When I arrive in a city that's new to me, my first desire is to take a day-long, mapless walk. I start wherever I am, pick a general direction that leads me more or less toward the center of things, but then let my route can be guided my hundreds of tiny impulses about which seems more interesting, this way or that. In short, I try to be a flaneur -- "a deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency" in Cornelia Otis Skinner's definition. (I wrote here, a while back, about being a flaneur in Sydney.)
In a day of such walking I'll cover 10-20 km, usually enough to take in much of the diversity of the city. Part of the pleasure is to go back later and study the map, figure out where I went, and see what the guidebooks have to say about not just about what I stumbled upon but also what I narrowly missed. When I learn what I'd have seen if I'd turned left at the temple instead of right, it enriches my memories of what I actually saw.
The flaneur claims not to be looking for anything, but he needs a city rich in pedestrian-scale detail, and his not-quite random wandering will tend to turn whatever direction seems to offer it. Most European cities are ideal for the flaneur, though I've had many pleasant days as a flaneur in Australian cities, and even a few American ones. So I was curious to see if I could wander a developing-world megacity with this same studiously aimless agenda.
On my first free day in Delhi, I set out from my hotel at Nehru Place, in the far southeast of the city, and pointed myself generally northwest toward the city's core. At once there were challenges.
I look very foreign, so Indian hawkers converged on me, assailing my aimlessness -- "Sir! Beautiful rug store, just down the next street the left!." Autorickshaw drivers were the most irritating in this mode, since they could keep up with me for block after block no matter how firmly I strode: "Can do nice tour for you, sir! Connaught Place! Red Fort! Old Delhi!" Neither would take "no thank you" for an answer, and often only a very loud, rude "no" would turn them away. I learned to practice this explosive "no" as a performance piece, something I could enact as needed without becoming a person who acts that way.
Walking at all is a challenge on the Indian main street. Delhi is thick with pedestrians, but its sidewalks tend to be commandeered by informal markets which enliven the urban space but also force passing pedestrians into traffic.
(Click any photo to enlarge.)
Indian planners call this phenomenon "encroachment." The word may sound bureaucratic, but it nicely captures the barnacle-like gradualness and persistence with which small-scale commerce fills public space, just as the shacks of the poor inevitably fill up bits of undeveloped land all over the city.
The Indian arterial street is a constant jostling flow of a vast hierarchy of powers: trucks, buses, cars, autorickshaws, motorbikes, old slow bicycles, cycle-rickshaws, and finally pedestrians. (But there's a joke in this hierarchy, because the slowest presence of all has the highest status: a cow can stand wherever it wants to, even blocking the fast lane.) Where a Western planner would instinctively try to separate these strands of traffic, so that each could move at its own speed, the average Indian will have none of this. To him, any space between moving vehicles looks like it's there for the taking, and he will flow into this gap if he can, as naturally as water would do.
Despite such challenges, I finally managed a flaneur-like walk. The key was to stay off the big arterials as much as possible, and instead to cut through the various enclaves that form the residential meat of the city. These enclaves are what Australians would call suburbs and Americans would call neighborhoods. Each is about a square-km, typically bounded by the big arterials, and each has a fairly distinct and consistent identity. Back inside one of them, I felt safe enough to actually see the city.
The first two enclaves I passed through -- East of Kailash and Lajpat Nagar -- were prosperous communities built to a consistent 3-4 stories.
Commerce in these districts is a mixture of street vendors, small corner shops, and cafes, with the occasional irruption that would defy all western concepts of zoning, such as this single house on an otherwise stately block given over to underwear.
Walking these affluent communities was pleasant, but not tedious as such places can be in the West. Even in a well-to-do residential district, human presence is thick, and the built environment is often rich with detail.
Still bearing generally northwest, I crossed a big street into the Defence Colony. As the name suggests, it was once the company town for military brass, and remains especially high-end, but the street life is similar.
The next time I crossed a big street, though, I plunged into something utterly different. Streets gave way to alleys as the buildings pressed in.
Kotla Mubarakpur is a remnant of Old Delhi, but far from the official and touristed Old Delhi on the north side of the city. Pedestrians (and the occasional cow) packed the narrow streets, engaging with rows of shops on the tiniest possible scale. The shops were anything -- a bookstore, a bicycle repair shop, a cellphone dealer, but the dominant theme was textiles.
