A Solitary Stroll: Walking, Reading, Mapping

How does a geographical landscape orchestrate and align the reader in us? How does gender bear upon such a complicated process of engaging with a text? MD Mahasweta takes us for a leisurely walk…

The reader is the centre where all references merge—the source of meaning. As such, our minds are a continuum of texts, a patchwork consisting of everything that we have read or seen or experienced in some way. I would like to look at it as I would a map that we build meticulously, gluing in tiny bits to the edges, polishing a patch here, tweaking a bump there. In my own map of reading, the striking figure of the flaneuse traversing the streets of the metropolis has come up time and again. Nora Flood hounding her lover Robin Vote across the gloomy streets of Paris in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is a pertinent example, perhaps. Or the haunting figure of Kay in Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch prowling through the city in men’s clothes, looking for the lover she has lost, or rather, something precious the city as a whole has lost during the war. In her 1930 essay, “Street Haunting”, Virginia Woolf paints an arresting picture of London in January with its pools of light and silences superimposed,at the same time, with the ebb and flow of people. The narrator needs an excuse, a lead pencil, to venture out and experience the city as a flaneuse. London is a space of connectedness for Woolf as she trespasses into the lives of others, constructing stories about them, around them. Just enough ‘…to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.’ And these journeys into the personalities of others are a source of great ‘delight and wonder.’

Wiz-word Flanerie: A French word connoting the act of roaming around in the city aimlessly. The flaneur was a quintessentially Parisian figure in the nineteenth century, exploring the city with a degree of detachment. The flaneuse, his female counterpart is a more recent theoretical formulation.

If chronology could indeed be mapped, defying Henri Bergson’s theory of time, the metropolis and its delights would form a separate cluster in the map of my reading. It came much, much later in my life as I started exploring Calcutta in my 20s. Growing up, I sourced my role models from the nineteenth century. Aside from Dickens’s London, I drew sustenance from rural novels. As such, the figure with the most lasting impression on my own imagination was that of the solitary woman peregrinating, as it were, in the countryside. What did walking alone mean to them? Surely not connecting with other people as it did for Woolf’s flaneuse….

The subversive figure of Eustacia Vye, one of the central figures from my favourite novel of the time, The Return of the Native seeks a form of radical detachment. Eustacia is the raw material for divinities and her hunting ground is the rough, wild, glowering Egdon Heath. She is the kind of person who likes to work on Sundays when other people rest andrest on the other days of the week as she watches other people work. Her witchy walks across the forbidding landscape of the heath are an act of defiance. She is the Persephone and ‘Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto.’ A recalcitrant landscape to reflect the soul of a recalcitrant heroine, someone who refuses to be identified with the people around her, whose haptic memory is trained by ‘years of night-rambling in little-trodden spots.’ In June, the day stretched on till 8 pm in the Central Indian city where I used to live. The trees dried up in the heat and in the receding light of the sunset, I wandered through the winding streets imagining myself to be just as powerful and tragic as Eustacia. My neighbourhood, with its uneven topography was my heath. A trap, a home, a repository of associations, the beginnings of my intellectual life. It was then also a space for self-making. More than a room of my own, this neighbourhood of my own, gave me the space to think and to situate myself. The book, the reader and a deserted hilltop neighbourhood to walk in—could one think of a better combination?

For Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, solitary walks offer an opportunity for deep self-introspection. Fearing social stigma, a pregnant Tess can only step out of doors after dark: ‘She had no fear of the shadows; her sole idea seemed to be to shun mankind…’ As always, Hardy’s description of the rural scene is full of sensory details. ‘On these lonely hills and dales her quiescent glide was of a piece with the element she moved in. Her flexuous and stealthy figure became an integral part of the scene.’ The moaning wind through the winter twigs, the rabbits on ‘a moonlit warren’, or a ‘pheasant-laden bough’, everything seems sentient. Her surroundings have suddenly become prehensile, as it were, and respond to her, facilitating an ethical dialogue that she could not have with human beings. Such potentially life-giving loneliness was an appealing idea to me back then. Living in relative isolation and being, on top of that, socially awkward, I too found solace in walking. The winding streets and sleepy bungalows of the civil lines became the setting for my story; my loneliness made me the protagonist.

Jeanette Winterson wrote in Sexing the Cherry that every journey away from something is also a journey towards something. These walks of self-making were, in the same vein, circuitous. As much as their trajectories reached away from home, they also led back to it.The pleasure that I derived from that was also from the knowledge that there was a home awaiting them, to which they could return. This crucial element made all the difference. In Jane Eyre, Jane’s ramble across the grounds of Thornfield Hall or her walks to the neighbouring village can be sharply contrasted with her escape from the place after her failed wedding to Rochester. Without money or a home to return to, her walk becomes a nightmare as she resorts to begging. Thus Woolf ends her essay on flanerie, ‘That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed.’

Photo by Suman Mukherjee

Thus, every walk ended with the comforting sight of the yellow bougainvillea trailing around my tiny sliver of a balcony, the light leaking out of the windows and of the familiar notes of Bengali songs issuing from the house that I had been so eager to leave a few hours ago. Whether one goes out for the joy of a return, or whether one returns to be able to go out again will remain a mystery. But to return, then, and also now, means more journeys in the library and countless other walks that remain to be taken.


Title Photo by Shouvik Banerjee


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