I run. I drive. I sail. I swim. I fly. But nothing I do as much, as well, as often as I walk. I have no memory of it, but I am told my mother taught me to walk – no doubt when I squatted on her lap far too long. I would have doubtless preferred to remain lazily recumbent on the cozy, comfortable area on her lower torso, but convention dictated that I should learn to step. So she taught me, and I tottered, clumsily I am told, all over the small house in central India where we lived.
I never stopped. When we moved to Kolkata, we lived unusually next to some free grounds. I preferred to play football or cricket there, but often I just walked. I walked to my school, a few hundreds of yards away, on Amherst Street, and to a doctor’s clinic, even nearer. As I walked, I watched the streetside shops, selling fruits and cigarettes, their lean vendors and corpulent buyers. I watched the endless pageant of pedestrians going to work, traders hawking their ware, sweating men pulling their rickshaws.
When we moved again, to a busier area on College Street, the scene changed. For months I was nostalgic for my old haunts, but soon my memories were swamped by the verve and drama of the new locale. It was like living in the midst of a Kabuki drama. Imagine the tall buildings, the juncture of two main avenues, a college and a university next door, and shops, shops and shops all around. There was a huge market nearby, but the whole area was a giant marketplace. The cacophony was incredible, the buses and trams, the hawkers and salesmen, the garrulous students and gregarious housewives. Even in our second-floor apartment, the windows tightly shut, it took us some time to go to sleep, defying the onslaught of an all-hour orchestra.
But I had fun walking the streets. It was the most abominable of places and yet the most exciting of places to walk. There was always a crowd to wade through. In that melee, your pocket could be picked, easily and any time, but I had the singular advantage of an empty pocket. One time I saw a man’s pocket being picked, but the pickpocket saw me too and made a smiling signal to keep quiet. I did, I don’t know now whether intimidated by his brawn or bewitched by his gentle grin.
I walked past the phalanx of booksellers on the street, an impressive sight of thousands of books being sold at a pittance of their price and the avid book buyers searching for a deal. To me, everything seemed a deal, but I had no money to buy. But I had the license to pick an alluring book, hold it in my hands for a few precious minutes and read the introduction. For somebody starved for books and ideas, the opportunity seemed heaven-sent.
I would walk into the university a few steps ahead and feel I had walked into a different universe. There were fascinating political signs and wallpapers, fervent debates in the students’ lounge or cafeteria and, if I was lucky, a passionate lecture in the halls by some rabble-rouser. Years later I went to same university as a student and got enveloped in politics, but the inspiration came from my aimless but enthusiastic drifting days.
I walked the streets, strayed into narrow lanes, climbed broken steps, walked into parks, and just wandered without purpose. I loved walking and I loved watching the strange cavalcade of people who crossed me, pushed me, walked beside me. Old and young, suave and ill-kempt, hardworking clerks and comely secretaries, busy businessmen and idle vagrants, smoking in a corner and lounging on a bench, they were the princes and paupers of the land, talking, arguing, haggling, singing, they were the magical architects of a vibrant metropolis, who gave it color and meaning and breathed life into its unplanned, meandering, mystifying streets.
There was something new too: I was walking with somebody. She was from another town, and to her too the city was new and unknown. We walked together and discovered the city for ourselves, its shops and cafés, parks and roundabouts, its marina and arboretum, its bus stops and metro stations. It seemed a strange, exciting exploration, to find the heart of a city I had never known and where I was yet welcome.
Now, years later, I live in an exurb, a planned community, where I live close to a lake, surrounded by woods where oaks and birches flourish, geese swim merrily with their young and herons wait patiently for their prey, deer show their face frequently and foxes and raccoons make their occasional appearance. I walk through the woods, on uneven trails, watch the leaves turn orange and gold with the advent of fall and feel the first few hesitant drops of rain.
I am still walking. My dear mother had taught me well.