I have been sneakily meaning to disrupt Empire Week with a little meditation on walking as a mode of subaltern research for weeks now…
On second thoughts, it really isn’t that much of a disruption. after all, who defeats the Galactic Empire but Luke Sky-walker… (aaghhh! that was terrible… I think i’m going to be banned from CM for my pun-gent humour. Aaghh! again….)
To begin to get serious, however, I find walking a rather refreshing change in a city tyrannized by automobiles – Delhi. The city has changed tremendously in the seven years (aaghh! already?) since I’ve been here – and a lot of those changes have been dictated by that delhi has more cars than the other three Metros (Bombay, Calcutta, Chennai) put together. To link automobiles to Empire I leave to Sepoy and his agent to figure out in their ‘Serious Histories…’
Meanwhile I will just hit you with walking as a valid way of knowing/researching the city – and hope for some feedback.
(No, you definitely can’t invoke Michel de Certeau….)
Last year on a January day of cold freezing rain, I was stuck in a traffic jam. The bus I was sitting in came off the ITO flyover and froze, moving perhaps sixty feet in the next half an hour. There were thousands of other vehicles heading north along the Ring Road that were similarly stuck. The traffic crawled infinitesimally for the next couple of hours. It was one of the worst traffic jams ever in Delhi. At least thatís what I was told.
After half an hour I left the bus and walked. For a while I followed the footpath along the Ring Road, breathing in the fumes and the frustrations of that seemingly endless wait. Then I saw a small path to my left, crossing a garden, and I walked that way. I walked through the remains of a fourteenth century fortification, and within it, a twentieth century refugee camp turned ëpermanentí. I stopped at a chai shop to have a cup of tea, and learned something about the complicated, many layered histories of Firoz Shah Kotla from my conversation there. Then I walked out to a road parallel to the one I had left, took a bus, took an auto, took a few short cuts I know about by having walked them before, and landed up at where I wanted to be about a hour and a half before the speaker I had come to hear. Who had, of course, been stuck in the traffic jam.
The traffic jam, and the subsequent walk, have remained in my head. For by leaving the choked gridlock of that traffic jam and deciding to walk, I experienced an aspect, a history of the city I had previously known nothing about. In Delhi with its increasing amount of cars, this might soon be a truism ñ To walk is to be in another city.
I sometimes feel that I do live in another city. Because of many factors, economic and otherwise, I happen to walk the city a lot. Which is increasingly unusual for someone of my socio-economic ëclassí. In a Delhi which has more motor vehicles than the other three metros put together, the act of walking has become increasingly marginalized. pavemtns are in a constant state of disrepair. Those who walk the city for their livelihoods ñ ragpickers, thelawallahs, snakecharmers ñ find their movements increasingly circumscribed and surveilled, and increasingly, illegalised. At the same time, elites walking the city, in trying to understand and preserve its ëheritageí, is a burgeoning phenomenon. Such walks are often conducted by ëexpertsí, which lend a legitimacy and sanction to the elite act of walking.
A sanction of ‘purpose’ opposed to walking without a good enough reason.
Much of what I know about the city and its histories is through what could be characterised as ëaimlessí walking and conversations. This has led me to an ëexpertí of sorts and now I take people on historical walks to/through various parts of the city. This is not a relationship I am comfortable with.
For I see walking as two interconnected things, which I am uncomfortable about separating – walking as a vital practise of everyday life, and walking as a dynamic form of urban research. For I see walking as urban research precisely because it is a practise of everyday life.
Walking isnít about ëexpertsí. The pavements dug up for phone cables, the shifts in the script of the sign boards, the traces of the past, the shit on the footpath, the relations between the police and the patriwallahs, the alleyways secret except to those for who they are everyday, the way power relations are expressed through the built space of the city ñ for the walker these are not (necessarily) fleeting and ephemeral glimpses, but the realities that she can (and sometimes has to) slow down to witness, barriers that are negotiated, diversions that can be taken, and questions that can be asked. To walk is not just to view the city, at a remove, but to inhabit it – along with the millions of others who live the city everyday by walking it in whichever way they can. A Hindi film image comes to mind, Mazhar Khan as a legless beggar in Shaan, wheeling through the traffic on his little, handpushed trolley ñ
Ate jaate hue main sabpe nazar rakhta hoon
Naam Abdul hai mera sabki khabar rakhta hoon.
Abdul from Shaan is a strange but compelling figure to keep in mind – To walk/live in a city is to have the possibilities of asking questions at every step. And unlike archival and academic research, where restrictions of educational opportunities, if not class, restrict access, anyone can walk though, and question, the city that they live in. And with the cities we all know changing as rapidly as they are, walking is perhaps the most dynamic form of research. The city constantly reshaping itself under your feet is not an experience that can be extracted from the archives. And in my own experience, those who you meet and speak to while walking, engaging in ëordinary conversationí, give you an astoundingly clear eyed view of what is happening in the city, and its histories. After all, policy decisions and infrastructural changes often very directly influence their lives.
As the Cybermohalla Project has shown, you donít need the training of formal academia to ask questions of a space. What happens when people who ask questions of the cities they inhabit, whether as academics or not, practise walking through cities, not as the burden of not having a car, but as a valid form of research? What insights might they bring to urban studies, and to histories of the contemporary city?
This is just a tentative suggestion, in the hope of generating discussion and debate around walking as a research practise. It would be interesting if other researchers could send in their own ideas for walks they would take around the cities they live in ñ not as ëexpertsí ëleadingí a walk, but as researchers imitating a conversation with other researchers ñ and with all those who live in cities.