Walking with the Pied Piper

Walking with the Pied Piper
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First Published: Fri, Feb 20 2009. 10 12 PM IST

Along the shore: A man washes laundry in the Yamuna; (below) boys scamper across water pipes along the river. Zackary Canepari
Along the shore: A man washes laundry in the Yamuna; (below) boys scamper across water pipes along the river. Zackary Canepari
Updated: Fri, Feb 20 2009. 10 12 PM IST
A couple of weeks ago, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I left my friend in Nizamuddin West and set off in search of an autorickshaw. By the time I found one, I realized I wanted to keep walking. So I did. An hour later, I reached home in Defence Colony.
Along the shore: A man washes laundry in the Yamuna; (below) boys scamper across water pipes along the river. Zackary Canepari
For two years I have whined and moaned to everyone and anyone how I loved New Delhi, but I hated, hated, hated that I couldn’t walk in the city. “Go to Lodi Garden!” my helpful friends would insist. That wasn’t quite what I meant. I wanted to just step out of my house and walk. Explore the city from the leisurely pace of a stroll. Use it as an excuse to skip the gym. Find the secret park I always missed flying by in a car.
But I convinced myself that in Delhi, sidewalks didn’t exist, or if they did, they had more craters than Swiss cheese and were impossible to use. I couldn’t stand the pollution from the cars barrelling down the road. There were no crosswalks. There were no shady, leisurely paths to follow.
But I had made it unscathed on my first walk home—and I even enjoyed it.
My friend thought my “little hike” hilarious. “Do you want to do that again?” “Feel like walking today?” He teased me mercilessly until he started reading a new book. In Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, Sam Miller, a BBC correspondent and self-described flaneur (a person who wanders simply because of an interest in urban life), decided to start in Connaught Place and stroll in a spiral around Delhi, ever outward, until he reached Gurgaon, spinning a brilliant tale of his treasure hunt, all in the back roads and bylanes of our city.
Suddenly my friend had a brilliant idea: We should walk more!
I had to know who this crazy Pied Piper was, convincing my friend to walk when I had failed.
So I started reading Miller’s book. And I started walking.
I did both at the same time until I tripped and fell very hard. I also swallowed a fly. It wasn’t pretty.
But when I put down the book and started paying attention to the world around me, my walk was just what Miller had envisioned: “a template for discovery, for chance meetings, for exploring this frightful, delightful city in flux”.
In the book, Miller’s wild exploration of the city inspired in me an insatiable curiosity for a place I had long since grown numb to. He reminded me that there was so much still to discover around every corner and across every street. It was a tough call as to which I enjoyed more: the walking or the reading.
At first, I set out with purpose: I’ll walk to work. I’ll walk to the market. I’ll walk to yoga practice. I walked down roads I had driven down a million times before because I was still too nervous to set off in his footsteps.
The comments poured in:
From a co-worker who saw me as he drove past me on the road: “What are you doing! Did your car break down?”
From my yoga instructor after class, “I can give you a lift home.”
“No, really, I’m going to walk.”
“Do you need to borrow money?”
From a friend after hearing about my new hobby: “I’m more worried for you than I am for your boyfriend!” (the boyfriend is currently embedded with the US army in Kabul).
But I ignored them. I kept reading Miller and I kept walking. My legs ached on occasion. I learnt quickly that you should not wear yoga pants while walking on Delhi streets. And I took Gandhi’s advice, which Miller shares in the book: Don’t walk with your mouth open (fewer flies).
Finally, when I had built up enough confidence, I set off to follow Miller’s trail.
I chose one of the 13 maps he includes in the book. I opted for a trail along the Yamuna river because Miller pokes fun at people living in Delhi their whole lives and never seeing the actual water. He was mostly right: It had been years since I’d seen the river and I’ve never once purposefully set out for it.
Where in Delhi? (top to bottom) On his walk, Miller discovered a Campa billboard in Connaught Place; clotheslines at a New Delhi station railway platform; and a tombstone in a cemetery on Man Singh Road. Sam Miller
So, armed with his book, an Eicher map, a solid pair of walking shoes and a camera, I parked at the Lovely Public School in east Delhi and wandered through totally foreign streets just a 15-minute drive from our home. There was the most amazing green and pink Gaudi-like building I’d ever seen. I found the world’s smallest mechanic shop. And I got chased out of a park thanks to an entourage of 30 kids getting a little too excited about my camera.
By the time I reached the river, I had collected my own Pied Piper trail of four 10-year-old boys who leapt and scampered over the construction site along the Noida Link Road. They finally got bored of waiting for me to do something entertaining and drifted off, while I circled down into the farmland that spreads out along the Yamuna.
Strolling along the river should make any person a diehard environmentalist. The black sludge water seems to be only able to sustain the life of rotting trash. Even the birds didn’t look like they wanted to get too close.
But despite the pollution and the horrible burnt peanut butter smell, it’s an amazingly beautiful, serene place. Farmers offered me chai. Parakeets twittered in the branches. A devout man tossed rose petals into the water. It took 3 hours to finally wend my way to the Bridge of Boats, which I crossed just as the sun was setting.
I may have caused some traffic jams—auto drivers and rickshawallahs never seemed to believe me when I insisted I wanted to walk. And I have shin splints like you wouldn’t believe. But there are still 12 more paths to follow on Miller’s magical mystery tour and plenty of more walks I can make up as I go along. Tonight, it’ll be from Connaught Place to Civil Lines. Tomorrow? I’m off to find the last remaining residence on the Ridge.
On the night of my Yamuna walk, I started to tell some friends about it. They looked at me with confusion on their faces. One girl started saying, “The Yamuna? Why?”, but she was cut off by another friend: “Oh, we went walking today too!”
“Where?” I asked.
“Lodi Garden. It was so great. You should go there.”
I kept my mouth shut. They probably wouldn’t understand. But I’ll have to give them Miller’s book as a gift soon.
melissa.b@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Feb 20 2009. 10 12 PM IST