March 26, 2014

Of Being a Flaneur: Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity and An Ode to Walking

Of late, I read two books which were preoccupied with the art of walking; the first one happened to be Julia Cameron's Walking in This World, which is a sequel to her highly successful book, The Artist's Way while the other was what I describe as a city biography, Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. In Julia's first book, which explores and encourages creative re-discovery, she mentions the idea of an Artist's Date and in her sequel, she introduces an additional tool, the Weekly Walk. "Nothing brings home the beauty and power of the world that we live in like walking," she writes in the opening pages."Walking often moves us past the "what" of our life into the more elusive "why.""

Sam Miller clearly subscribes to similar notions, describing himself as a flaneur. Incidentally, flaneur was always one of those stylish-sounding words that I saw everywhere - and yet, never bothered to look up its meaning! Well, here it is: flaneur, or someone who aimlessly wanders through the cities. In his quest to re-present Delhi in all its gloried nuances, Miller embarks upon a stylised walking tour of Delhi, diligently calculating a spiral-walking path through which to explore the city. "You will find out a lot more about a city by wandering through it than by visiting the homes of the well-off or by just exploring the ancient monuments. If you don't walk in Delhi, large parts of the city will be invisible to you," he says - and there in lies the heart of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. He industriously walks its streets, visiting places such as Nehru Place, Rohini, Ghazipur and Gurgaon (few of which I was not aware of until I read this book) and by doing so, he presents the vibrant, brutal, startling, and fascinating theatre of the streets and the neighborhoods: conversations, encounters, monuments, and shops. They simply would not have been available or accessible unless you had been physically in situ and walking through and experiencing it all; it is a bit like submerging yourself and snorkeling within the sea, rather than simply skating upon the surface.

Camouflage: Not the most practical of walking shoes, I know...I am an impractical walker!

I love walking myself. Not particularly inclined to other forms of outdoor physical activity, walking however is one such activity that I will happily indulge in. And while calling myself a flaneur would be a long shot, neither having the physical stamina nor an adventurous, curious explorer's instinct to warrant the label, I do like to walk around in new cities and places though as a means of getting a feel of what makes the place what it is: how its people converse, dress, eat, and look, the color and eccentricities of its architecture, even what is found scattered upon its roads and empty plots of land.

Swagatam: A brilliant colored ceiling above the entrance door at a house in old Jodhpur

One of my favorite places to walk in is the streets of old Jodhpur; once inside the warren of super-narrow, maze-like alleys and streets, studded with tailors, barbers, fruit juice stands, jewelry, sari, and beauty shops, temples, and whatnot, I feel as if I am literally in the city's arteries, getting closer and closer towards hearing its heartbeat. There is always so much going on: even the walls were crazily layered with film-posters, election campaign signage, and tuition advertisements, the alleys' hectic activity bleeding into the walls.

Plastic Angel: Electricity wire meets plastic

I didn't walk as much in Oman apart from night-time strolls, which were literally a form of exercise, rather than that of discovering and exploring. However, once I arrived in Pittsburgh, walking was the perfect way to acquaint myself with the city; armed with my phone and a new discovery called Instagram, walking went hand in hand with my photo-documentation and journaling of my new life. Indeed, as I browse through the pictures, I remember those walks purely due to the arresting sights I observed and captured: a house, a plastic angel shaped material entwined in electricity wires, and a lone chair in middle of a parking lot. The walks and the pictures in turn enabled me to forge a friendship with the place, making the unfamiliar familiar.

What suddenly strikes me is that when you leave a place, you feel that you will quickly forget those paths that you once regularly treaded upon, whose shapes and curves you knew by heart, and the houses and landmarks lining the route like old friends - and yet, the truth is that the mind still and will always retain those memory maps. At least, with me, I can still re-walk an old path in a place that I had once lived in by the sheer memory of the countless times I walked it. When I return and begin walking, it is a stranger - but only for a few moments before transforming itself into a friend once again. And so I carry on walking, as if resuming a conversation that we had left mid-sentence, indulging in nostalgia and acquainting with the new.

What do walks mean to you? Is there a place that you especially enjoy walking in? I would love to hear:)

PS Here is another photo-text ode to walks in my other (neglected) blog, Photo Kahanis...!

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