A step in New York/A footfall in Lahore

We walk. If we are able to. If we are allowed to. If we can imagine it. If we possess a walkable body. If we possess the right gender, the proper class, the specific privilege that allows for walking.

I lived for a decade in Chicago, where I could only walk in the Midway Plaisance—a wide boulevard with a fat-bellied, grassy middle—in Hyde Park. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Hyde Park and the Plaisance was a covered walk with concessions and private entertainment decked around it: markets from Algeria and Tunis, an ‘Indian’ village, an Oriental (Chinese) village and theatre, an Indian bazaar, a Moorish palace, a street in Cairo. The official guidebook told the white ‘walkers’ that they should expect to bump into an ‘Indian’ family making their bread or a Pathan sepoy waxing his moustache. Franz Boas, later to lead Columbia’s anthropology department, was the main force behind the 1893 Chicago Fair and had been hired by Frederic Putnam, then director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.

The 1893 guide was eager to walk through its ‘international’ heritage: the Crystal Palace of London 1851 to New York 1853 to Paris 1855 to London 1862 to Paris 1867 to Philadelphia 1876 to Paris 1878 to Sydney 1879 to Melbourne 1880 to Boston 1883 to Paris 1889 to Chicago 1893—colonial capitalism’s carefully coordinated cosmopolitanism. Each metropole picked an exhibition of collections of colonized people and things, which were placed, with planning and vision, amid representations of the Western world’s remarkable inventions. Tim Mitchell makes the point evocatively in Colonizing Egypt (1998) when he describes a group of visitors from Cairo at Paris’s 1889 World Exhibition being embarrassed by the imagined chaos, replicated alongside fifty imported donkeys. The donkeys, Mitchell notes, were so good at making chaos that their rides were restricted so as to keep their cacophony from intruding onto Paris’s grid. The memoir of a visitor notes the great confusion when a group of desi Indians started washing their laundry in Lake Michigan—a subaltern Western Ghat—causing great consternation among the white crowds. Their walk was spoiled.

At Chicago, I researched the native body (much like mine) put on display—as simulacra at a recreated zootrophic home, or in a cage—and thought of walking as the deliberate act that carries you up to them, slows you down as you approach, grinds you to a halt as your eyes begin their walk over that exposed flesh, and slowly restarts your legs to move away from them, just as your mind conjectures the next native in the next village and the demand for walking through all the native living rooms and bedrooms and bazaars and mosques and fields and farms keeps pulling you forward and forward through the Midway.

But all this research was just my fingers walking along spines of books. I could never walk in Chicago’s South Side: the pavement outside my window still had the blood print of a student shot to death. ‘Take a right when you leave the front door,’ the first words said to me by my neighbour, an anthropologist of China, ‘go left towards the campus.’ Violence made walking an impossibility, and so I never walked.

My grandfather was a walker. A farmer, he walked across partitioned Punjab in the autumn of 1947. When settled by the new state in the planned farms of Montgomery District, he walked daily from his gobar-thatched home to his little piece of farmland. When I was young, he visited Lahore but with great unease in his body and speech, from the brick and cement city that clawed his ankles. I remember his walking stick and I remember him vanishing every morning, early in the morning, for a walk from which he would return only when my mother had fully embraced her irritation. ‘He can’t just sit still. Look at his feet now all covered in dirt, mud and who knows what,’ she would tell me. I remember holding his walking stick and trying to imagine how amazing a walk would be with its weight in my hand. My grandfather visited only rarely, and when he died someone gave his walking stick to someone else and I have neither. I see him often walking.

I moved to Berlin, and I discovered that I could walk.. I walked and walked in Charlottenburg as it abutted Wilmersdorf. I stumbled upon, or discovered, the straße where Nabakov had walked and the plaza where a young Benjamin had pressed his forehead to a store display. I stumbled on the stolperstein1 and stopped to look at the homes of Jewish families. I discovered the Ahmadi mosque in Wilmersdorf, the minaret poking the blue sky without apology. In its basement, I saw the registers of the Berlin elite who visited the mosque alongside Ottoman dignitaries. Slowly, my walks became longer, wider. They spiraled. Wedding to Marzahn. Tempelhof to Tiergarten. The nervous walks of a brown Muslim man in Berlin.

