Beyond flânerie: expanding the horizons of walking, part I

Listicle: ‘prose in popsicle form: vertically arranged, quickly consumed, not too nutritious, but fun’1

This is the first in a new series we are starting on the blog called ‘Chiragh Dilli Listicles’. A combination of the terms ‘list’ and ‘article’, the listicle as a form of writing has long been popular in blogging and increasingly in social media and online news. Snubbed by some as a lazy form of writing aimed at easily distracted readers, there is, however, nothing about this form that prevents it from being literary, well-researched, or, for that matter, anything else. With no set conventions, the listicle is amenable to infinite experimentation and sub-genres. Notwithstanding the delicious analogy with a popsicle, we don’t want any definition of a listicle to limit how this series will shape. We hope to share serious and whimsical, long-winding and pithy, vertical and horizontal, nutritious and not-so-nutritious compilations of books, movies, songs, photos, sounds, observations, and thinking around the themes and ideas that this blog engages with. These listicles are neither meant to be comprehensive nor do they represent a hierarchy of ‘best of’ or ‘worst of’ recommendations. Through this series, we hope to build on and complement the archive of Chiragh Dilli with a set of compilations that people interested in similar topics might find useful to think with.


My journey of thinking about walking coincided with my doctoral research on the weekly bazaars of Delhi during the course of which I used walking as a primary technique of conducting fieldwork. This wasn’t something that I had planned in advance but rather emerged from the challenges of doing research in the very specific socio-material milieu of the bazaar. Weekly bazaars are open street markets that are densely packed with rows of shops, with narrow pathways along the shop fronts where customers, walkers, passersby, mobile street vendors, and even vehicles make their way. There is no space in the bazaar where you can sit (or for that matter stand) for an extended period to rest, observe, or conduct sedentary interviews without blocking the flows of people and activities of the bazaar. Being on the move on foot was the only way I could inhabit the space of the bazaar over extended periods of time. So, I walked in the bazaar, both alone and with its regular customers, repeatedly over the course of two years of fieldwork. This made it possible for me to tune into and learn from the diverse movements that go into the making of the bazaar. 

While I have been walking the city of Delhi for over two decades now, I never thought much of it, regarding it as just something I did in the course of living in the city, even as it has not always been easy or pleasurable. The intensity of conducting fieldwork on foot as also an attempt to understand how and why people walk in the bazaars led me on a journey of exploring the literature on walking and of reflecting and writing on my walking practice as well as that of other city dwellers. This ongoing journey has involved a lot of back and forth, going around in circles, moving quickly and slowing down, stopping and starting over, momentum and fatigue, excitement and boredom. 

Over the past decade, I have been reading and collecting books on walking across genres. I started off with reading the most renowned and frequently referenced proponents of walking, such as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit, Jane Jacobs, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Walter Benjamin. I then moved on to the literature within the discipline of anthropology in an attempt to understand how walking as a body technique is intertwined with everyday life, cultural contexts, social activities, and larger structures. While there’s much to learn from any text on walking, about people, times, places, I have a certain discomfort with the realization that the literature on walking, whether in the form of narratives, fiction, histories, or manifestos, is overwhelming from a Western context. Moreover, this body of literature often conceptualizes walking as intrinsically subversive, desirable, special, and/or worthy of emulation. This discomfort has led me to seek out books on walking in non-Western contexts, especially South Asian. The idea behind this is not to uncover more ‘authentic’ modes of walking but rather to understand the situatedness of walking in particular kinds of places, people, and practices. It is instead to draw attention to and learn from ways of walking that don’t neatly fall into the categories most overrepresented in the literature on walking: flâneuring, loitering, leisure, an art form, an experiment. This listicle of six books, written in two parts, is a tiny fragment from my archive of books on walking in various Indian contexts. 

