I find walking mostly functional. I have to get from point A to point B and there’s nothing else on my mind but reaching my destination as fast as I can. I walk fast. I wear sensible shoes, carry a large bottle of water and am not amused by sight or sound that could distract me when I am trying to reach my destination. I find it amusing then when people walk for recreation. I cannot even take a walk in a park and I simply abhor those guided tours that you take while sight-seeing(such an odd phrase). But walks are quite the trend today and I really do mean trend. Everyday for the past few weeks I open the newspaper to see walks organised for different purposes. Heritage walks, cultural walks, fictional walks…where in this crowded city do these odd group of strangers meet to walk? When maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangalore that I work with on and off initially suggested a walk as a creative practice, I simply did not understand them. The first walk we took was an olfactory walk. An Olfactory Walk around garbage dumps and sewage lines and manholes for about a couple of hours, punctuated with some storytelling and informative bytes. The walk was as odd as it sounded and the first time around beside the all-pervasive odour that kept the small group of us company throughout the walk, i’d stick to unusual as the better adjective and informative if i were being technical. I still hadn’t wrapped my head around these walks with interruptions.
The second walk was last Sunday. The theme of the walk remained the same and our best guide was still odour. This time around both form and effect created a complete picture of how a guided walk can be creative, so I will spend time explaining it in entirety. The collective itself works to explore different issues within the city of Bangalore primarily and with that in mind, the theme of waste disposal, management and the worker was rooted in the practises of the city. The obsession with this issue began with a series of deaths ;of workers dying due to asphyxiation in manholes. Subsequently someone from the collective joined a protest that took place at Town Hall regarding the issue of the garbage workers in the city and found to her surprise and disappointment that the protest was little more than a handful of people with placards sitting in the blazing sun for a few hours to disperse just as hopelessly a while later. A lot of projects that Maraa takes up and makes their own, rise from similar dead spaces. The stillness in the air at protests in Bangalore and slogans that never seem to reach a crescendo before it falls, is one of this spaces they have tried shaking awake with music,theatre,storytelling and now walks.
A motley group gathered on a Sunday evening, reserved by most Bangaloreans for blissful nothings and filter coffee to voluntarily breathe in the putrid air of remains. We walked in pairs, along a long drain pipe, white hosues, a small open garbage dump,a children’s park, littered sidewalks, white houses, children playing on the road and more parks, white houses and trees that seemed to want to touch the grounds instead of towering above. We walked through quiet residential lanes and sparse traffic, past a bakery with glistening chocolate treats and past organic gift shops. We walked till the roads grew wider, the houses became retail stores and the monopoly of the bikes on quiet lanes gave way to an incoming storm of roaring,whirring,huffing and puffing vehicles. We went up to a skyway that I always thought the city had forgotten about and stared for a while at this storm. “The storm of progress,” they said in orchestrated harmony behind us. The creative was now seeping into what was simply a walk until that point. The performative element seemed like an initiation into something we had willingly entered a while ago but had just then become reality. I wondered what a bird must feel like watching the city from above. Did the bird find it odd that the creatures on two legs thought it was life that the whizzing vehicles and the bustling stores represented; colour was the colour of denims,the leather, the canvas, plumped lips and widened eyes. We stopped and watched what we called life, standing above it and looking down at it now in its form of metal,plastic,tar and concrete.
The walk continued. It felt like for once, the life was not outside of me. We were leaving the noise behind once more. I don’t remember where we stopped next and for what, but the pauses were more close together and the punctuations were more varied. We stopped at an open drain line beside another children’s park, as our guides for the day-odour and human- put up pieces of paper that overlooked the drain. We read about an old man, a drunk, his life neck-deep in the murk we flush down everyday. We read about a woman, she fed her family with hands that sorted through what we clamped tightly shut and covered in opaque black bags thrown out of sight every morning.
There’s a children’s story about elves that came at night to cobble shoes for a shoemaker. He never saw them, but the work would be done every morning. Patches of material turned into beautifully designed footwear. The smelly garbage dump or the overflow of a sewer line forces you to acknowledge it in all its ugliness, its presence activates all senses and pervades all thoughts. I wonder why a garbage dump cleared out, or the roads cleaned every morning or the black bag outside my gate that goes missing every morning doesn’t occupy any space in my mind then. The shoes were made, did it matter if it was magic or little elves that toiled all night long? And I am not talking about any kind of labour, it’s hours,days,years of ones life spent in toxic remains of creatures with an intellectual faculty. It should be inconceivable that human hands touch these remains, yet we seem to have designed and perpetuated a system where an entire community does nothing else by virtue of birth alone.
We stopped by another garbage dump near in a narrow lane that couldn’t make sense of a sudden group of people. We listened to a masterful ideology given license to by someone we still regard as the greatest Indian. “The Bhangi’s service is like that of our mothers, but we never
call them untouchables. Far from it, the mother is revered as a Goddess worth remembering during
our morning prayers. The Bhangi therefore is a true servant of society—with the only difference that he works for earning his bread, while the mother does it in a beneficent spirit. The mother serves the child with love and she gets love in return. But salary is the return the sweeper gets for his service. Just as we cannot live without mothers, so can we not live without sweepers.”
