not, there certainly is a large section of Dilliwalas who will do everything possible to avoid walking—jump straight into an auto outside the metro station irrespective of the autowalla fleecing you or your house being a five-minute walk away, take a lift to the first floor than walk the stairs, not get out of the car (so what if it is causing traffic to halt) to walk two steps to get vegetables or a late-night ice-cream. Yet this image of Delhi and Dilliwallas is one among others, existing in simultaneity with and in contradiction to other sorts of images. Delhi parks, from the strangely shaped tiny islands that have escaped invasion to the sprawling ones with proper walking tracks and instruction manuals, are jam-packed with all kinds of walkers—the reluctant, the fanatic and everything in between. So are the walkers in the parks a different lot from the ‘against-walking’ whiners? Or is the park not the city or perhaps an escape from the city? Or is walking for exercise healthy and essential as opposed to other sorts of walking?

Then there is image of Delhi flourishing as a city for organised and curated walks—from the popular heritage and gastronomic walks along (over)familiar and upcoming touristy trails, and peculiar ones for drinking coffee or shopping for saris, to the politically correct and academic sounding ones for promoting ‘urban literacy and a community-based approach to city building’. Does walking become a valuable practice to engage in if one is paying for consuming it or if it is in the garb of culture vulture?  In contrast to the planned, curated walks led by the experts are the idle, aimless wanderings of self-proclaimed flâneurs, and Delhi boasts of a few. Is it possible to be a flâneur in today’s city or was the idea of a flâneur always a myth (check this link for an interesting take) is a complicated debate, but the flaneur still represents one particular mode of walking in the city, even if as a Weberian ideal type.

The innumerable street vendors in the city who operate out of thelas have no choice but to walk.

Whether the city wants people to walk or whether people like walking in the city, the above ways of walking constitute a tiny fraction of the different modes of walking city dwellers practise—out of necessity, as part of working in the city, for pleasure, for doing chores, as just an everyday way of being, living and getting around in the city.  Some amount of walking even the against-walking types cannot avoid—you have to walk a distance to hail your preferred mode of transportation or to and from the parking lot if you own a car. And there are others—factory workers, domestic helps, municipal sweepers, kudawallas, ragpickers and street vendors—who walk part of the way or all the way to work or walking constitutes an inherent part of their work. There is nothing romantic about these kinds of walking, they involve drudgery and labour, traversing and negotiating the uneven surfaces of the city and its many obstructions and prejudices. Yet these kinds of walking keep the city running, form a part of the landscape of the city (even if sometimes invisibilised due to their ordinariness) and constitute a ‘way of life’. These too make and remake the culture of the city.

Irrespective of which mode(s) of walking you practise, walking is not possible without your mind, body and heart engaging with the world (even if it is just to avoid being hit by a moving vehicle). Different modes of walking make possible (and simultaneously block) different kinds of engagement.

What follows is a photographic vignette of a walk I did with my friend Saro in the Bhogal market. No, we were not planning to aimlessly wander. Nor did we have a checklist of historical or architectural sites of interest that we wanted to tick off (Bhogal does offer the possibility of doing so even if they may not meet the very contested criteria of heritage). We had a very mundane agenda—buy bathroom fittings.

There was something attractive about the rotis hanging from wooden strips that made us pause for a while and the pause led to a series of encounters.

Our first long haul en route to the hardware store was an Afghan shop selling various kinds of tandoori rotis. On the left side of the shop was an older man sitting on a chair, who started smiling at us the minute we stopped by. He spoke to us in broken Hindi and was as curious about us and we were about him. We bought a sheermal and started eating bits of it while continuing to chitchat. The man asked us if we would like to have chai. ‘Have some Afghani chai’, he insisted and started pottering around when we agreed. He found two chipped small cups and poured out chai, telling us that they have the sheermal with chai and not with sabzi as Indians do. He enquired about the weather in Delhi and how Dilliwallas make chai. All this while, an old woman beggar was pestering us. She refused to take money or rotis from the shop. She very specifically wanted groceries, so that she could feed her family. Saro walked with her to a tiny shop across—a kirana store run by a woman—and had an encounter there involving domestic helps, parathas, chai, mixed-use architecture and two kilos of rice for the beggar woman. (Three weeks later, while walking in the Bhogal market, we went looking for the Afghan roti shop only to find that it no longer existed and had been replaced by an Afghani restaurant. ‘Woh chale gaye’, was all we got to know about the earlier shopkeeper.)

View from the toyshop we passed by and decided to check out, primarily for nostalgic value. Once we had stopped, Saro suddenly desired a carrom board and then just as suddenly gave up on the idea because she did not have enough cash and the shop did not accept cards.
Walking a little ahead of the toyshop, we noticed a Hot Chips outlet. Saro gave in to temptation and let go of some of her limited cash in buying karela chips and ghee halwa. ‘Might as well buy since we are here’, she offered as an explanation to me.

I was not sure if we were headed in the right direction and we stop by a thela run by an old Sardarji and his two helpers to ask for directions. Sardarji not only gave us specific directions but also told us the names of two specific hardware shops that don’t overcharge and have good maal. Saro mentions the name of a shop she had visited earlier on that same road but the mention of the shop displeases Sardarji. ‘Aap meri baat sunno—mein toh aapke bhale ke liye keh raha hoon. Aapko bataa raha hoon ki rate kaun accha lagaega,’ he says. We thank him and make our way ahead.

This photograph is from a later visit when we sought out the shop to eat breakfast though Sardarji was in a grumpy and non-talkative mood.
Finally, we reach the hardware store. This photo is a view of the outside from the shop. Saro was interested in everything that the shop had on display and not just the specific things she had to buy. She was asking for rates, bargaining and chitchatting and joking with the salesman. Bored and tired, I passed my time at the shop peering out of the glass door and clicking photographs.
After what seems like ages, Saro is finally done with her shopping. She is tired and in a hurry to leave. We walk out hoping to catch an auto. She walks ahead briskly leaving me sauntering behind.

What I have recounted here are only some tiny bits of some of the encounters we had on this walk to the hardware store. I am certain that if we had taken an auto from Jangpura to the hardware store in Bhogal, our experience of and engagements with the people, shops, objects and streets of Bhogal would have been entirely different. There is something about walking that allows you to also periodically not walk—to pause, slow down, stop. And once you start walking, even if it is for a purposive and mundane reason, the walk can take on a life of its own, especially if you are not in a hurry. It reveals itself bit by bit, a step here leading to an unexpected encounter and leading you on to a step there, which makes you see something else.


All photographs ©Chiragh Dilli.

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