I read Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, Guy Debord, Marcel Proust. The twentieth century’s walkers had strangely never turned left and never stumbled into the colony. I decided to teach a class on walking in order to get to this nagging absence of the colony in the walker’s stride. The first time I taught ‘Walking & Colonialism’ was in 2011. I taught that class for two years and then I moved to New York. I taught that class for several more years. In the class, we focused on what happened to the stride as the white men gazed at native bodies. We investigated the knowledges they accumulated and dispensed through their walks. We questioned the flourishing industry of books and novels on walking which exist in a weirdly apolitical and ahistorical mode. The class argued that walking was not about drifters and situationists, no. It was the space-become-colony that was walked and within which is rooted the European urban experience. It was to be an able-bodied, driven, white male—everyone else indolently role-playing.

In Pas à pas (1979, Step by Step, 2007), Jean-François Augoyard issued a method for walking between ‘conceived space’ and ‘lived space’. Augoyard’s is an interesting isnād2 to consider—upstream, Husserl, Perec, Deleuze and Lefebvre, and downstream, de Certeau and a range of American thinkers. Walks, daily walks, in an urban grid, walks that lay out the relationship between a praxis and an ontology dominate this isnād. Augoyard walked in that Paris grid in the aftermath of 1968. For the book, he went to southeast Grenoble, to a neighbourhood full of ‘Africans and Asians’. How did he get to Paris?

What is this relationship between colonialism and walking? It was led by walkers, though we have only imagined sailors as its forefathers. Yes, we know Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama and James Cook. But really, really, when it comes down to it, colonialism’s history is formed not only by the discovery of land mass but also by the walks of Cabeza de Vaca, Gaspar da Cruz, Thomas Coryat, Henry Blount, William Moorcroft, Richard S. Burton, T. E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, and on and on, until we can see someone like our contemporary Rory Stewart and realize that he stands on the shoulders of the giants of colonialism.

These men, as Coryat says, were the ‘walker forwards on foot’ for colonialism. They carried colonial power—its capitalist engine, its all-seeing eye—on their feet and narrated it for the sedentary scholars of London and mapped it for the military men in the colony. Their texts circled around the globe such that by the early twentieth century, they could uproot families and products from Asia and Africa to the Midway Plaisance so that white families could walk just as they once did and see just as they had read the sightseeing in their texts. It took 300 years for that circle to complete itself.

Thomas Coryat died in Surat in 1617 from dysentery. His Crudities, published posthumously, describes his walk from London to Lahore and further to Surat. Coryat wanted to get from the Mughal king Jahangir a letter of introduction to Tamerlane. Coryat, a courtier and a wag, thought it would be his ticket to riches and fame in London. ‘In my journey from Jerusalem to the court of the Great Mogul, I spent fifteen months and some days, travelling all the way a-foot, having been so great a propatetic or walker forwards on foot, as I doubt if you ever heard of the like’, he writes. Coryat learned Persian, and one day, he snuck up to the window during darshan and stuck up a conversation with Jahangir himself. Jahangir told him, Coryat reports, that Tamerlane will surely kill him if he goes to Samarkand and instead gave him ten pounds as appreciation for his labour. Coryat hastily notes that this deed was done in secret from the English Ambassador Thomas Roe who had been waiting in futility for an audience this whole time. Coryat was the walker as entrepreneur.

