What I think about when I think about walking.
|A picture from the first food walk that I had ever conducted.
4th December 2012, Taj Ice Cream, Bohri Mohalla.
The title of this story is a tribute to the wonderful book by Haruki Murakami called, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.’ I would highly recommend it even if you, like me, have not read any other of his books.
I have been a walker from as long as I remember.
When I was 7 in Calcutta. On Saturday evenings. After drawing class at the CLT. Walking down the Dhakuria Bridge to our home. Escorted by our house help. Clutching the Tintin comic I had picked up from the CLT library. Stopping for phuchkas on the way. 12 for a Rupee. 1 fau. Picking up a cold drink at the local grocer before going home. Which I would have over the weekend before the glass bottle was returned for the deposit.
When I was 10. We lived at my grandparents’ for a year after my dad passed away. At times I would walk back from school if the cycle van did not come. There was hardly vehicular traffic as this was ‘bridger opar’. There were stray dogs though. Once I was surrounded by a pack of stray dogs and with noone in sight. I remembered a line I had read in a book which said, ‘if cornered by an animal, look into its eyes and don’t turn your back. It will back off.’ Chubby little me in a chequered shirt and blue shorts stood my ground and looked firmly back at the dogs. It worked. I went home. Undigested.
My grandfather loved to walk. He would set out from the house at 4pm and return after an hour. The clang of the iron gate heralding his return. After we shifted to our own apartment, he would walk down every evening with my grandmother, be with my baby brother and me till my mother returned from work. As the years went by, he walked with the aid of a stick and then he walked into the world above as his body gave in to age. His spirit stayed with me through my love for reading and walking.
When I was in my teens and when school would be shut for the holidays, I would step out in the evening and walk down the winding roads from our house. Killing time. Bansdroni 205 terminus. Fire Brigade. Usha Bridge. Naktola. Back. OR occasionally. Bansdroni. Netaji Nagar. Golf Green, Lake Gardens. The former was an aimless walk. The latter to meet a friend. At times I would zero in on someone walking at a distance and walk an imaginary race with the person till I overtook him or her and then zero in on my next target. Not in sneakers or keds as we called them. Just regular Bata sandals. I learnt to value the company of myself. To value endurance. To set and beat targets. Long gone was the chubby baby whom a teacher had once called ‘Baby Elephant.’ I was a lanky and gangly teenager. To whom walking seem to be a natural thing to do. Those roads seem so much more crowded today when I go back, but back then they offered the solitude and adventure that I sought.
I changed schools after the tenth and my school was no longer a walk away from home as it was earlier. It was far. Very far. Going there were my first steps towards adulthood. I would from from Jora Girja to the Park Street metro when one could not get a bus to the Rabindra Sadan metro. Rewarding myself with a chaat at the chaatwala who stood outside the Park Street Metro with the money that I had saved from not taking a bus. He made a chaat with dahi and khasta kachori and tamaring chutney and sprouts and rock salt and chilli powder and ice cold dahi. It was one of the most heavenly things I had ever eaten. Or have eaten.
Then came five years of College Street. Grad and post grad. I would get off at the Chandni Chowk metro and walk to College Street in the third year of college when the station became functional. From the Central Avenue station, when it became functional a year later, to B School which was next to my college.
When the roads were waterlogged because of the rains, we would cut across the School of Tropical Medicine to reach our destination.
There were long meandering walks on the way back. Past Coffee House. College Square. Medical College. Bowbazar and its ‘Harkata Goli’ … hoping to catch a bus to Esplanade. With occasional stops for kochuri, chholar dal and white mishti doi at Putiram. Veg stew and pound ruti at the YMCA counter by the swimming pool. Daab Shorbot at Paradise. Pink mishto doi at Bhim Nag. And, when they returned to India, Coke…and then Pepsi. Or was it in the reverse order? I had waited for that day since we had moved to India in 1980 and I found out that neither was available.
‘Student life’ ended. I moved to Mumbai A white collared worker bee in the commercial capital of India. I would walk from my PG to Bandra Station. From Dadar Station to Office. Through the flower market when the rains were heavy. Trying to reach office without having ones trousers spray painted with slush.
On holidays we would take the train to Churchgate and walk to Sterling for a movie. Or to Regal at Colaba. The latter followed by ‘sasta daru’ at Gokul followed by overpriced, poor quality, chewy kebabs at the Bade Miya Stall, with rumali rotis that were so hard that they would make plastic sheets seem like gossamer.
