Flaneuse in an Indian city
By Yamini Krishna
Susan Buck-Morris writes, “I mean this: the flaneur was simply the name of a man who loitered; but all women who loitered risked being seen as whores, as the term “street-walker” or “tramp” applied to women makes clear.”
The concept of flaneur has gained prominence through the writings of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, who looked at the figure that leisurely walked through the city consuming its sights and spectacles with detachment as the figure of modernity; a figure who could experience the city. As several scholars like (Susan Buck-Morris, Anne Friedberg, etc.) have argued a flaneur is a male figure. They have gone to define the female flaneur, a flaneuse. We currently live in a society which is much farther from the early modernity and Parisian arcades when this concept was first defined, but the idea has much wider significance even in the current society. In this article, I attempt to imagine the art of flanerie in the contemporary Indian city. It oscillates between being an autobiographical note to a manifesto. Flaneur has often been described as a part of the elite; this essay written in English also addresses mostly the educated English reading women.
Being a flaneuse in any city, particularly an Indian city is not easy. The streets are owned by the normative heterosexual male; for women and gender non-binary individuals, streets often turn to be alien spaces, where one is stared at and watched. It is almost impossible to observe the city and soak in its experience without first being watched. The patriarchal society doesn’t allow for the pleasures of loitering without a purpose to women. The leisurely walk of a flaneuse has to always be cognizant of the time of the day, the availability of transport, the people walking around, etc. The walk often turns to be a navigation avoiding being groped or harassed. The woman is looked at as an anomaly on street. She constantly has to prove the reason for her being there. Women are taught that ‘outdoors’ are not the space for her, the reasons ranging from safety, beauty, harshness of the streets are cited to keep the women out of the streets. Concerns of safety are often used as tools to drive away the poor and unwanted from the neo-liberal cities. The accessibility to the streets differs for an upper class woman from that of the lower class woman. The lower class women hardly have the scope to avoid the streets as the street often is their workspace but in spite of that the pleasures of a leisurely walk are not accessible even to them. Given this condition, flanerie gains the position of being a political statement.
I see flanerie as a way to engage with the world, a way for women to loosen the shackles of gender and find solidarity in the wider sphere. Keeping women off the street is also a way to keep the societal structures intact, lest she might fall in love with the unintended (read lower caste, lower class, etc.) or form solidarity with the unwanted. I also see the distaste towards walking on the streets and stepping down from the high class pedestal as a contributor to the cementing of the class disparities. If one doesn’t even see the poor, the weak, and the disadvantaged, then how does one think about them and think about one’s own self in relation to the world. For the discerning, walking the streets can be an education. Walking the streets can be a path to understanding one’s own privileges.
Yes the streets are a harsh space, yes you will be groped several times, there might be a few assaults, there will be a hundred people telling you to not take the risk or take some company with you but the fight is to claim the space that is rightfully ours. With every moment of our life being defined by being useful, the act of leisure and purposeless walk is an act of rebellion. The space in itself would never allow for this, but the trick is to make the anomaly the new norm, to make the space conducive, to build new ways of being. Flanerie can thus be a first step to the very own personal revolution, the symbolic stepping out.
Streets of the city are spaces of historic importance, these spaces where the fights against injustice were fought; these were also the very same spaces where several dissenting voices were silenced. Being on the streets in one way is being a part of the history. These battlegrounds of history are carefully guarded by patriarchy; unless the walls are broken down, history will continue to be silent on women. Virginia Woolf had written that a woman can achieve something worthwhile only when she has a room of one’s own and five hundred pounds a year. Woolf’s assertion is also about the denial of history to women, denial of space to her. I would extend this to argue that along with a room of one’s own she also has to claim the space on the streets to be something worthwhile.
I find hope in being a flaneuse, may be a few more of my girl friends would loiter around with me, maybe there would be a day when we could all stand by that corner café and share a chai irrespective of the class, caste, religion, and gender boundaries. May be as we see each other more, we would not remain abstract categories and be more tolerant towards each other; may be when we walk on that non-existent pathetic footpath we become citizens on an equal footing for at least a moment; may be my levels of empathy would go up; maybe there would be a day when the tramp, the prostitute, the street walker, and the flaneuse will all be one. If not for any of these glorious possibilities, maybe I can exchange a few smiles from the fellow sapiens.
No, walking the streets doesn’t offer a solution to the world’s problems but it could be one step towards understanding them, one step towards opening one’s eyes.
For once I will keep my education aside
And exercise my feet
Through the chaos of the street
For they have been rusted
With aeons of inaction
May be it’s time for them to breathe
May be it’s time for the epoch to change
Let me stroll a bit
And watch what that can do
Yamini Krishna is a PhD scholar at the department of Film Studies, English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad. She works on the history of cinema in Hyderabad.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.