What makes a footpath?

‘The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.’
The Leftovers, HBO TV series 

What makes the foot feel the foot? What makes a footpath, a walking path? What goes into making the ground beneath your feet yours? What does it take for a footpath to make walking a choice and not a constraint?

In the city of Pune, an assortment of geometrical, designed, plain and painted blocks make a footpath, in a marked distinction from the cemented paver blocks of Delhi or the drain covers in Bengaluru that double up as pavements. Some footpaths in Pune are built in a way that they never achieve their destiny—they are rendered obsolete by wheels prevailing over walks and aspirations prevailing over needs. Yet, the city is equally dotted with footpaths that not only fulfil their destiny but also go beyond it, annotating walking journeys with arresting allure and promising pause.

The geometrical blocks on footpaths in the Cantonment areas of Pune can be found paved in the city’s railway platforms, hinting at the central government’s stock for road and transport. Elsewhere in the city, carved imprints of leaves and chance imprints of dog paws on huge cement blocks make one pause and think of all the beings and things that belong to a footpath. The hopscotch and snakes and ladders games designed on certain footpaths invite pedestrians, making the act of walking fun for once rather than an act of daredevilry that it usually is. The colourful tessellated pavements with terra and shahabad tiles in many areas of the city imitate the more private yet shared living spaces, turning the city into a housing complex and its streets into courtyards.

In streets, just as in life and books, margins are birthed out of a need for order and a need to clearly define what is permitted and what is not. However, once drawn, margins also hold the plump promise of possibilities by carving out a space and identity of their own that belongs to neither of the things they separate. The ordinary (rather, pedestrian) footpaths documented in this photo essay shift the focus from the celebrated and consistently developed centre to the ignored and faded margins of the city, making sidewise gleams at the multiple experiences nestling here possible.

When I pause to gaze at these paw- and foot-prints, I see in them reminders of the different beings—well-heeled and bare-heeled—who belong to the footpath. The sunlight reveals to me the shadow of things and beings that may or may not exist anymore, and of moments that will never be repeated. It will take many episodes of rainfall, several years of wear and tear, before the concrete is splashed again, and someone happens to step on it while it is still wet. As I move forward, I get a feeling that when the pooch would have prowled here, the footpath would have presented itself as a mishmash of multifarious loitering odours, all carefully sniffed and registered by the keen-scented being. 

The footpath is an evolving record of the beings who have walked, smelt, seen and heard it. 

I can barely listen to the steady beats of my footsteps against the cacophony of moving vehicles, blaring horns and construction work. But then, I chance upon a street where I can see them! Every time I’m on this street, my foot inadvertently approaches these blocks of palm and foot, trying to fit my own in these permanent moulds. These childish, repetitive attempts turn my rhythm of walking into a play, with the feet flying, hobbling and limping through this peripatetic stretch. By the tenth visit to this street, my walk has learnt to tune out these visual notes to the kinetic music of footsteps. I simply whizz past, with these designs and patterns blurring in the background.

The footpath is a relic to the endangered human activity of walking.

It always comes as a surprise when I find myself on a footpath with games. Such footpaths suddenly expand the usually slender repertoire of a walker’s agency, adding the fourth dimension of interaction, a welcome change from the drudgery of mere obstruction or decoration. With a creative digression, this social footpath takes me out of my private zone and beyond walking as a singular activity. I interact and play with others. Sometimes I win, but mostly I stumble, and then simply get back on course and continue apace. 

The footpath is a stumbling block to stasis.

I look down with attention, and I see a case study in confused communication. Is it a memory, a dream or something in between? Is it invoking a vibrant life or a violent death? Is it an evil path haunted by dead leaves or a holy one, where the memorial to beautiful lively leaves rests? The leaves seem to be patiently waiting for a waltz of wind or a swoosh of footsteps that never arrives. 

The footpath is a journal chronicling the travails of all kinds of travellers.

The colour of thoughts that populate my mind are reflected in the blocks that constellate my path. These blocks are the disappearing faces of urban footpaths as concrete actions1 of development in different cities2 are tearing asunder the fabric of a past that’s not only beautiful but also functional. I document these details lest they vanish if I were to just walk on them. I record the things I give—thoughts, time, taste—when I take a walk.

The footpath is a palimpsest of markings and erasures. 

With pets, alcohol, wheelchairs, bicycles, stroller babies and skaters prohibited from gardens in the city, I’m surprised that my naked feet and feelings are allowed inside the optical bliss that these gardens are. Gardens and parks were the first spaces to be closed down every time Covid-19 restrictions were rolled out during 2020–21, and also the last to be opened up. In the few days they were open to the public, they were encumbered with a slew of restrictions. 

The footpath is a museum of prohibitions. 

The footpath was colourful but narrow when I saw it last. Somewhere, someone would have also experienced the daily despair of walking on a footpath that is not conducive to movement. Perhaps, an aware individual would have realized that its width is not as per the city’s street guidelines and raised a complaint. In a bid to put on a brave front, funds and material would have been scrambled together overnight and championed in the newspapers the following day. The footpath is still a medley of colours, but my steps totter down this stretch, balancing its now gracious width.

The footpath is an afterthought, a footnote to the city’s vehicle-centric planning. 

The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground, a ground that provides room for stance as much as swing—an average step is 62 per cent stance or contact with the ground and 38 per cent swing, meaning no contact with the ground. At the same time, the foot feels the foot when it feels a stumble or an ache, just as one feels the head only when one has a headache. 

The ground beneath my foot feels mine when the footpaths morph from barely there and hardly noticeable street elements into characteristic, flavourful parts of the city, with each of them having a different sound of welcome. Some sigh open to me, while others are unbothered. Some yield a celebration, some a lament. Some are obscure, while others, the stars of the street. 

And finally, what makes a footpath, a walking path—the curse of meaning conferred on the margins! For it is these margins that make the madness and roar of traffic tolerable and the fear of crossing the road less intimidating. It is because of these margins that the hum and cough of footsteps can co-exist with the whines and whistles of wheels in the everchanging streetscape. I still wonder if I escape to these margins or find my escape in them. What I am certain of is that they are an infinite scroll, with my experiences and reflections painted all over them.

—Swati Pathak

All images © Swati Pathak, unless specified otherwise.

Complement Swati’s essay with Samprati Pani’s ‘What she thinks when she thinks about walking’ on the private intentions, itineraries and iterations that constitute her relationship with walking and the city.

Notes

  1. Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has time and again rolled out policies to concretize all city footpaths wider than 2 metres and do away with paver blocks, arguing that chipped blocks lead to injuries. 
  2. Increasingly, tar roads are being replaced by concrete roads in different cities of India without duly taking into account the Indian Road Congress (IRC) norms. For details on how this is happening in Pune, see https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/concrete-road-network-to-spread-wings-in-pmc-limits/articleshow/89381032.cms, accessed on 14 November 2022.

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