I would often go out for dinner at Bandra with the new friends I had made, folks who had come from different parts of India to work. They lived in PGs or shared apartments n Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz and Juhu Koliwada. Sheriff, Thai Ban, Tiffin, Sahiban, Khane Khas, Temptations, Totos. I would always walk back to my PG by the Bandra Station regardless of where we ended the night.
If I had no plans on a weekend, I would walk alone from my PG, down Linking Road, right up to McDonalds, use the washroom, have a strawberry shake and a fillet o fish, then walk back. Stopping at the HP Petrol Pump as it had an HSBC ATM and a super market which was rather cool for its time. In the process Bandra became home to me. Continues to be so 25 years later. Not that this was ever the plan!
I moved to an ad agency in Nariman Point as an account planner. I missed the friends I had made at my earlier office. Then I met a Parsi girl in the creative department who would come to work wearing glasses, cotton tees and chequered pyjamas and flat high heels. I would often stop at her bay and chat though we had no business doing so. We did not share accounts. We began to step out together during lunch. To Bay Bite for the quaintly named Parsi dish, Kashmiri mutton pulao dal. To the Status Annexe for paratha veg korma. To the Pav Bhaji Wala. To Rajesh Juice-wala for mango milkshake in season. To the Oberoi Arcade shop for the ham sandwich. To the Mafco stall by Express Towers for chilli chicken and egg fried rice. I would eat. She would have a Tropicana juice. Or a mango milk shake if at Rajesh’s.
Then we began walking down to Churchgate Station together after work. Stopping at the vada pav stall in front of the LIC Building. Making ourselves heard through the crowds that thronged the stall every evening. Vada pav for me. Batata vada, no pav, for her. Exercising patience so that we did not burn our tongues.
We began meeting at Churchgate Station on the way to work and shared a cab to office. Then we began watching movies together after work. Walking to Sterling, New Excelsior or Regal, from office. To Churchgate after the movie. Unless it was the Creme De La Creme 10.45 pm show at Sterling in which case we took a cab to catch the last train.
One day we walked into each others lives… I expressed my feelings to her … while walking back to the station one evening.
We got married a year later and set up home together at Khar.
Walking became a part of our fitness regime. We would walk at Patwardhan Park. Have a sugarcane juice at the end. Then buy grapes for home and ras malai from Brijwasi for me. Then wonder why we kept putting on weight. We tried early morning walks. At Patwardhan. At Carter Road. She, brisk and ready, as she was used to walking at Five Gardens before going to office when still single. Me, a sleepy and reluctant walker, more an obedient husband if anything.
We were no longer in the same office. I walked alone from office to Churchgate Station. Had the vada pav alone. Took the train to Bandra or Khar Station and walked home. Till I shifted to a job which came with a car and a petrol allowance.
As a married couple, our walks became increasingly less functional. We shifted to Bandra. We would walk to Pali Market. Or to Candies, JATC, Gloria Jeans. Cafes were, and continue, to be our thing.
As the years went by, we reached a happy compromise for our ‘fitness’ walks. Evening became the norm. From Patwardhan we moved to Joggers and then to Carter Road. Up. Down. Coconut water. Then home.
I switched careers. Shedding the ‘fetters’ of corporate life to follow my childhood dream of being a writer. Not science fiction as I thought it would be then, but about a subject close to my heart. And girth. Food.
I fell into vacuum and then into a very dark a space. At times K would try to get me to step out and walk. “You will feel better. I finally found my feet slowly thanks to K, my doctor and my Buddhist faith. I began to walk again!
This time in the form of food walks. Helping people discover the city I now called home, through its food. My first professional foray in the world of food. We would walk down Bohri Mohalla having khiri at Haji Tikka, nihari at Valibhai and sancha ice cream at Taj. Or stop for akoori at Ideal Corner. pav bhaji at Ashok’s, prawn gassi and neer dosa at Apurva at Fort and start off with bun maska chai at Yazadani and lassi at Moti Halwai. Just as we would start at Candies in Bandra before going to Snack Shack, Khane Khas and Punjab Sweets. Or Aaswad, Sai Samarth and Sachin or Sindhudurg when in Dadar, with a shopping stop at Kokan Bazar.
As writing and consulting assignments came in, the food walks slowly began to fade. They played their role when I needed them. It became clear that this is not what I wanted to do. I was happier at my desk, keying in words into my laptop.
Walk as ‘work” did not work for me. It was something much deeper for me. Near meditative.
