The lost art of walking

Mindscape

The lost art of walking

“I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.”

An extreme view, perhaps, but naturally so, coming as it does, from Bruce Chatwin, traveller-author of, among other essays and books, Songlines, a slightly fictionalised account of Australian aboriginal ancestors who walked the land, step by step and sang into creation every single feature of the world. The songlines represent the ancient journeys, and each succeeding generation retraces them — the ‘walkabouts’ and the ‘songlines’ are handed across generations.

In all cultures, walking has been the oldest way of exploring a new geography. And new-age travellers like Darlymple, Chatwin have lent a new meaning to the intrepid walker tag, exploring cultures and geographies on foot, sometimes walking in an earlier traveller’s footsteps — literally and figuratively.

No grand design

Walking, however, doesn’t need grand destinations or epic journeys. Walking makes an explorer out of you, right where you are, at home. That is, of course, if one is not walking merely for exercise, in the morning or evening, in parks, and only after a doctor warned you of climbing cholesterol.

As someone who leads the ‘Traditional Bengaluru Walk’ each Saturday, I have come to realise that one can tell a lot about people by their reactions to the idea of a walking tour.

“Really? Really?” is what many people say. People who’d rather spend on a gym, and for whom walking as anything but exercise is unthinkable.

“Don’t you hate the pollution?” From a colleague who almost never stepped into a non-AC environment. How do I explain the joys of discovering a charming by-lane only to avoid the main road and its pollution?

“Oh, it must take so much time,” from a woman who did little else but watch TV after going home in a chauffeur-driven car. (While her kid did homework, and maid did the cooking.) It was not possible to explain that walking was more enriching than TV.

“How can you even walk in the traffic?” From people who spend hours stuck in jams staring at the billboards.

Walking is hard to explain, but it is true: The pollution is not as bad as it seems. Two, there are streets and nooks and corners that make the walk feel like a holiday to a new, foreign place. There’s no annoyance at traffic, or jams. You can snake your way through them.

And, strangely, it creates time. There’s time to notice a sunset. Or sample a new bhajji stall that’s showed up overnight. Or to notice the falling of leaves, or the row of jacaranda trees in bloom, a kite perched up on a tree, taller the flyover that it’s peering over. There’s time to notice the rugged features of the traffic-jam beggars, and to hear the story of the mosquito-bat, ear-bud and naphthalene ball sellers.

The side-effects of ‘exploring’, of walking to come up with the final walk-route was a gastronomic delight, because we discovered strange variations of snacks on carts and lesser-known food joints. At the end of three months, I had the entire route mapped for bhajjis. It is a South Bangalore thing, this phenomenon of bare, innocuous corners morphing into culinary hotspots, come evening.

I walked at all times of the day, poured over every nook and cranny, hung out at shops I wouldn’t normally frequent, had random conversations with locals. I took lanes whose presence I would never otherwise register, and agonised over the ultimate walk route. Bangalore came alive.

Seeing not looking

The most important thing that walking with people bring is: Perspective. “Indians are exceptionally hardworking,” says one South African woman to me after our walk. I am astonished — we whose shopkeepers always take an afternoon siesta, and labourers frequently disappear? “Oh, you should come to South Africa,” she tells me — everyone’s just sitting around. Just look at this street here... everyone’s doing something. That’s wonderful.”

“Why are there no women on the streets. Is it still unacceptable for women to work,” asks an American Russian young man. Again, I am surprised. I hadn’t noticed — I thought women were everywhere, including petrol stations and as taxi drivers, working as postwomen and what not. So I look again. He’s right. In our three-hour walk, we hardly encountered any women — it’s the men who are up and about. I mull over this but can’t come up with a reasonable explanation.

There’s a small, garish, very “packed” house: A lot of construction crammed into a small site. I have always disliked the house, I’ve thought it’s not aesthetic. “Look! A hobbit house,” says a fellow-walker, and I still smile each time I walk past the house.

Perhaps I shouldn’t define a city so much by its buildings — after all, the buildings are constantly changing. One starts to recognise faces, standing in doorways, or watering their gardens. Old-style houses in South India usually have red floors. Now, as I look carefully, I realise a lot of the walls are red as well. I cannot explain this, but finally I understand the American who had said that something in this part of town had reminded him of Mexico and Spain. It was the white and red walls and facades, of course.

I look at all the exercise-walkers rushing past me, and I wonder how they can never get tempted to stop and look at interesting sights, or strike up conversations. It takes a different discipline, altogether, walking. It is misleading in its simplicity. It requires no skill, so one thinks anyone can walk. But no, it takes even more discipline than going to a gym — it’s after all, a solitary activity. Except for those who have their music.

For the walkmans and the iPods, the walkers were a specific segment. Walkers spend time picking their favourite tracks, and it is an incentive to walk. Besides, now, this seemingly simple activity has been raised to high-art level, with all the shoe companies jostling to get walker attention (and wallets.)

“Why are so many people walking with wrong footwear,” asks an affluent foreign tourist. She’s referring to the middle-class women and men who are on their morning walk in their Hawaii chappals or floaters or just regular footwear.

When she says that I realise how much the cultural aspects of walking have changed: To her, walking necessarily means a certain kind of dress, shoes and accessories. She comes from a society where walking is serious business. There are books about it, there are walking groups that discuss routes, organise ‘specials’, have e-groups, facebook conversations.

I try to explain to her: These are people who have been sedentary, have realised the need and the benefits of exercise. Walking is the simplest, easiest. To them, it is not sport, there is not too much science to it. It is, quite simply, “good for health” in a vague, earnest way.

The next visual is almost impossible to explain: There are people who are diligently walking around the temple. Are they praying or walking? Both, I tell the boggled visitor. Very religious, and very practical, these folks who combine exercise and prayer.

Try walking in the more posh areas of the city: The walkers are in shorts, have fancy footwear and are working on their gait. They have iPods, almost all of them: Some of them are discussing the best way of carrying the venerable gadget. The leather case that straps on to the belt. No, no, it’s nicer to have it on your sleeve, and so on. So, I ruefully realise that it is probably on its way here: This transition of walking from being simple to an elitist, expensive sport/exercise form.

Attempting a detour from the main road, I’m faced with a bizarre décor in the shop-window of a local bar. Sharing space with alcohol bottles are three figurines, made of clay perhaps, of three fat men, dressed in traditional dhoti, with a red cloth around their shoulders. They are all grinning, and have their hands folded in a namaskar. In the lurid bar lights, among all the racks of dubious bottles, they make a weird sight.

It’s moments like these that make every walker agree emphatically with Bruce Chatwin, “Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin.”

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