Henry Blount walked, in disguise, through Levant as a spy for King Charles I. Blount wanted to see: ‘Wherefore I desiring somewhat to informe my selfe of the Turkish Nation, would not sit downe with a booke knowledge thereof, but rather (through all the hazard and endurance of travell,) receive it from mine owne eye not dazled with any affection, prejudicacy, or mist of education, which preoccupate the minde, and delude it with partiall ideas, as with a false glasse, representing the object in colours, and proportions untrue’, he writes. Blount was the walker as company man. He walked to make sense of the world for his commission.

By the mid-seventeenth century, Coryat and Blount had set the templates for walkers—their gaze, their pace, their narration of space. The colonial gaze, we know about, was embedded in a colonial gait. Augoyard’s steps were on the flat-paved Parisian landscape which already had terraformed Algeria and Tunis.

Nowadays, there are reams of thinking on walking. Much of it bores me, though I do not say this with any derision. I know only that my thinking on walking, my walking, and what I wish to write about walking are peculiar and may be isolated from others. I am sure I am the outlier. I am to write a book on walking in Lahore, and I have not done any walking in Lahore in some years—specifically in the two years of the pandemic—my access to Lahore (the city) was thwarted even when I was physically in Lahore.

Instead, I have walked in New York, every day for two years, at an average of 12 kilometres a day. I have walked up and down the island of Manhattan, every avenue, every cross street.

When I first walked, I only looked down. Perhaps I had learned while walking in Lahore that a muhazzab3 stride was one where eyes were cast right ahead of the next step. One would avoid a shit, a puddle, a sewage drain, a rusted nail. It was also polite to not stare at those coming your way. Later I discovered that I catalogue gaits, walks and shoes—a rolling index decades long of shoes scuffed on the insides or ill-fitting sandals breaking into the skin. I remember walking in the Old City of Lahore and trying to see if the bricks were colonial era (they were mostly Ayub era).

I walk in New York largely with my eyes down, my mind sequestered. Sometimes I walk a walk from Lahore as I walk in New York. I try and pace myself, but it is hard because Lahore does not afford wide pavements and clean sweeps and it forces one’s gait to be looser, more hesitant, more prone to stopping. It is not advisable to walk with purpose in Lahore. It is not advisable to stroll in New York. Sometimes, I write Lahore as I walk New York.

I cannot narrate New York. I can tell you that you need to always be on the other side of the leashed dog or that to be fastest walker on any giving block is the only way to walk or that there are only four places to pee (in City Parks) for the entire length of Broadway (it runs from the top of the Manhattan to the tip). I can tell you that if you are on 72nd and Columbus, you will see a man with a large sheaf of dirty papers who asks to read you a poem in exchange for a dollar and you should listen to it. I can further give you the eleven points between 14th St and 96 St where a set of New Yorkers sleep on the pavement for two long years and they are always grateful for a fruit or bit of money, if you can spare. I can tell you that Fifth Avenue is the worst place to walk and that I think Lexington is a beautiful stretch (architecturally speaking). My daily walks have not given me any wisdom about New York and I know no stories (though yes, I have read at least a dozen books on walking in New York).

At the same time, my daily walks have imprinted New York on me. I literally know the cracks in the pavements. I know that when I start walking, it is only when I get to 86th Street that my body wakes up. I know only then that my walk has begun (and vice versa). Walking New York to write Lahore is not what I imagined I would end up doing, but writing Lahore without walking Delhi is also inconceivable, isn’t it? Wish me luck.

—Manan Ahmed Asif

Manan Ahmed Asif is a historian and walker. He is the author, most recently, of The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (2020). He teaches in New York City.

Cover image courtesy of the author.


1 Lit. stumbling blocks, these are memorial brass plaques, with the names and birth and death years of victims of the Holocaust, fixed to the ground, often close to an individual’s last known home.

2 A chain of transmission. Derived from ‘sanad’, lit. an authoritative document, proof or evidence. Most widely used for the transmission of credible reports in hadīs scholarship.

3 Well-mannered and refined. It has the same roots as ‘tahzīb’, which is often used to denote cultured and cultivated behaviour. 

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