Walking is the act of the body exploring itself as it traces the world

My father loved to walk. It was his great ritual, his idea of prayer and work. Every morning at four, the house would echo with the thump of his shoes, the tumbler of coffee, as he hurried out. My dachshund, a wise ten-year-old would wait impatiently, grumbling melodramatically about any delay. Whoever talked of walking a dog never understood man or beast. Walking was an act of companionship, a way of saying hello to the world, sniffing, grumbling, greeting every morsel, smell, object, sight and human being. To add to the excitement, my neighbour’s dog, an oversized young Doberman called Marcus would join them. It was a strange troop — a dachshund striding in front, Doberman casually behind, each attentive to every signal from my father. As the years went by, the Dachshund got older and more tired but he refused to miss his walk. My father would carry Fritz around the lake and release him just as he reached home so he could stride the last lap with dignity, the Lord of all he surveyed.

My childhood memories are full of walks. It left me convinced that, without a walk, friendship was impossible and old age insufferable. As one walked, one remembered, one talked of worlds far away. Walking becomes a way of mapping the world. Philosophy, I felt, began with walking. Think of Thoreau, Emerson, Certeau, Heidegger, Patrick Geddes. Because they literally walked the talk, their philosophies were richer and more concrete.

The many messages of walking

There is something about walking as a ritual, elegant in its routineness that we must grasp. Walking is a great equaliser, democracies’ greatest act, more primordial than the vote. Walking is the act of the body exploring itself as it traces the world. It could be in an alley in a street, a meandering amble by a river, an act of communing in the forest or merely marking turf in a neighbourhood. Walking is exploration, discovery, conversation, companionship, meditation, reflection, prayer , even a constitutional, unlimbering the stiffness of a tired body. I cannot think of any one act that combines so many messages in the routineness of its being.

It was play and pain as you challenged the body to do that last mile as sweat raced its rivulets down your body. No conqueror was more triumphant than an individual who walked that extra mile as he collapsed for his tea and Parle-G at a welcoming dhabba. When you walk, you talk to your deepest self, even as you listen to the silence of the body and its rhythms. Walking is therapeutic, curative, even an act of exorcism. Walking beats psychoanalysis as it lets you live with yourself. It is, as a wise man told me, a way of living with the world.

One wishes there was a history of walking. Yet a walk is one of the celebratory movements of life. When a baby first walks, after all the tentative painful experiments, the joy of parents is indescribable. It is a toast to life. Even the child has that unbelievable look of heroism, of achievement. No medal or prize can beat the poetry of the moment. Parents and grandparents break into echolalic storytelling, merely watching the moment. The first step is history in the making.

Walking invites the sensorium, the collective repertoire of the senses. You see, you touch, you pause, you remember: a flower here, a face there. Walking is always an act of memory. In retracing your world, you remember it, sense the presence of the familiar, savour silences and absences. It is the beginning of civics and citizenship. I always felt curiosity begins with walking and so does science. In walking you not only converse with the world but question it, seeking a deeper understanding. Walking and time go fascinatingly together. In a way, the space of walking creates a sociology, while the time of walking creates a philosophy. Walking is the body in rhythm; each step a statement of presence.

People often talk of walks in nature but today walking defines the nature of the city and its politics. Gandhi argued that a locality should be defined by a day’s walk. Walking is the drama of enacting a public space and cities have become hostile to walking. Pedestrians are seen as a threat. Walking is biology but a vehicle is seen as intrinsic to the history of city. I feel great cities and neighbourhoods survive because of walkers. Their rituals defined the city, created zones of familiarity, symbolic markers which gave meaning to a city. A bicycle is still human, but with the car you begin the dehumanisation of the city.

I believe city planning has to begin with the walk. When you walk a city, you live a city, you embody it. When you survey a city, you abstract it as a grid. It is geometry or space without life. A survey is space without a sense of place. Walking curbs your sense of power and domination, provides you with a sense of modesty and locality. I remember Patrick Geddes, the great urban sociologist, believed that urban planning should begin with a walk. When you walk a city, you treat it as a friendly organism. Demolitions, grids begin when the walker is no longer the prime citizen of a city. The footpath as a way of life, as home to the hawker, the peddler, disappears when walking dies as the megalopolis is born. Walking loses its poetics and literally becomes pedestrian at that moment. Without walking, one cannot understand or care for the informal economy where 70 per cent of our citizens live. In fact, walking defines the informal rhythms of a city because when you stop walking, cities die. The bazaar, the roadside café disappear because these are but punctuation marks in the everyday travelogue we call walking. Imagine Marina beach without its walkers, or Connaught place without its flâneurs walking lazily around the circle, peanuts in hand. Walking creates the affordable city. Chaat wala, chai wala, bhel puri man, peanut seller, paan wala, hawker, scavenger, peddler… they can only belong to a city which understands walking. Food, sound, entertainment, and the familiarity of strangers all make walking the everyday adventure of the city.

I remember many older people talk of walking as a form of ethics, of character building. When they talk of their friends they often add that they walked everyday. It was as if walking was almost spiritual, a substitute for the act of prayer.

A form of protest

I think Gandhi had the sense to understand and build on it. His theory of Satyagraha, the Dandi March are enactments of the drama of walking, of standing for or against something. The body becomes the icon of the most elementary and profound of protests. Gandhi used walking to bring down an empire. In fact, Gandhi understood walking is still within nature. A march is a linear act of history. In fact, his theory of Swadeshi is a philosophy of locality and walking. You own up to what you walk around and you care for what you walk around. Walking creates the spirit of Swadeshi as caring. I wish people spent more time writing about the Gandhian walker than the weaver. Walking gives weaving a different depth and complementarity.

Walking and walkers haunt me as I walk old lanes and beaches. As I trail across neighbourhoods, I miss all the old walkers. Each returns to my mind as a songline connecting two points; each is a way of life. I sense cities have changed, forcing walkers to artificial parks or a few localities. Yet, the community of walkers survive by telling the world: “I walk, therefore I am.” Walking is the poetry of self and community, of loneliness and friendship which no society can do without. It is the gentlest toast to life and living.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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