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.
Is love and concern for writing and for cities enough to continuously create, manage, steer, and run something? And what is this ‘something’? The blog is just the form, but what is it that I am, we are, making? Is it an archive that holds together a scatter of words woven into stories connecting space–times? Is it a process of collaborative thinking and doing? Is it a ‘meeting place’, much like the street corner, where ideas, people, and relationships intersect, partly by intentionality and partly by chance?
The shared auto in Bhubaneswar is a self-evidently polyglot space than any other place in the city, with the possible exception of a general class railway compartment. You also hear stories, like that of the battering, that you would rarely hear elsewhere. What is it about the enclosed space of a shared auto rickshaw that invites this willingness to expose oneself? I do not know.
What makes a footpath?
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? 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.
Far from disappearing, pedlars have a pervasive presence in cities—around busy intersections such as traffic signals, metro stations, tourist spots, bus terminals, railway stations, religious places, public parks and monuments; within residential localities, neighbourhood markets and industrial areas; outside office complexes, educational institutions, hospitals, shopping centres and even malls and supermarkets. They ply an entire gamut of trades from knife-sharpening, shoe polishing, miracle cures and ear-cleaning to providing chai and snacks, as also a wide range of commodities. This essay is a response to the images captured by Gopal in his city Mumbai, from the location of my interest as an anthropologist in forms of walking in the city as well as the associational life of streets around the locus of economic activities.
The city, in love
The two pieces included in this post are part of a book in progress that Sailen is writing, comprising a series of Odia short stories set in Bhubaneswar. The stories are around the theme of ephemeral and routine encounters of love, or its possibility, located in places that serve as public and private landmarks of everyday life in the city.
When is qasbah?
The Kasba of my childhood was never a destination, let alone a subject of interest or enquiry. Nearly two decades later, when I arrived in a qasbah in Uttar Pradesh, I had learnt to spell it with a ‘q’, the Latin equivalent of the Arabic qaf. I had also learnt a few other things about it as a student of history. Broadly, the qasbah was distinct from a shahr (city) and often emerged around the qila (fort) of a military commander. In some parts of the Islamic world, the qila itself was called a qasbah. Historians have variously translated the qasbah as ‘small township’, ‘commercial mart’, ‘between a village and a city’ and ‘garrison town’. Indeed, qasbah has implied different kinds of settlements in different places at different points in time, and these meanings are accessed through the lenses of those who wrote about these settlements ‘not as points or areas on maps, but as integrations of space and time; as spatio-temporal events’.
Mumbai’s migrant gods
Thousands of shrines of varying sizes reside in the streets of Mumbai. These shrines act as markers of new settlements and localities. Most of them represent and embody the identity of the people who brought them here. But more often than not, they hold together the hopes and aspirations of migrant communities as they navigate the precarity of the life worlds that a city like Mumbai generates. The shrines act as magnets, drawing together people with shared backgrounds and attracting sometimes a set of new believers. They belong to different streams of faith, ranging from organized religions to folk, tribal and occupational forms of worship. Many of these are exclusively cared for by women like the Velankanni Matha shrines. On the other hand, roadside Hanuman shrines seem to be a favourite of young migrant men who live alone or in groups in the city.
The future in Delhi’s present
Different parts of the city hold different meanings for those who come to live in it. The footpath to a bus stop in East Delhi, the view of Purana Qila from a mudrika, the first ice cream at India Gate, a market, a park, a housing colony, a route or a stop accumulate to make the city for us, and in strange and invisible ways also make us. Yet, we continue to exist in ourselves and in cities in this constant play of the visible and ever-changing present, jousting constantly with our memories and our present navigating through a place.
Can the new be experienced in all its dizzying and excessive newness, or do we continuously fall back on the crutches of familiarity, no matter how inept or even obsolete? Is it inevitable that we carry the burdens—of our familiar selves, homes and not-quite-homes, cities and lives—when we walk the path that can lead anywhere because we haven’t walked it ever before?
The night jasmine
I notice the night jasmine in front of my house in Bhubaneswar, after many years, when it gets infested with termites. The insects have woven a second skin around the tree. I hate termites. They eat books. I break a twig—as long as my forearm and as thin as Rumi’s little finger—from the guava tree that grows just beside the night jasmine. I don’t remember whether I planted the night jasmine or if it has grown on its own.
A view from across the river
On the face of it, Patparganj’s apartments appear to be small islands, each holding together a set of people with a shared social background. And there are apartment dwellers, who manage to unlook and avoid the sea of life the islands are surrounded by, through the blinkers of their class and aspirations, shopping for vegetables and eating street food from the evasive confines of their cars or seeking the ‘happening city’ elsewhere. Yet, life here, as I have come to experience over the years, does not inevitably have to be one of isolated living confined to the apartments.