Walking with a purpose ♦

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay on “Walking”. His particular idea of a stroll had more to do with venturing into nature to reclaim one’s wildness than ambling through a city, but his words feel like a true characterization of walking in Delhi too. Thoreau further explained: “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession… You must be born into the family of the Walkers.”

We generally start to walk before we even talk, but who in this city is truly born into that family? Not the commuting pedestrians, navigating the petty commerce of the pavement like contestants on Takeshi’s Castle. Not the rich who stroll the city’s parks, but rarely its streets. Not the middle classes who increasingly limit their wanderings to the insides of malls and shopping centres – and who are increasingly forced to do so by the barricading of public areas like India Gate. And certainly not those who stride about the halls of power ensuring that those barricades stay up. On every level, the fundamental human right to walk is frustrated by flawed urban architecture and discouraged by the dictates of society.

But one group of people is especially excluded from this family of walkers. Thoreau noted its absence tongue-in-cheek: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.” Pressured by challenges as mundane as having shoes that stand up to the sidewalk and clothes that cover the body appropriately, to labour laws and curfews enforced by family, wardens and city authorities, Delhi’s women are notably shut out of its streets.

Besides the daily irritant of ogling that manages to be simultaneously rapacious and judgemental, the fear of physical violence has grown steadily alongside the shrill crescendo of reports of sexual assault since that grey day last winter. With every new story, the fear starts as gut-wrenching anger and sickness, dulls into a weary, heartsick paranoia, and eventually settles into cold lead in the shoes, a kind of dead weight of caution in every step.

However, I’ve been lucky to be doing a bit of flying lately. First to Greece, where I saw women walk naked along the Mediterranean coast, garnering less attention than a man peeing on a Delhi road. Then to Medellín in Colombia, where men and women – sometimes unknown to each other before nightfall – walked in the parks and plazas until sunrise, drinking, talking, sometimes even dancing. Finally to the brightly lit, Google-mapped streets of New York, with their double-wide, garbage-scented sidewalks and unending subterranean current of public transport. As I walked, the lead in my shoes melted away. There was a spring in my step all summer.

I flew back to Delhi last week, in the midst of the verdict announcement of the December 16 gang rape and murder trial. I remembered actor Maya Krishna Rao’s performance “Walk”, in which she states powerfully and simply:  “I wanna walk. Sit on a bus. Walk on the street. Lie in the park. I try not to be afraid of the dark.” I recalled walking from SDA to Vasant Vihar in high heels, trying to ignore the cacophony of catcalls and car horns following me down the Outer Ring Road. I remembered going on assignment with a photographer along the city’s bridges at night. She and I were about the same age as the young photojournalist attacked in Mumbai last month.

And I remembered the woman who walked out of a movie with her friend last winter and tried to catch a ride home from Munirka to Dwarka. I thought about the men who killed her, for whom walking as equals beside a woman was unfathomable, and how that fact was in itself unremarkable. I thought how killing them would do nothing to protect my freedom to walk – at any time, in any place, for any purpose – to stop where I wish, to stride, skip or saunter.

Sauntering, Thoreau wrote, could be derived from “‘idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre’ – to the holy land…’”. But after a summer of idle sauntering in other cities (and with cooler weather hopefully around the corner) I’m ready to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the little crusade for Delhi’s streets too.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2013