Walking in circles

‘Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker. They unfold in time as one travels along them…’—Rebecca Solnit

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Streets come alive, bit by bit, step by step, as we trace our routes along them. Even if a whole street can never be seen in its entirety, as Solnit points, if we practise walking, repeatedly, habitually, across the same streets, our bodies, particularly feet and eyes, noses too, remember, intuitively, what to encounter at what corner or spot. A gaping hole at a particular point on the pavement, a kachori shop to take a right turn from, a smelly urinal to avoid. But then street surfaces are hardly ever static— they continuously mutate into different forms for its varied users, changing shape over the course of a single day and night, and over different durations of time. A defunct fountain becomes a storage space for the scanty belongings of the homeless, the ledge surrounding it a spot for the unemployed to catch a nap on in the afternoon, for noisy youngsters to chill out with chai and sutta in the evening; a road divider is for daily wagers to sit with their tools early morning, a point for housewives to drop off food for cows and dogs in the day, for the barber to set up shop in the afternoon; a telephone junction box becomes the wall of a tea shop; a wall the canvas for a street doodler; a nail on the wall the hook for hanging lunch.

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The habitual walker, unconsciously and consciously, keeps documenting the tiny shifts and movements in the shape of the street, adding to the body’s archive, while also simultaneously updating it. Oh, so the sheermal shop is now an ice-cream shop, and oh no, just on a day the body is craving for Afghani ice cream, the shop has become a biryani takeaway! Every step taken not only merges with earlier ones, of this body and others’, on the street’s surface, but also immediately gets filed away in the body’s archive of memory of steps traced, here and elsewhere. The body becomes a repository of accumulated layers of its own movements, and the encounters with sights, smells, flavours, feelings, places and creatures these movements involve. Every new step then draws on that archive, viscerally, bodily, making new linkages between the accumulated memories, of which the step taken has already become a part.

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This piece is a tiny circle of annotated steps from a confused December day that could not make up its mind about being warm and sunny or chilly and breezy. Three people met at a chai shop in Mandi House. They wanted to explore and walk around the streets in and around Connaught Place. They had two self-imposed rules—one, ‘to go slow’ and, two, to avoid restaurants/cafes. This piece brings together their explorations on foot, punctuated by stopovers, brief and lingering. It is a documentation of the walk on that particular day, its route and the encounters with people and different street surfaces it involved. But it is also an open-ended archive of walks, entangled with ones preceding it, those followed by it, and others waiting to happen.

***

‘My library is an archive of longings.’—Susan Sontag

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Waiting, on a pavement chai shop, Mandi House, chai and chocolate nut cookie, chaiwalla gives gyan/ piss break at clean loo in Triveni, where smoking and ‘meetings’ are no longer allowed, no temptation for bad hipster food or good art/ walk to ‘Refugee Market’ for lunch at dhaba, passing by a red, pavement shop selling chole kulcha, shopkeeper sensing the meaning of our lingering and inviting us, overcoming temptation and continuing to walk/ memories come bombarding on entering the dhaba, of food ordered, stolen time, being young in the city/ walk up the steep wrought iron stairs, in whose nooks are shoes and clothes, peeping out, of workers for whom this is workplace and almost home/ we over-order, butter tandoori roti, dal makhani, shahi paneer, palak paneer/ I pretend I am in a restaurant in Simla, and cook up stories in my head about the Safi bottle next to the air conditioner (the cook is preparing for a date?)/ the food is supposed to energize us for the long day ahead but we are feeling drugged and languid/ a beautiful dog says hello to me as we leave the dhaba, maybe this city will do, for now/ we walk towards Bengali Market to head towards the chaiwalla yet again, we discuss the logic of the naming of the streets…bazar lane, central lane…/ I toss off some memories before they touch me, they ricochet against the street signage and travel to join up with city’s airfill of discarded memories…

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…back at the chaiwalla, I start making a list of objects at the chai shop, a trick to stay awake, be quiet for a while, or an academic exercise? I stop when the ink runs out/ we cross over to enter the gol chakkar, a green island with funny-shaped manicured shrubs, I remember the times when dissent was less strictly regulated, of holding hand-painted placards protesting demolitions and displacement, around the Parliament Street roundabout, believing it made a difference/ I put on my sunglasses and try to nap on the green island, giddy with delusion that I am at the centre of the world…