Again it was striking how little space anyone needed. A shop barely a meter wide and two meters deep somehow had room for two men bent over old sewing machines, plus piles of fabric waiting for customers. These people knew exactly how to move to fit in with everything around them, in almost no space at all.
Here, too, I felt accepted as a stranger, if only because my presence didn't seem to be affecting anyone's behavior. There were no other foreigners, and thus no hawkers and beggars pursuing them. This place felt real.
As I walked west through Kotla Mubarakpur, the commerce thinned out and finally disappeared, leaving only people's homes -- still packed in 3-4 stories high on alleys two meters wide. The pedestrians thinned out, too, and the cows and their refuse began to dominate the street. For the first time I sensed that these narrow streets thick with blind corners might be dangerous, but there was nothing to do but push forward, choosing lefts and rights that seemed to serve my northwestward drift, until once again, I punched out abruptly into something new.
Not the main river of Delhi, but one of the many lesser streams that lace the city. In a Western city these natural flows of water have usually been moved into underground pipes as part of the city's sewerage, or rebuilt as concrete channels for flood control. Here, they stand open, and like any other open space, they gather and organize life.
Like most of India, Delhi gets almost all of its rain in one season, the monsoon, lasting roughly from June to October. Riverbeds must be large enough to move the monsoon's masses of water, so the rest of the year they look like trickles with vast banks of open land. Shacks gather along the channels in a process that feels organic, just as certain plants and animals would gather here. The water is not clean, and certainly not drinkable, but it is better than nothing at meeting some basic needs.
I crossed on a low bridge and wanted to continue on the other side, but found myself channeled into a dirt road parallel to the water. Shacks lined it on both sides, and people of all ages were everywhere. Here, for the first time, I felt a real discomfort about my own presence. There were no tourists here, of course, so nobody was bothering me. It was a sensation of friction between who I am and what this is, that I may be doing some damage just by being here.
I feared that if I slowed down to look, I would find these shacks and their occupants beautiful. And that if I allowed myself to see that, I'd end up sentimentalizing their poverty in a way that felt obscene.
So yes, it was a relief to find at last an exit from the long corridor of shacks, and break out into more humdrum suburbs. Now the signs welcomed me to the Lodhi Colony, and this rang a bell from my earlier studies of the map. It meant I was near the Lodhi Gardens.
Designed around a collection of tombs from the pre-Mughal Lodhi dynasty (1451-1526), the Lodhi Gardens are the tiniest squiggle of green on the vast brown map of Delhi, but their position in the inner city makes them a refuge. The tombs punctuate the place but do not dominate or frame it; the gardens are clearly first and foremost a place of public pleasure, in a comfortable mix of formal and naturalized styles. Here, for the first time in my walk, I saw open space carefully held open. Not gaping open space such as a beach would be, but comfortable outdoor rooms, well maintained and protected from "encroachment."
My walk continued beyond the gardens, but the gardens turned out to be the happy ending. Leaving the gardens I was suddenly in "New Delhi", the government district designed by Edward Lutyens for the British. If you've seen Paris or Washington, you know the look: grand wide boulevards, large roundabouts with monuments in the middle. Here and there were stately government buildings, but most of the street frontages are walls of compounds, gated with security guards. Paradoxically, this is the only part of Delhi with usable sidewalks, and the only one with practically no pedestrians.
To be a flaneur is almost impossible in such a place. (Flaneurie was invented in Paris, of course, but in the narrow lanes of the old city, not the boulevard-and-roundabout Paris of Haussmann.) The streets of New Delhi are all designed to lead us elsewhere rather than to celebrate where we are now. They form meaning only as a unifying structure too big for the pedestrian to sense. So I walked faster, crossing New Delhi quickly and coming to Connaught Place, the enormous roundabout on its northern edge. Here, alas, I was back in tourist-Delhi, and the hawkers gave me no peace until I finally found a taxi and called it a day.
So let's roll back to the happy ending. Lodhi Garden was the one place where I saw ordinary citizens interacting with the medieval tombs and mosques. They are small structures, the equivalent of four stories high with just one perfectly cool room inside.
As at the other mosque that I visited at length, here was a pleasure not just in touching something old. It was in watching that oldness touch other lives, right now.