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.
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.
A step in New York/A footfall in Lahore
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.
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?
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.
The hour from night to day. The hour from side to side. The hour for those past thirty. The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks. The hour when earth betrays us. The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars. The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us. The hollow hour. Blank, empty. The very pit of all… Continue reading Corona Diaries
There’s something about the street
‘I? I walk alone; The midnight street Spins itself from under my feet; When my eyes shut These dreaming houses all snuff out; Through a whim of mine Over gables the moon's celestial onion Hangs high.’ —‘Soliloquy of the Solipsist’, Sylvia Plath, 1956 ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’ —Jorge… Continue reading There’s something about the street
I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle…
I was gifted a cycle last year by a ‘cyclist’ friend but have used it only a couple of times, sometimes in a large park a few kilometres away from my house and a few times to buy vegetables and groceries closer home. Even as I had been warned by friends—part of a tiny minority… Continue reading I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle…
What she thinks when she thinks about walking
Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp in time tells me we’re not young. Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty, my limbs streaming with a purer joy? did I lean from any window over the city listening for the… Continue reading What she thinks when she thinks about walking
Red is not a colour
‘Color clings more, not necessarily to the object, but to territoriality...’ —Deleuze and Guattari ‘sab qatl hoke tere muqabil se aaye hain, hum log surkh-ru hain ki manzil se aaye hain’ (After being ambushed, we have returned to you, Unabashed we have come back home) —Faiz Ahmed Faiz Red is not a colour but a… Continue reading Red is not a colour
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 Streets come alive, bit by bit, step by step, as we trace our routes along them.… Continue reading Walking in circles