Life in the turnings

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on January 09, 2018
Pretty please: In an Indian city, “litterfall” — a word that means a pile of fallen leaves at the foot of a tree — could be anything from gulmohar in peak summer to chinar in autumn. Photo: M Periasamy

Pretty please: In an Indian city, “litterfall” — a word that means a pile of fallen leaves at the foot of a tree — could be anything from gulmohar in peak summer to chinar in autumn. Photo: M Periasamy   -  The Hindu

Under cover: Depending on the time of year, the talaab (pond) at Hauz-i-Shamsi in Delhi’s Mehrauli area is filled wall-to-wall with water hyacinth or home to ducks and egrets. Photo: V V Krishnan

Under cover: Depending on the time of year, the talaab (pond) at Hauz-i-Shamsi in Delhi’s Mehrauli area is filled wall-to-wall with water hyacinth or home to ducks and egrets. Photo: V V Krishnan   -  The Hindu

In the midst of a particularly dreich week in Delhi NCR, here’s thinking of all the walking in clearer, better times — in this city and many others

“Rast” is the distance a person can walk before needing to rest. I learned this from the writer Robert Macfarlane, whose Twitter is a charming curation of forgotten words, topical essays and photographs that recall the natural world in urban times. “Litterfall” is a pile of fallen leaves at the foot of a tree. In an Indian city, that pile could be red silk-cotton flowers in spring, yellow April showers in early summer, or orange gulmohar in peak summer or early monsoon. “Kulturfolger” is a German word for a species that expertly adapts to living among humans and their habitats. Pigeons, parakeets and mynahs are all kulturfolger. As the season turns cold and grey, Macfarlane’s word choices do the same. I recently learned that the Scots sometimes describe a particularly gloomy day as “dreich”.

As a poisonous smog settles thick and immovable over northern India, we’re in the midst of a particularly dreich week. On one of the most polluted days of the year, surrounded by the aloe and snake plants that have promised to purify the air for me, I am trying to write about opening my carefully sealed windows and doors to step out and walk in this city. On a clear summer day, I can see the Qutub Minar from Gurugram. “Farsee”, another Macfarlane find, is the distance a naked eye can see in a particular landscape. It will be months before the minaret is visible again from this distance. My farsee of a few kilometres has been reduced to a few feet.

As I contemplate a place changing beyond repair, I think of all the walking I have done in this city and others in better, cleaner times. In August, I saw three bright-blue kingfishers swim across one of Sanjay Van Forest’s 12 restored ponds. Just off Aruna Asif Ali Marg in south Delhi is a forest that’s had life breathed back into it in the course of a few years. Acres upon acres of native trees reintroduced to the arid land have brought back birds. The ponds are filled with those mosquito-eating fish the Delhi government is so fond of pushing as a realistic defence against dengue. The flame of the forest breaks through the dense collection of native trees. Barring a litterfall of bougainvillea petals and leaves, the paths are clear and made for walking. The same people are reviving a forest near Vasant Kunj where I will hopefully walk soon. In Aravalli Biodiversity Park, whose walkways are engraved with leaves, I spot a red velvet mite for the first time. On those walks, it’s easy to see the story of restoration effectively push back against the one of erosion.

Recently, a friend and I walked home from a café in Gurugram. In 25 minutes we covered two kilometres in back-roads. Without footpaths, we sidestepped pigs and cars. We crossed a tree whose bare, sturdy branches were filled with shawls knotted on both ends. Like tourists, we wondered if they were wishes strung on trees. This is quickly cleared up as a child climbs into one and swings herself into the air. They are swings, not prayer. How natural our misunderstanding seems to us, like we’re in an Indian miniature gold detailed and lacking the instruments for variation.

We walk past carpets draped on branches with a phone number nailed to the bark. There’s no seller in sight. We walk into a cicada singing circle, a trifecta of trees; one tree quietens as we approach and the other two hum on, a choir with decreased strength. We walk back in the comfortable shadow of Gurugram’s buildings.

