What I Talk About When I Talk About Walking
It could be 7 a.m., noon or 3 p.m. but it’s the first question all my friends and family ask when they get a call from me: ‘Are you walking?’
I certainly don’t have the extraordinary stamina of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek, who has been on a decade-long ‘storytelling walk’ across the planet since 2013. But I’m lucky I stay in a part of Bengaluru where the streets are wide and shaded by the city’s favourite long-limbed rain trees, making it possible to walk through the day.
Though I identify with what Charles Dickens said about my favourite daily activity—‘If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish’—I don’t aspire to go to the lengths he did. Dickens walked 32 km a day, and at the breakneck speed of 6.5-7.5 km an hour, according to some estimates.
On many days, my mood may be decidedly Dickensian but my habit is inspired by my parents, who have walked every day on Mumbai’s Marine Drive for the last 50 years, often holding hands.
The spectres Dickens was fleeing from were darker and grimmer than my mundane worries—me, I just walk to get away from the topsy-turvy happenings of a healthy home or into the embrace of friends who are always kind enough to serve as a reminder that there’s more to life than working and caregiving.
In a world where millions of women walk 6 km a day to get water, and so many more are not even granted access to the world outside their homes, I acknowledge my privilege every time I use walking as a mental health activity.
I time my walks to coincide with the girlfriend who’s just embarked on a long car journey or the one who wants to dissect her husband while he is away.
I have favourite people I talk to at different points in time—these days, it’s a friend with whom I discuss writing and books and movies and poetry and sports and children and growing older and everything in between; and another fellow traveller whose words are a soothing balm to any insecurities I might express. She suggested I write this column, probably because I called her three times in as many days after disappearing from her life for weeks. Some days, when a friend walks by my side, my earphones are put away.
I walk when I’m energetic and determined to get fit, and also when I’m sad, heartbroken and everything seems pointless. When I’m happy I call my parents, when I’m sad it’s usually the cheery friend whose everyday problems distract me from mine.
I walk for privacy (thinking of lost friendships, broken love, solitude, the future of democracy, other assorted macabre subjects) and also for episodic encounters with the physical world around me, especially in the Covid era which elevated loneliness to epidemic status.
After months of being cloistered at home in the pandemic, I walk with renewed vigour simply because I am free to walk. Here, it’s only me who sets the pace, tone and direction of the walk. Nobody second guesses or has a contrary opinion.
I walk in traffic or on a somnolent railway platform. I walk sometimes with purpose, marching through parallel streets unseeingly and sometimes stealthily, with the skill of a detective, using my peripheral vision to track the women who inhabit this public arena.
Three sari-clad older friends, sitting on the edge of a high pavement, splitting a sitaphal after work; a solitary woman who looks older but could easily be my age, shoulders slumped, heaving her life’s possessions, all of three stuffed plastic and cloth bags, dragging her feet to some unknown destination; the impeccably groomed transgender ladies who knock on the windows of cars halted at the traffic light. I want to eavesdrop on the joke that’s making the three burkha-clad young women who walk alongside each other giggle so happily.
In this part of Bengaluru at least, the road belongs to everyone.
At night, I know where I can smell the raat ki rani; mornings are for the aroma of filter coffee or mallige flowers in a woman’s hair. Unlike the energetic fishy-pungent smell of Bombay where I grew up, the smell of Bengaluru is mostly neutral-floral with a hint of bean and pollen. Afternoon nap, anyone?
Sometimes reality rudely elbows its way into my me-time. I’ve just been nominated as emissary to approach the residents of a building to ask why they are insisting the neighbourhood children stop feeding the three delightful street dogs in their lane. One is shy, the other protective and the third, a puppy, the newest addition to this frisky family.
They live on my favourite street, a 100-metre-or-so deserted stretch that ends at the gates of a church property. A Flame of the Forest flowers proudly, secure in the knowledge that she will never be alone. She is forever entwined in the embrace of a rubber tree, and both are in a group hug with the red button ginger, prickly cacti, philodendrons and the sansevieria that surround them.
As I approach this tree, Banoffee or Banu, depending on who you ask, comes bounding to me. The puppy was abandoned a few months ago, and promptly adopted by some residents and the two older dogs.
Decades after Dickens' urgent explanation of why he walks, Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking: “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”
That’s exactly how I feel every time I come upon the scene I’ve described above.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.