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How the urban wanderer keeps the stories of the city alive

Rupleena Bose | Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

Unprecedented times: The lockdown announced in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was among the rare instances when Indian cities and streets were left emptied of their usual thronging crowds   -  PTI / SWAPAN MAHAPATRA

Streets left barren by the Covid-19 lockdown are a reminder of how the figure of the urban wanderer has been central to the city’s own story

* The wanderer is like the observer, the chronicler of spaces that you notice because you see yourself apart from the crowd. You also find yourself lonely but not alone when there is a sea of urbanity around you.

* Today the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our mental and physical landscape. Crowds no longer evoke a sense of solace. The cities have changed, and will continue to change irrevocably.

Once upon a time, cities bustled with fearless energy and people rushed every morning towards their daily bread. On one such morning, I booked an Uber share to ride from South Delhi to North-West Delhi. The driver — named Sameer and armed with five stars — was a cheerful man barely into his 20s. He rebelled against the route decreed by the navigation system and opted for the shortcut I suggested, which took us through Moth ki Masjid, a tomb from the 16th-century Lodi dynasty. I admired the exquisite and austere structure that came on to our right, and, for a brief moment, both Sameer and I were tourists in our own city, on the daily ride to work. As it was a shared cab, a co-rider got in and we were on our way again, looking out of the comfortable air-conditioned cab into the symmetrical gardens of Lutyens’s Delhi.

Around the corner: A shortcut through busy Delhi roads brought the author to Moth ki Masjid, a tomb dating to the 16th-century Lodi dynasty   -  THE HINDU / SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

 

The co-rider, a restaurant staffer from Gwalior, was on the phone, describing the roads of Delhi to presumably his lover back home. I presume so because of the whispered ‘love you’ and repeated goodbyes when it seemed neither of them wanted to let go of the other’s voice. The young man finally hung up, promising the beloved that he would describe all the monuments he saw every time he took a cab.

He left the ride, and Sameer increased the volume on the radio. I still had a long way to go and looked at the amaltas and the gulmohur trees, busy with small but mighty flowers, shading passersby from the summer sun. As the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan played on the radio, I watched the city go past.

After the second song, I requested Sameer to increase the volume and asked him if the songs were playing from FM radio. He replied that he was a Nusrat fan and had a self-compiled playlist. In the legitimately short-lived companionship a car ride offered, we started talking.

Sameer was from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, and driving was his secret pleasure. Driving had empowered him, he said, because in their village everyone had to walk and it limited him. But his driving job had shown him places he would have never seen otherwise; such as the Lodi-era monument that surprised him with its existence that morning.

He told me he drove for 10-15 nights in a row, gathered the fare and then went back home to Bareilly. Before he returned to Delhi, he bought CDs and downloaded YouTube files. He came back to the city driving through the day, listening to the soundtrack.

That morning, he was going to leave the car with the owner, a policeman from Ghaziabad who owned a fleet of Uber cabs. I was his last passenger before he rushed for the bus to Bareilly. I got off before we reached the destination. I told him I wanted to walk the last stretch. Delhi was not suitable for walking, he remarked.

I saved his number. He promised to send me rare qawwalis from his collection back home. He kept his promise, and every fortnight I would find a WhatsApp post with songs. Until the lockdown.

A few days ago, after a radio silence of more than two months, I received a WhatsApp message from Sameer. It was a recording of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing a 15th-century poet’s verse about the apocalypse (“In my loneliness is my plea/ In your simplicity there is a hint of the apocalypse”). I messaged him, asking him how he was. He wrote that he was still in Delhi. He had applied for a pass that would allow him to cross the border and go to Bareilly, but hadn’t managed to get one. “Others like me have started walking to Bareilly,” he wrote. I will not walk, he said. I didn’t reply.

