Big cities haven’t just lost their hearts but also their feet and along with that, their senses of sight, touch, perception, and experience.
That might sound like a bizarre connection cooked up on a self-righteous staircase of smoke and sedation by a bunch of moon-hugging lunatics. But, take a deep breath, free your mind from all the rubbish common-sensical associations formed over the years on a lethal dose of family-tree lineage and traditional knowledge and you will see the connection. We have simply stopped using our feet for an exercise as simple, sensual, and enjoyable as walking!
Why are Delhi’s city planners so apathetic to walkers?
This is by no means meant to be a clever proposal aimed at fishing out government funds for pseudo walking zones or something. This is just a merciless exercise at couch potato bashing by a self-confessed walkamaniac. I am just amazed at the declining walking culture in our cities. Even if you just walk around your neighbourhood, you do absorb some sights, smells, sounds, etc. no matter how closed you are in your head. Through the very act of walking, you are forced to interact and negotiate with the myriad variants present at your walking site. Unlike something like driving a car or a bike where the specific concentration required for the act is so much that you would, well, you would dig your own grave if you wandered off absorbing sights, smells, and sounds.
All the major cities of the world, be it Paris, Berlin, or London, have a soul not because they exist but because every inch of their canvas has been visited and revisited by curious walkers, who sometimes out of interest, and other times, out of sheer fate, stumble upon objects and scenarios that become moments in the city’s quest for self-awareness. A city breathes because of people who explore it on foot, stand, stare, think, and marvel at its mysteries, paradoxes, and idiosyncrasies.
Delhi, too, has a vital soul. But, unfortunately, this soul today is dotted and scarred by millions of automobiles doing merciless rounds of the city. I am by no means advocating a pre-industrialisation utopia wherein people just burn all their vehicles and start walking from one city to the other. The point is a more complex one—why have people started regarding walking as a waste of time?
Just try walking around the streets of Delhi and people will stare at you in that “Loser, you’ve got nothing better to do with your life” manner. Anyone walking in Delhi for a distance of more than 200 metres can only be one of three things: an eccentric foreigner, a poor person who can’t afford transport, or a mad-hatter who hasn’t been admitted into an asylum. Especially if you happen to be a woman, it’s a sin to be walking around the city. Try walking from the I.N.A. Market metro station to South Extension through the bylanes of Kidwai Nagar and you’ll face a fascinating lot—sympathetic onlookers (“This woman has a lot of stamina”), professional lechers, reproachful rickshaw wallahs (“Aise paagal hi saara business kharaab karte hain“), and others. The influx of overwhelming human attention is just so much that by the time you reach your destination, you start to wonder whether the effort was worth it, after all.
The fact that the city seems to have been planned by people who hate pedestrians is not much help either. It is very difficult to walk in Delhi. One can ignore the potholes and the unkempt pavements but not the fact that at many locations, there are no pavements at all. If you are still spirited enough to walk, you’ll somehow have to imaginatively conjure up a pavement and walk by the roadside, taking car honks and other such shrill vehicular noises for celestial music as you hip-hop your way through the vehicular Garden of Eden.
So, why are the city planners so apathetic towards walkers? Not that the infrastructure is all that great for vehicles, but as far as pedestrians are concerned, they simply don’t exist in the city’s grand scheme of things. Barring Lutyens’s Delhi and a few areas of south Delhi, pedestrian infrastructure is simply non-existent in most of the city. Both the city and its inhabitants seem to share this culture of superficial urgency premised on speed.
No wonder then that the denizens of this modern chaos are clueless about its tucked-in wonders, chimeras, phantasmagorias, and mud-studded closets. No one ever discovered a thing by being static, leave aside creation. When you walk and your glance halts at something you’ve never see before, a whole sequence of associations and interpretations springs up. And that is when you start living for real.