Stories on the Road
‘You’re going to walk? But why?’
It’s a rhetorical question and yet the ‘why not?’ almost always slips its way out in response. Sometimes this is accompanied by an eye-roll. Has walking always been a socio-political consideration for the unescorted woman? It wouldn’t merit the numerous questions if it wasn’t, would it?
I walk down familiar streets.
A gulmohar tree once commanded presence, where the gates of a housing society now offer a portal to the bevy of cement-mixer trucks. A bus-stop that didn’t exist does now to cater to the needs of a smooth commute for the new residents. A shrine has made way for a four-lane road and the skywalk robs the charm of walking through the cacophony of a bazaar.
To walk is to notice the imposters among what was once familiar.
To walk is to also re-establish your connection with the physical world that has increasingly become more virtual.
I walk down unfamiliar streets, too. It does for me what Google Maps cannot – it helps me build a relationship with the places I am in.
Three years ago, I was in Patna on an assignment. It was my first – the visit to Patna, not the assignment. The reputation that comes from being a part of India’s notorious north preceded the city. My mental afflictions got the better of my physical self. To shake that feeling off ahead of the work week, I decided to walk. I stepped out, did a mental coin-toss, took the left, and just kept on walking. It was a Sunday morning in the month of January. The city was still waking up in bits and pieces – the shutters still hesitant to go up. There was a scant population on the streets, and most of the people out seemed to be layered in their woollens. That wasn’t helping brush off my trepidation at all. I looked at my phone to check on the time, then swung around 180 degrees and walked back to my living quarters, where a few people from around the neighbourhood were gathered. I was introduced to them by my host, when someone said: ‘Yes, we saw you walking down the street a while ago.’ And just like that, something within me began to thaw. I had stepped out to make familiar the unfamiliar. Little did I realize I’d made myself a bit familiar, too.
Nine months later, I was in Udaipur with a friend. I was charmed at first sight. The city of lakes and ghats held a special attraction for me. The old city demands that you ditch the tuk-tuk in favour of bi-pedal locomotion. Lanes and by-lanes beg you to surrender yourself to their ways and promise you some anonymity in return. We would walk and still show up at the centre of the town no matter what direction our gut made us follow. It makes me think that they don’t make places like that anymore where the ghats, lined with houses on either side, feel like secret hallways. Where, while walking uphill towards the town, motifs and artwork at the entrance of some of the houses help take away the attention from a partially asphyxiated lung. And where, walking downhill is made more pleasant by Pichola herself. Places where sweet mart shops and local mom-and-pop stores transport you back to a time, when departmental stores did not depersonalise your grocery-shopping experience. Where the streets are teeming with conversations – there’s more life out here, undoubtedly.
‘Madam, only two hundred rupees.’
Madam has a mind of her own; a mind that has been made up. The body wants to walk and have the pleasure of meeting an acquaintance from another town. But Fort Kochi was stupefied and wanted to know why Madam wouldn’t oblige. After all, what kind of ‘outsider’ walks? That’s not what tourists are supposed to do.
Nevertheless, I walked.
My inner Grammar-nerd crawls out of the woodwork every now and then. She’s had her fun noticing many a misspelt signage like ‘No Refual’ – missing an ‘s’ – painted across a taxi in Kolkata. Or ‘Laddies’ – accompanied by an extra ‘d’ – outside a women’s toilet outside the Gir Forest National Park. We – my inner Grammar-nerd and I – strolled alongside each other in Fort Kochi too – only to eat the humble pie much later. The streets here have names that have a history which goes beyond mere pandering of people with influence. So while the Burgher Street is related to nothing dietary (even though at times it may be spelt as Burger Street), it actually refers to those who had been set free from their landlords and had voting rights. The people who lived on this street did not work for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (or VOC also known as the Dutch East India Company). They were a free people. They made a living on their own and men got married to women with Portuguese blood. Similarly Petercelli Street is named so because it is the Dutch word for parsley, a herb. It is believed that this might have been an area where a vegetable market would have functioned. As it would turn out, ‘Princes Street’ refers not to a misspelt singular feminine gender but the plural masculine gender in honour of Dutch Princes Maurits and Wilhelm. The English – who succeeded the Dutch – with their pronunciation and diction may be the reason why it now sounds and also at times could get spelt as the singular feminine!
Laden with the vestiges of all things colonial, Fort Kochi with its cobbled paths and stonemasonry offers the curious walker a peek into remnants of footprints left behind by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and even various tourists to the place – all within a radius of 4 kilometres.
What rickshaw ride could satiate the urge for these stories that could be found only through walking?
The mention of colonial vestiges however intricately reminds one of the cities of Kolkata and Mumbai.
It is to the city of Mumbai that I owe my foremost devotion of unescorted walking to. This is where my walks began and then stopped being a purely functional activity before evolving into something more. Mumbai is where the camouflage between a functional walker and a recreational walker is most stark. And yet, for someone lurking in the grey areas between the two polarities, there is no dead giveaway. The city honours your need for anonymity, almost to a fault sometimes.
I pour myself out of the very Victorian Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus ever so often. It’s the only way you can make your way out. Over the years, I have graduated from being the contributor to now being a connoisseur of the phenomenon. Birders might disagree, but those like me could be compared to starlings on foot. We peter out in the directions our financial compass points us to. Head out to the left and you’re a part of the white collared folks with their office bags slung across their chests. Head out to the right and you’re a part of the daily wage earners’ club.