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…we start walking, again, Barakhamba road to Hailey road, on to Agrasen ki Baoli, which is teeming with people, we sit on the stairs, laughing hysterically over silly jokes and trying to identify the skyscrapers lining the horizon/ we walk across the dhobi lane, where two naughty goats are being chased by a young man/ stop at the subway on KG Marg to buy pens, cross over and go straight through an inside lane, stopping to buy a tattered copy of New Yorker and an almost brand-new copy of Istanbul Istanbul from a shy second-hand books vendor, who smiles sheepishly on being asked where he gets his supplies from…

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…chalte chalte, we are now tired and desperate to have a chai or coffee/ we’ve reached Janpath and a coffee in Sarvana Bhavan is tempting enough to break rule number 2/ there’s a long queue outside Sarvana, so we don’t get to break the rule after all/ we cross over to go inside the Handloom Haat complex, decide against coffee from a vending machine, the only option available, and drag our feet towards Janpath market/ since we are passing by the ‘Round Bookshop’ (I always forget its real name ‘New Book Land’!), I decide to ask Salim Bhai if he has got Bhisham Sahni’s new translations as he had promised/ he has, I wait as he sends off his helper to get the books from the godown or wherever he stores the extras (I have never asked him)/ he is usually reticent about anything other than the content of books/ so much of what I have read has been shaped by his recommendations over a decade/ he will always make you feel that what he is recommending is custom-made for you, ‘yeh aapko bahut accha lagega,’ he will say, holding out a book to you flat on his palm as if he is offering you a gift / I tell him it’s high time he gets a card machine and he surprises me by telling me he has already got one/ I pay for my copy of Basanti and Mansion by card…

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…we make our way to Depaul’s and re-energize ourselves with its cold coffee (doesn’t count for flouting rule number 2 because this is a takeaway, I tell myself)/ we make our way out from behind the market and come out near a teashop, which is teeming with the after-office crowd/ we sit under a tree and have chai/ I see people eating what looks like yummy bread pakoda/ I go looking for the bread pakodawalla, find him, get myself one, fresh out of the kadhai and garnished with a fiery green chutney…

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…we are ready to walk, again/ we make our way to the park on top of Palika Bazaar—the poorer cousin of Central Park/ we sit in the park amidst bloodthirsty mosquitoes, street urchins playing hide and seek in the curious round bushes, a hakim setting up his shop and others lounging and resting/ it’s getting dark and the mosquitoes are threatening to eat us up/ we decide to go looking for a bookstall, one of my favourite haunts in my college days, but one I haven’t been to in ages/ I had once made much of the whole bookstall collapse by pulling out a book/ the shopkeeper instead of getting angry had appeared apologetic…

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…I can’t remember where the bookstall was located, just that it was somewhere in the middle lane, possibly near Plaza/ we find it/ and now I know its name because I have captured it in a photograph/ one more pee stop, this time at Life Caffe/ we then go looking for Vardhna’s chai shop, a shop she discovered some time back and wanted to share with us/ we order our chais and sit on a bench, chitchatting and trying to make sense of a peculiar signage—Kolaba Business Centre: Message Cabins Courier/ people are listening to cricket commentary on the phone in front of us/ a dog walks up for his evening fix of milk and biscuits, then walks across for a drink of water from a vessel/ it climbs up the adjacent stairs to check if all is fine and comes down to find a spot to rest/ we finally call it a day and part ways/ promising that we need to do this more often, together/ promises are meant to be broken.

—Samprati Pani
All photographs © Samprati Pani.

2 thoughts on “Walking in circles”

  1. I. A visual artist. Living in a city as well. I who am supposedly trained to see “más allá de lo evidente” (“further from what´s clearly seen or understood”… which is what Leon-o invoked to his sword in the ‘Thundercats’ cartoon from the ´90s). I forget to look to what´s here, immediately around. I escape, like you wrote, to the hills or the rivers or to the far away lands, to get a glimpse of it. I forget to learn and study my environment. I just… well, nothing very much happens here.
    To artistically look at things seems to require an active relationship then, between my gaze and what’s there to be observed. I am not sure why this activity has not yet been ignited here, for me. Maybe because I am new and there is a certain level of requirements to be able to look at and get, and here, these requirements are big and tough and difficult to acquire.
    But to watch birds should be simple. I already know the words for two species. I will manage.

    Like

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