Delhi Walk Festival: Decoding the city
When Pallavi, a documentary film-maker who uses only her first name, started taking late-evening walks through the alleys of Delhi about a year ago, she immediately noticed something. “There were almost no women in public spaces at night,” she says. A self-described flâneuse (a French word that roughly translates to casual wanderer), Pallavi decided to take other women along on her walks through the lesser-known parts of Delhi, places she profiles on her blog Delhi Galiyara.
Her guided women-only explorations through Paharganj and Mehrauli are part of the 170 city walks that are taking place as part of the third edition of the Delhi Walk Festival (DWF), which started on Thursday and ends on 12 November.
“The point of the festival is to celebrate the act of walking,” says Pallavi. But in a city like Delhi, with its record of crime against women, the act of them coming out and walking at night also makes a larger statement. “It’s about a sense of togetherness. The idea is to loiter at night,” says Pallavi.
While several of the scheduled walks will be led by well-known personalities like historian William Dalrymple, thespian M.K. Raina, and author and activist Sadia Dehlvi, there are also offbeat ones involving botanists and young hip hop artists who grew up in the lanes of Khirkee village.
“Delhi can be understood in so many ways. There are so many layers to access,” says Aastha Chauhan, festival director of DWF. “Since city walks have been happening for a while, the festival wanted to push the boundary of what’s possible. Wandering gives a better sense of the city and unless you walk and discover a city, you will never take ownership of it.”
Such acts of discovery have by now become a regular fixture in many Indian cities—from Ahmedabad to Chennai. While Delhi’s festival may be somewhat unique, organized city walks have been around for nearly two decades.
The larger problem, though, is whether we are building walkable cities, says A.G.K. Menon, urban planner and former convener of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). “Walking raises the larger issue of whether our cities are habitable, humane and livable,” he says.
In a standardized metric like the Walkability Index, Indian cities rank lower than even poorer economies like Nepal and Indonesia. Kathmandu and Jakarta fare much better in international walkability rankings than Bengaluru or Surat.
Delhi does poorly despite its many wide, tree-lined avenues because walkability scores plummet outside certain zones—with outer regions roughly half as good to walk in as central Delhi.
Progress in Indian cities has been slow even though citywide walkability has been shown to have significant benefits for health, pollution reduction, perceptions of social connection and the quantum of retail sales.
The limited progress is, in part, because not enough of the affluent and powerful walk through India’s cities, says Menon. According to him, organized walks are one way of addressing that.
“The walks are not just about experiencing the legacy of a city like Delhi. It’s about experiencing the city as it is,” he says.
In her cultural history of walking, Wanderlust: A History Of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes that walkers are “practitioners of the city”, for the city is made to be walked in. “A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.”
Ultimately, walking is a form of participating. It is a way of communicating with the city—about its present and possible future.
Walks to try out
Blindfolded Walk At Qutub, led by Baldev Gulati, a visually challenged entrepreneur.
Qutub Minar, 5 November, 10am
Where The Artists Are Born, with dancer Aastha Gandhi.
Mandi House, 11 November, 3.30pm
A Brief History Of Khan Market, led by oral historian and author Aanchal Malhotra.
The Big Chill Cakery, Khan Market, 12 November, 5.30pm
Tickets per walk, Rs472. The schedule is available on www.delhiwalkfestival.com