Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Pleasures Of Being A Pedestrian

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

To take a walk in an average Indian city is to embark upon a dispiriting exercise. Broken footpaths, enthusiastic hawkers and illegal encroachments accost one at every step. Much is spent on creating new roads and flyovers to benefit those who drive, but the simple needs of those who walk, by choice or necessity, go unmet. What we lose in the process is once again brought out by Frederic Gros’s new book, A Philosophy of Walking, translated from the French by John Howe. Gros, a professor in Paris, walks in the footsteps of others who have written about pedestrianism over the years, and brings to the subject a metaphysical tone. His book deals with aspects of walking such as freedom, slowness, renewal and solitude, and touches upon its effects on noted practitioners, from Wordsworth to Thoreau, from Rousseau to Nietzsche, from Dickens to Rimbaud.

Walking is one of those capacious subjects that has always attracted writers, and has often been compared to the act of writing itself. As Robert MacFarlane has put it, “The paths are sentences, the shod feet of the travellers the scratch of the pen-nib or the press of the type." Though many books on ambulation have a common core, they go on fascinating rambles, depending on the inclinations of the writer. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, for example, an individual and sometimes dizzyingly dense look at the topic, informs us of the layout of gardens, the nature of literary criticism, the pursuit of mountaineering, the development of American suburbs, the origins of streetwalking, and the perceptions of women in public spaces. Others pursue different paths:  in Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, there’s an entire chapter on walking in music and movies, referencing an episode of Bob Dylan’s radio show, medieval troubadours’ chansons d’aventure, Robert Johnson’s ‘Walkin’ Blues’, Charlie Chaplin’s signature shuffle and John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever strut.

Gros, however, keeps to the straight and narrow for the most part. Walking is not a sport, he asserts, not subject to the competitive fervor that pervades so much of how we spend our time today. “It’s a process of self-liberation,” he writes; while ambling, “you feel free, because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, minuscule, insubstantial”.

Much of A Philosophy of Walking deals with walking in the countryside, although the particular charms of walking in the city are also considered. It’s here, of course, that one comes across the figure of the flâneur, the solitary urban walker and lounger, much analysed, written about and used as a subject for fiction, from Charles Baudelaire to Walker Benjamin, from W.G. Sebald to Teju Cole. “City, crowd, and capitalism” are the conditions that give rise to such a person, writes Gros. The flâneur’s solitude, anonymity and slowness, the fact that he’s not caught in a “web of exchanges”, contrasts with the city’s capitalistic hustle and bustle; thus, “he subverts the crowd, the merchandise and the town, along with their values”. (No wonder it’s difficult to take a walk here.)

Gandhi is another famous walker whom Gros devotes time to, in particular the former’s Dandi March as well as his trips on foot to riot-ravaged areas before Partition. “Walking with Gandhi,” he writes, “nurtured the slow energies of endurance”, something else that we don’t seem to have time for nowadays. Elsewhere, Gros comments on supplicants on their way to Pandharpur chanting Sant Tukaram’s songs, underlining yet another role of walking, that of being an essential activity on pilgrimages.

Gros can sometimes be a bit precious in his pronouncements, such as when he says: “even when I am alone, there is always this dialogue between the body and the soul”. Overall, though, A Philosophy of Walking is knowledgeable and bracing. One feels like thrusting a copy upon our urban planners to make them realise that the activity is more than pedestrian.

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