In Mumbai, I lived just off the wide steps of Mount Mary Church that cascaded down 500ft to the main road. My gate opened onto the steps. Those 500ft were my daily walk, bowing under clotheslines, dodging footballs, inhaling the fresh detergent from the neighbourhood, deftly swerving to avoid crows, and leaving Mount Mary Church behind. What I learned from that walk of that neighbourhood isn’t comparable to anything anyone could have told me about. In Bengaluru, I loved the slap of gulmohar on every road, the way the petals would cover entire alleyways, and the crushed Singapore cherries stuck to the soles of my shoes. The Singapore cherry’s name in Tamil translates roughly to ghee fruit, because when crushed it has the same consistency. The smell of that cherry is sweet, cloying and unavoidable. In Chennai, I loved walking past the houses that said Old Number 45, New Number 56. I loved reading the quirky road signs that read East Coast Road. In our cities, mohalla walks are everything. I’ve circled the apartment building I live in more times than I’ve bothered to count. The women’s walking groups in the evenings give way to the lone joggers as night falls.


I’ll pause briefly to ponder Rachel Carson’s words of advice on trying to save this world, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” When I speak to Aanchal Malhotra, who conducts a walking tour on the history of Khan Market, she points out that most people in Delhi don’t know their surroundings well. Since 1953, her family has run a bookstore in Khan Market. They acquired the space when shops were being allotted to Partition refugees. What now counts itself among Asia’s most valuable real estate was once a clutch of mom-and-pop shops. Walking with Malhotra, one can learn what the original stores were and what a strange, inexplicable journey the market has taken.

As a testament to the scope and diversity of Delhi’s culture and history, this year’s walk festival featured 170 walks that ranged from the city’s most infamous graveyard to Sufi music trail to urban villages to the representation of women in art to science fiction to the mines that have been reforested. No matter who you are, there are parts of Delhi left unexplored. One place to start is the Delhi Walla website, which chronicles one person’s walks through the conventionally interesting bits of Delhi as well as its obscure, remote corners. There’s Old Delhi, where Jama Masjid helpfully hands you floral gowns if you’re a woman, and a dhoti if you’re a man, so you can cover your limbs before you explore the monument. To the left is a wholesale market whose wares are made almost solely from recycled paper.

There’s the left turn after Andheria More which wanders past a busy market before crossing remnants of the summer palace of the Mughals. Further down this road, a tiny lane veers left and downwards to the Shamsi Talaab. Depending on the time of year, the talaab (pond) is filled wall-to-wall with water hyacinth or, once cleared, the water is home to ducks and egrets. In the Mehrauli back lanes, I never know when I’ll walk into an old monument harbouring barn swallows.

There’s Anandgram on MG Road which houses the Museum of Everyday Art, the Museum of Indian Terracotta, and the Museum of Indian Textiles. Unlike the Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan, where I once encountered a beheaded peacock statue, these are well maintained. The Museum of Everyday Art presents a walk through the objects of childhood into those of adulthood.

There’s the little-known museum tucked behind Dilli Haat that’s dedicated to the life and legacy of APJ Abdul Kalam.

There’s a postal stamp museum on the ground floor of Dak Bhawan.

There’s 70 acres of Sunder Nursery with a smattering of monuments, a 16th-century lotus pond, the city’s first arboretum, the largest gathering of tree species in Delhi, and birds such as barbets, bee-eaters and woodpeckers.

Would we be this forgiving of the government’s failure to ensure clean air for us if we spent more time in our daily lives learning this city and its stories? Wouldn’t we be a little more bothered if we weren’t just watching this crisis unfold from inside a window? If we’re unconcerned with its past and its surviving ties to the present, it isn’t surprising that we’re not worried about its future.

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet based in Delhi NCR

Published on November 17, 2017

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