Another bit of treasure from the Prime Minister and whose brain child the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is,
“I do not believe that they (Valmiki’s) have been doing this job (cleaning) just to sustain their
livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after
gene-ration…. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their
duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job
bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is
impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or
It is terrifying to know we still draw inspiration from a man dead and long gone and another who is to lead our country to a better and brighter future. In Stalin K’s documentary on manual scavengers he juxtaposes scenes of dry latrines in villages being cleaned up by Bhangis to officials claiming that the ban on manual scavenging has ensured that there are no more manual scavengers. The documentary film, Lesser Humans- an apt title, considering we have no records of humans still continuing this practise, so they must be lesser humans- along with several other films, reports and documents compiled by private organisations show extensive proof of this practise in existence, while there is still supposedly no governmental records of this. Who then are those men who died in manholes, who is that man you see lowering himself into one to unclog your faeces and excrements from last morning?
I found my mind running from mundane things like finding a rhythm to the sound my shoes made on gravel to the colour of my red nails against my skin to the brown of hot sweet tea swirling in a red cup. When I caught my mind running haywire, I wondered again if it was possible to keep the mind wandering when the walk should be keeping my mind on garbage and those green uniformed bodies that incidentally I still did not spot once during the walk. Perhaps they were to remain invisible. Punctuations then are those pauses that keep the words from becoming a ramble. We stopped and sat under a tree. We were told that it was the site of the main garbage dump of the city. A tourist guide often triumphantly proclaims the main attraction of a place, this large open garbage dump was the equivalent then.
Chimamanda Adichie says that when she’s writing fiction,she feels free. You are still bound to truth when you are writing telling a story, but you aren’t bound to facts. And the truth often becomes a telling tale when it captures the imagination. We couldn’t sit under a tree and not listen to a story. So we listened to one, and this for me was the most momentous part of the walk. There was an alarming quiet in the story that was unsettling in its telling, with imagery that compelled colours and shapes and in this case, odour, to take form in the mind. A story about a land that seemed so far far away and yet within the realms of this city, where a glass of water not contaminated or a breath of air that didn’t breathe in every toffee wrapper,banana peel,gnawed chicken bones,rotting vegetable,used syringes,diapers, sanitary napkins,used condoms from every household in this city, were heard to come by. There’s a quote by Zizek that maraa shared at some point of time that comes to mind, “In our most elementary experience, when we flush the toilet, excrements simply disappear out of our reality into another space, which we phenomenon logically perceive as a kind of a netherworld, another reality, a chaotic, primordial reality. And the ultimate horror, of course, is if the flush doesn’t work, if objects return, if remainders, excremental remainders, return from that dimension.”
This story then, was a horror story of a netherworld that wasn’t in this world or my lifetime, let alone this city;this then was a story of a ghost village with ghosts, not humans. A land where everything that dies and is discarded by the living world ends up. How could I comprehend it as real when my reality was an empty dustbin and water that filtered through layers of corporate sanctified safety? I didn’t leave that land for the rest of the walk. We probed further into ideology that had licensed human existence to an unredeemable fate. We laughed about the mammoth campaign that took birth on Gandhi Jayanti, the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan that had spent millions into promotional advertisement before Neetu Ambani found a broom of the right colour.
The sun had long set, an enforced silence had become more clouded with deep unsettlement. Someone asked what we were all thinking,”What are we to do about it?” Do we call the local Councillor, call both residents and the powrakarmikas, the contract workers and BBMP officials? A large assembly, a small localised one? Do we ask for more safety measures, gloves, boots? But they don’t want the material that slips off their hands and only makes their job more time consuming. Then what? Better wages? Can we start by reducing our consumption and being more conscious of our waste produce and then about disposal from the household itself?
The walk is a provocation, their memo said. As a practise, it had developed well with its performative bits, the silence, the ideological debates, the stories all weaved into the odour. They took an element from the issue they sought to tackle and imaginatively found a way to let it seep into our conscience even with thoughts of brown tea in red cups. Given a sense of both the issue and sensibility to the practise of walking itself. It had most certainly provoked questions, that didn’t reach resolutions but had burned a deeper sense of being in my mind atleast.
Could it have been the same if my mum had gone for the walk instead of me? What if Lalana, the soft skills trainer, Partha a research student in law, Prerana a journalism student were replaced by my uncle,the Homeopath from Kerala, my maid Lakshmi who faces most of the burden of the amount we consume at home or even my dad, who for all his politics is still an old Nair who goes back to Kerala to all the kneeling and cowering by the lower caste helpers at home? What would the walk have provoked in them?
My stride changed as I walked back home after the walk, my pace was rhythmic and fast and I didn’t stop till I reached my destination. My walk was merely functional again. My mind however was still stuck in that netherworld where the bottle I now crushed would end up. I cannot believe any human system can exist and exist thus for centuries before me and possibly still for generations after me