The evening walks continued. For health more than anything else. Something to be done. Without looking for joy.
Then came the pandemic. Walks were the only occasions one had to step out. In the beginning, it felt as if one was in a prison yard. Walking in N95 maks. With only the street dogs for company in a city under siege from an unseen enemy.
Our first cat, Baby Loaf, had walked into my life a bit before the pandemic and soon we became of parents of not one, but two cats, with our younger one Nimki, being a pandemic baby. I met a kitten one evening when on a walk. It was tiny and came up to me and brushed its tail against me. K named him Smol. Going to see him motivated me to step out on evenings when I did not want to walk. It was almost as if he came into my life to make me walk. The gang grew over the months. Feline. And human. We made a couple of cat lover friends who came to feed the cats. For months, they were our only social contact outside of the pandemic social bubble we had created for ourselves. We would bump into each other at Smol’s corner and chat, masks firmly on. Happy to come across human life.
The Covid pandemic began to define our lives. A strange thing happened.
Man, once a social animal, stopped going out. ‘Covid can’t touch us when at home’. ‘Nor can anything else’.
People began to deliver everything home. Risking their lives in search of a livelihood, while we tried to protect ours.
We increasingly lost our natural tendency to step out. A trip outside of home became akin to a covert operation. Heading out in masks, armed with hand sanitisers, avoiding public transport to the extent possible.
From being someone who walked everywhere, I became someone who walked only to meet his feline friends. Then that stopped as covid and its friends – herpes zoster and blood sugar spikes – dropped into my life. I dug deeper and deeper into my cave
It was only when we went to Paris and Berlin on a holiday that one began to walk again. In search of cafes and whatever made one happy. Accompanied with google maps and not masks. And very comfortable yellow Onitsuka kicks that I had I bought for the purpose.
I carried a bit of the holiday mood with me when I returned home.
I stepped out. I walked to banks to get interest certificates one day. To Pali Naka to buy chana sing and pots and pans that needed to be replaced. Walked one afternoon to visit a fellow Buddhist friend at Shirley Rajan Road and then walked back. I go out out meet our feline friends of course, whom I now call the Kitty Blinders. And walk once they calm down and have had their fill of me and the food I carry.
I walked to our Soka Buddhist Cultural Centre at Madhu Park a few evenings back. The first meeting there after 2.5 years of Zoom. It felt like V Day after the second World War.
My step count came closer to my holiday digits thanks to the distance I walked that evening.
There was a sense of nostalgia from my PG days as I walked down Linking Road. Past Jai Jawan and McDonalds and the shoe vendors. Was it so crowded 25 years back, I wondered.
I took SV Road on the way back and regretted it. It was dark and dank thanks to the Metro work. An invisible dust cloud accompanied me as I trudged along, making a mental note to never poke fun at Saki Naka and its desolateness again. I finally hit Linking Road and marvelled at how different the two roads that ran parallel to each other were demographically. If Linking Road was the glam girl, SV Road represented the way western film makers like to depict India. Think City of Joy, Slumdog Millionaire etc
I took SV Road on the as I had a promise to keep. I stopped for a tasting at a newly opened Kerala street food QSR on SV Road. I got to meet the people who run it. Folks who once straddled the same professional paths as I had… market research, advertising, journalism and… and yet were cheerfully standing in a humble kerbside stall, dishing out crunchy chicken and serving it to people sitting on plastic stools. I was in awe of their story and we connected immediately.
‘We have all got used to staying at home. We need to push ourselves to step out. To meet people in person. To have dialogues. To build heart to heart connections. To be a beacon of hope and joy.’
These words from the meeting I was in earlier that evening came back to me as I chatted with my new friends.
And again when I stepped out the next evening to feed Jugs, along with Scooby and Smol. The latest member of the Kitty Blinders.
The walker in me had finally woken up after its Rip Van Winkle like sleeping from home stint.
On the way home I met our octagenarian neighbour, who suddenly lost his ability to walk beyond a step or two a few months back, and has been confined to their apartment since then.
‘How are you’, I asked.
‘I am ok. It’s just that I can’t walk outside of our house. I used to walk so much. At least 3,4 times a day.’
‘A day? We would see you step out 3 to 4 times to the market even before we were fully awake!’
‘One day it just stopped. We have no idea what happened.’
‘I am sure you will start walking again. Just as suddenly as you had stopped.’
I tried to muster the most confident smile possible and give him hope.
He smiled back wanly. My grandfather would have understood his pain.