A resident of the city, it was only as a XI grader at St. Xavier’s College when I began exploring the city on foot. From being that 15-year-old, who would sprint from Max Mueller Bhavan at Kala Ghoda to make it in time for a lecture, I’ve made it to the present-day self-anointed flaneur who walks from the Fort to the Sassoon Docks Art Project, simply because there is something riveting about taking a pause in the chaos.
But where Mumbai is about putting a finger on the pause in the chaos, Kolkata felt a lot like trying to put a finger on the chaos in the pause. Two cities on opposite sides of the country carry their colonial reputation with much élan, albeit in their own idiosyncratic ways.
I arrived at the City of Joy in the month of March right after I had wrapped up my project in Patna, where I had missed the Sun. The winters of the north live up to their reputation of being gloomy and grey. A native of the coast that I am, I knew the air of Kolkata carried with it something familiar. But humidity aside, I felt less encumbered to walk the streets while acquainting myself with the cousin city of Kolkata; because just like with Mumbai, the streets of Kolkata had been very welcoming. Never once was I made to feel like an outsider. If anything, I would get spoken to in Bengali – a language I don’t speak – presumably because I was perceived as someone from the state, if not the city.
It was a day that was supposed to begin with an organized walk that somehow didn’t materialise. So I created my own trail which was easy as there wasn’t so much of a destination or a route that I had in mind, except the fact that I was keen to explore Calcutta on foot (with little or no help from a map or a taxi for that matter).
I started off at the Hazra Crossing in the south and walked along the Sarat Bose Road (off Maddox Square) on to the Loudon Street soaking in the sun and the sights around. If anything, I started to find the street names rather interesting (and sometimes entertaining).
Painted white and blue, the pavements were as pavements should be – broad, unrestricted and clean (something the Mumbaikar in me had seldom, if ever, previously experienced). A quick bite off the street later, I decided to hop into a bus to head to Synagogue Street north of the city. I forget the number of times I circumnavigated the same spot until Ispotted a tiny gate that led me to not one but two of the three synagogues in present-day Kolkata – The Neveh Shalome (built in 1831) and the Maghen David Synagogue (built in 1884).
That morning I learnt that a majority of the Jews in Calcutta came from Baghdad. A caretaker at the Neveh Shalome synagogue (which means ‘oasis of peace’) was kind enough to open up the synagogue. From him I learnt that the last marriage officiated within the premises of the synagogue was in 1982 and that there are about 30 Baghdadi Jews in present-day Kolkata.
Next, I made my way to the South Park Cemetery (also known as the Park Street Cemetery). A thought I was left with after walking through the many tombs was that while life itself is unpredictable, death is no different – for almost everyone who was buried here was European (in all probability from the days of the East India Company in India). A cemetery for a people of not only a different era but even a different continent! Makes a curious mind wonder whether the generations that followed wanted to know about their ancestors and where they were lived (and died).
Ola and Uber have not been able to change how much (or little) I walk. Google Maps has not changed the routes I take my walks on. There is more than a tinge of discovery in being lost that walking affords to the one who dares to wander off.
Aizawl has been one such instance. It had been a dilemma around savouring the most I could within the under 48 hours I had in hand while in the state. Needless to say, I chose to walk to one sole destination. This was the walk to Solomon’s Temple at the outskirts of the city – one that I had some trouble navigating my way too, in spite of Google Maps and I had the pleasure of bumping into 14-year-old Sangeeta. A Mizo local, Sangeeta was on her way to delivering milk to the houses in the neighbourhood, when she found me looking somewhat lost. It was one thing to choose to walk 10 kilometres because you wanted to enhance your experience of a place. It is quite something else to have to run errands regularly at such distances. Quite naturally I asked if this is something she did every day and she responded, ‘The walk is good for me. Anyway, I am so fat. This way there’s hope that I’ll lose some of this weight.’
There was something of a disdain that I picked in her tone.
A disdain towards her body.
A disdain that made me very uncomfortable.
‘But you’re a child. You’re not supposed to feel like this about yourself!’ I couldn’t stop myself from blurting that out aloud. But someone had already made her feel ‘bad’ about her physicality. I was a random stranger and I was not going to be able to rewrite her inner narrative!
‘So why have you come to Aizawl? Where are you from? Is this your first time?’ she had a string of questions. It was as if the words I’d uttered to take away the shame she felt towards her body never reached her ears. I had to let it be and reconcile with that.
We talked about Big Boss, which was her favourite show on TV. She talked about school – her favourite teachers, her friends, the extra-curricular activities she was a part of. She was pretty neat company to have, if you ask me. On the other hand, would I have had my first hand encounter on understanding how much television had penetrated the lives of a people whose native language wasn’t the same as the one they were watching on screen?
For all the anonymity it is able to extend, walking almost always induces a reaction. Walking in new places invites getting stared at because ‘outsiders’ don’t walk like the way locals do. On the other hand, walking in your home city invites stares too because locals know they can’t take luxurious curious walks!
To me, walking always remains a meditation, my almost contrived manner of mindfulness that paces out rather wonderfully the tabs of my mind in an immensely distracting world.
How folks who don’t walk keep themselves grounded, I’ve often wondered?
Elita is an avid traveller-ambler and blogger (nomadicthunker.com) who, when not writing stories from the road, is busy encouraging people to explore their own stories through the expressive writing workshops she facilitates.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.