***

In his conception of theflâneur, 19th-century French poet-essayist Charles Baudelaire created a symbol of modernity. The flâneur was an anonymous man on the streets of Paris, observing the city, yet detached from the crowds. The flâneur went on to become the epitome of urbanism and alienation. The wanderer found cities within ancient cities. Cities in Europe were relatively safe for walkers. You could walk through lanes and alleys and forget you were a woman.

In the iconic film Wings of Desire (1987), an angel walks the city and listens to the thoughts of mortals; in Before Sunrise (1995), lovers find and lose themselves as wanderers in the city. Last week, after numerous links to virtual museum tours that crowded my feed, I decided to see what it felt like to take a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I navigated through the galleries of art and missed the feeling of being overwhelmed. The only virtual museum tour that did not feel like a betrayal was that of the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. It was a museum of objects that had a story spanning the life of a relationship. The objects had come from everywhere in the world and the walk was not city- or time-specific.

In the present scenario of being indoors and going outside only when essential, it was the only museum where one didn’t have to be in the city that housed the museum.

***

It brought me back to the thought of walking. A city and its people are discovered through its crowds, through its endless activities. In India, most cities are not designed for walking. This is not just a structural lack, but also points to our mental make-up, to the way we see our public spaces. If you are a woman in Delhi, you would pick the safest spots and safest time of the day to be walking. And even in the brightest of days, you would be aware of the snide remarks coming from a passing vehicle. But there are roads that you look forward to — the tree-lined streets of Bengaluru or the Portuguese quarter in Panjim. You can amble through the stalls exhibiting endless books on Kolkata’s College Street, or, at least, could before the devastating cyclone. And you can walk through good old Colaba in Mumbai, making your way through the Colaba Causeway, Leopold Cafe and Regal Cinema and colliding with people on their way to work. But walking in real life, in safe and clean environs, is a leisurely elite exercise.

In Hindi cinema, however, there is an eclectic representation of lovers and walkers of all demographics. In the relatively empty streets of the Bombay of the ’70s, Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee in Manzil (1979) prance across Marine Drive in the mild rain made just for lovers and walkers. They sing Rimjhim gire saavan and, even today, when the rain is caressing the city, we sing with them. In Gharonda (1977) the lovers sing about themselves — Do deewane shehar mein — and about roaming the streets of the city. In love they walk and find the world around them and each other.

In Chhoti Si Baat (1976), the everyday ritual of taking a bus to work and back home is brushed with romance as the couple Arun and Prabha (Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha) find each other amidst a crowd. Meeting of glances on the Bombay local leads to love in Baaton Baaton Mein (1979). And, in recent times, The Lunchbox (2013) takes us into the life of Mumbai man Saajan Fernandes, whose loneliness is seen in his journey from one end of the city, where he works, to another, where he lives. We know he is lonely because we see him against the din of crowds, laughter, busy families and people travelling for pleasure. The others remind him that he is lonely — till another lonely woman forms a bond with him. In Dhobi Ghat (2011), Yasmin arrives in Mumbai as a migrant and discovers the city. One in an endless ocean of humanity, she, too, is lonely.

Like Yasmin, the wanderer or the flâneur has a relationship that is only possible in the modern bustling city. The wanderer is like the observer, the chronicler of spaces that you notice because you see yourself apart from the crowd. You also find yourself lonely but not alone when there is a sea of urbanity around you.

Today the pandemic has changed our mental and physical landscape. Crowds no longer evoke a sense of solace. The cities have changed, and will continue to change irrevocably. As images of people walking thousands of kilometres to their homes continue to surface, walking for us in India takes a new meaning. It will now forever haunt us, remind us that for those who have been left stranded, walking is a necessity. It is also a punishment. The walkers have been abandoned — not just by the State, but by their own dream, by all the promises of empowerment that modernity had made.

We must now find our own symbol of a broken modernity and betrayed society. Or maybe we can just listen to a 15th-century poet’s song about apocalypses and wait.

Rupleena Bose teaches English literature. She also writes fiction and screenplays

Published on June 05, 2020
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