Jamlo Walks, Samina Mishra, with illustrations by Tarique Aziz (2021, Puffin Books)

One of the most disturbing images from India of the Covid-19 pandemic, following the sudden and severe lockdown imposed on 25 March 2020, was of the exodus of migrant workers to their native places on foot. These workers walked thousands of kilometres, often without food and water, with many (there are no official estimates though) not making it on account of exhaustion, starvation, or road accidents. These images of people walking—in groups and alone, with meagre belongings, fear, bewilderment, and the hope to get home—thwarted any romantic ideas that one might associate with walking. Like with all calamities, natural or man-made, it is always the most vulnerable who suffer the most. And the Covid-19 pandemic was no exception to this rule—it exacerbated and multiplied already existing social prejudices, state apathy, and deeply entrenched inequalities. Yet, it is important to remember what happened and what it revealed to us about us. It is important to remember, especially in times when history is continuously being rewritten even as it is unfolding, when our attention gets quickly distracted by the next breaking news, when it’s difficult to hold on to empathy in the midst of a brokenness that has become banal. Tender and disturbing, Jamlo Walks tells us to remember through the story of a walk during the pandemic by twelve-year-old Jamlo Makdam. It raises questions that are difficult to grapple with: Who gets to stay, and who has to be on the move? Who belongs and where? Who does not have a choice but to walk? When the skies are blue, who are they blue for? What if the journey is not the destination? 

The closing lines of Jamlo Walks haunt me: ‘The road is still long. The people are still walking.’ These lines will make the reader wonder whether they refer to specific moments in the monumental event that the Covid-19 pandemic was or to the struggle of all the people who continue walking not for the pleasure of the journey but to escape, to survive, in the hope of making it somewhere.2

Walking is a Way of Knowing: In a Kadar Forest, Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi, with illustrations by Matthew Frame (2017, Tara Books)

This book takes you along walks with the Kadar people, a forest-dwelling tribe of the Anamalai Hills in south India, as the authors learn what it means to navigate this terrain with its unpredictable winding paths that shift shape over the course of a day and different seasons. It provides a glimpse into how the Kadars relate to their milieu, even though the forests have not remained the same over the last 200 years. While the book focuses on the specificities of the ways of life of the Kadars, in which the practice of walking is central, it has several insights that are significant in challenging certain dominant perspectives on walking and in providing an alternative lens to approach walking, not just in the forest but also other places. 

The first insight the book provides is that walking is never about individual idiosyncrasies alone. How people walk (for instance, with a swinging rhythm or in contrived strides) is modulated by the characteristics of the path being walked: its width, its textures, and the physical and natural elements that make the path and its surroundings. Simultaneously, paths are also shaped by the people who walk them continuously: ‘the Kadar paths are confident, well-worn and wide. The Malai Malasars’ are shy, rarely more than narrow, grassy trails…making it hard for anyone else to pursue them.’

Second, walking is rarely a solitary activity. There are many among the Kadar people who walk in twos and threes in the forest.3 But even those among them who walk alone are not really walking alone. The spirits of their ancestors, birds, animals, trees, and water bodies, among other elements, all provide company to the forest people on their walks and also serve as way-finding guides. People also continuously share new routes they discover with each other and try out each other’s discoveries, adding to their knowledge of the forest and its paths. 

Third, there is no inherent virtue in getting lost while walking, contrary to what many writings on walking make a case for. Getting lost in the forest can cost you your life. Hence, just knowing a path is not enough. It is equally important to know how the path cuts across the hill, so that you can take a different route when you find a gaur or elephant on the path, or walk by avoiding certain paths which are infested with leeches in the monsoon. You walk carefully and attentively, not just with your feet but your entire body and all your senses, smelling, listening, and touching your way in and out of the forest.

Finally, there is no such thing as walking for the sake of walking. While the Kadar people like exploring the forest out of curiousity or for fun, walking is always a serious activity of building on the knowledge of the forest and of how to traverse it. The feet continuously record what they feel with each step—every stone, every exposed root, and every slippery stretch—building on a map of the area, which then guides you home safely across seasons and even in the dark. To be able to do so, however, as Padma (a Kadar woman) says, it ‘takes many years, a clear memory and strong legs!’ 

The understanding (or celebration) of walking as a subversive activity, which appropriates a modernist spatial order, has had a long legacy in writings on walking.4 Walking is a Way of Knowing challenges this perspective by showing that walking has certain rules and that walking can become a way of knowing only if it is also a way of doing. Outside the forest, in cities, for instance, can one walk in any which way, or are there limits to what rules can be subverted? Are all rules of walking in a city only imposed from outside? Or do they perhaps also emerge from the characteristics of the place being traversed and the practice of walking itself?

Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali (2007, Rupa Publications, first published by
Hogarth Press, 1940)

Twilight in Delhi has been among my favourite novels set in Delhi and also of Indian writing in English. Set in 1910–19 Delhi, in the setting of colonialism, the novel is a nostalgic and political chronicle of a world in decay and disintegration, of a melancholic and fragile city grappling with memory and loss. It was only when I reread the book some years back that I realized how central walking is to the novel’s narrative, which moves forward with the (male) characters5 traversing the streets of Delhi on foot. In the account of a particular day, the patriarch Mir Nihal is making his way down Chandni Chowk towards the Clock Tower. As he walks through Balli Maran, the street of druggists and hakims, the smell makes him worry about his ill mistress Baban Jan, his own ageing, and the possibility of death. As he continues to walk, he sometimes pauses to exchange greetings with people and at other times keeps walking to avoid conversation with some. Sheikh Mohammad Sadiq, a gold thread maker, notices Mir Nihal passing by his shop and walks up to greet him and tags along with him, all the while discussing a marriage proposal. Not only are social encounters and relationships enacted along Mir Nahal’s walk, with sights, smells, and sounds triggering feelings, but also walking reveals the street and its characters to us, and sets the street in motion. Inside Mir Nahal’s house, the street walks up to the house through the comings and goings of various street characters: the cries of the parched gram vendor, the tap-tapping of the beggar’s bamboo stick on the paved street, and the water-carriers who bring in water to the household. These wandering characters maintain the rhythm of the everyday life of the household. 

The novel foregrounds the quotidian ways of dwelling in the city in which walking plays an unassuming yet significant role. This is an important perspective because most writings tend to present walking as something set apart from ordinary life, as a break, an event, a special artistic or politically subversive activity, rather than examining the ways in which it is bound with ordinary life and its forms of sociality.

Interestingly, Twilight in Delhi was first published by Hogarth Press, a publishing house founded by Virginia Woolf (with her husband), who loved walking in different landscapes. Woolf’s writing was shaped and animated by observations from and thinking done during her walks, and walking is a central theme in most of her writing across genres: essays, novels, letters, and diary entries. Much like in Twilight in Delhi, walking in Woolf’s writing is not just a spectacular and defiant activity but also bound with domesticity and daily routines. The novel also has another similarity with Woolf’s writing, especially her novel Mrs Dalloway—the internal lives of its characters as well as the plot of the novel unfold in the course of walks.

(to be continued)

—Samprati Pani

Cover image: Pedestrians crossing the road at a major junction in Shivaji Nagar, Pune.
Photograph by Swati Pathak.

Complement with Samprati Pani’s ‘There’s something about the street’, a piece in which the ordinary lives of street characters and of the writer are revealed through walking.



2. On 26 March this year, Katar Majhi, Budu Majhi, and Bhikari Majhi embarked on a week-long journey on foot from Bengaluru, where they had been working for a month as construction workers without receiving any payment from the contractor who had hired them. After being beaten up for demanding their wages, they decided to walk 1,000 miles to their homes in Kalahandi district in Odisha, with no money in their pockets, making do with whatever help they received on the way from strangers. Walking has been and continues to be what people resort to, in ordinary and extraordinary times, when there’s little else they can rely on.

3. This is much like people walking in the city, though most walking narratives focus on and privilege solitary walking, with little attention given to the social aspects of walking: How do people walk with other people or in the presence of other people? How is walking learnt in the context of a milieu?

4. The most influential and widely cited text from this perspective is Michel de Certeau’s essay, ‘Walking in the City’, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984, University of California Press).

5. In the time that the novel is set, women largely remained confined to the zenana, with prostitutes and a tiny proportion of street vendors being the only women who had a presence on the street. Twilight in Delhi also beautifully captures the rhythms, yearnings, and tyrannies of everyday life in the zenana. 

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