It is truly ironical how we, as urban dwellers, tend to complain about how exasperating city life can be and yet, are unable to live away from it for too long. What is it that appeals – is it the constant jostling for space, the sights and sounds and even the smells of urbanity, or is it the often-comforting anonymity that cities (or towns) lend us?
A city or town is most fully experienced when it is measured in footfalls – by walking, preferably aimlessly. Wandering in a city and being open to all that it has to offer has been a favourite pastime for many city-dwellers and most city-lovers. But, given that we’re now in Lockdown 4.0, the constantly rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, and the division of the cityscape into containment zones, it might be a while before we’re able to head out to do anything other than shop for groceries. In order to tide you over and remind you of what it feels like to experience a city on foot, here’s a list of seven books that are all about wandering.
A quintessential Bombay novel, Milk Teeth can be described as a story about characters coming into their own. Set mainly in the 1990s, the novel follows Ira, a young civic-beat journalist, as she reconnects with lost friendships and lost love against the background of a politically and socially simmering city. Ira harbours a quiet love for Bombay and its streets, as she moves around for her work. She takes to walking around the city as a salve for her aching heart, and reconnects with her childhood friend, Kartik, over a long walk. Amrita Mahale roots Ira’s emotional turmoil within the landscape of the city itself, likening the flow of Ira’s tears to the frequency of Bombay’s local trains. In addition to this, the luminous writing and wonderfully fleshed-out characters make this book a great read.
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Virginia Woolf (also a famous city-walker herself) was one of the forerunners of the stream of consciousness style of writing that emerged in early 20th century England. Mrs. Dalloway also follows this style. The entire novel is set over a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, beginning with her walking out of her home in the morning to buy flowers for the party she is throwing that evening. We follow Mrs. Dalloway as she walks through London, with scenes in the city around her bringing forth memories and flashes from her past, of the people in her life and of the people she has known. While the moving taxi cabs on the streets make her think of the ordinariness of life, particularly her own, these mental associations aren’t just limited to the traffic and milling crowds. It is the activity of walking that also triggers those thoughts, that accelerates a middle-aged woman’s reflections upon her life and choices. This book may be a bit challenging because of the way it is written, but it is a short novel with a mild twist that makes you wonder about the characters and the period it is set in, and is overall a rewarding read.
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The Neapolitan Series
Beginning with My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series spans four books and follows the friendship between Elena and Lila, who live in a backward working-class neighbourhood in Naples. The books trace their journey right from their childhood through the very different paths their lives take as they grow into adult women. The Naples described in the books is ferocious, unjust, and violent, and Lila and Elena take to walking through the city at multiple points to escape the suffocation they feel. Ferrante’s writing brings Naples alive – but this is a Naples that lacks the usual glamour that accompanies a modern city, one that is corrupt, decrepit and dirty. The series gained such popularity that it boosted tourism in Naples, leading to the rise of several walking tours and groups that retrace Lila and Elena’s walks in the novels.
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This novel focusses more on literary musings rather than plot. However, the language is beautiful and lyrical, and filled with profound insights on culture and urban living. Julius is a Nigerian-American psychiatry resident living in Manhattan. Just out of a relationship, he finds himself captivated by the city of New York. Rootless and solitary, he takes to going on long, meandering walks through the city – reading its streets, walking through neighbourhoods and having encounters with strangers. Part of the novel is also set in the city of Brussels, where he again explores the city by meandering through its streets while reflecting upon culture and the surrounding cityscape. If you’re looking for a book that evocatively describes what it means to truly walk in a city simply and solely for the sake of walking, then this is the book for you.
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The Lonely City
A moving exploration of what it means to be lonely, this non-fiction book looks at how a sense of loneliness while living in a city has infused into and informed the works of various artists. Finding herself heartbroken and alone in New York, Olivia Laing reflects upon how other artists, like Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper, explored their experiences of loneliness. As she wanders through cobbled streets and long promenades, Laing tells us about the lives of these artists and how they interacted with the city. In one section, she muses about Hopper and his images of urban spaces that are cramped, anxious and desolate. In another section, Laing details how the artist David Wojnarowicz turned to art to bring out the New York that he saw during his violent childhood – a city with its hidden places, the spaces that haunted him, or those that held meaning for him. This book is largely an exploration on how the impressions of a city – best imbibed by walking – intertwine with the acute sense of loneliness that comes with living in it to make beautiful art.
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Jejuri is a collection of wry poems that are satirical as well as sceptical at times. Not only do they remark upon ideas of faith and religion, but, by doing so, they also present a peculiar picture of this hilly town with priests and pilgrims milling about. Jejuri is a temple town in Western Maharashtra, and the speaker, throughout these poems, appears to be an avowed non-believer wandering about the town. While Jejuri isn’t exactly a book about a walker in a city wandering its lanes in the way the rest of the books on this list are, some of the meanderings of the visitor-speaker bring to the fore images of the little details of a temple town. Station masters (the poems were published in the 1970s, and trains held a different sort of significance at the time), priests, temples, even cows and street dogs make an appearance in this collection, conjuring up a vivid picture of the workings of the town. One of Arun Kolatkar’s more well-known collections, Jejuri also won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize when it was published.
Buy it here.
Flâneuse: Women Walk The City
A flâneur is an idler, someone who roams around a city aimlessly. A flâneur is also male, since women weren’t, historically, allowed to go out alone to wander in a city. It is in the context of the flâneur, or flâneuse (the author’s feminine form for the word), that Lauren Elkin draws upon some famous creative women – such as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys and George Sand – and their interactions with the city. She interposes their experiences with her personal accounts of walking in the cities of Venice, Paris, New York and Tokyo. This thoroughly immersive part-memoir, part-literary non-fiction book takes on a celebratory tone since the author considers women’s explorations of a city via foot as being attuned to the creative potential the city brings with it, and also being open to ‘the liberating possibilities of a good walk’.
Buy it here.
Tasneem is a freelance culture writer based out of Mumbai. Her unique interests include watching movies, TV shows and reading, while her banal ones include listening to podcasts and observing nature. She lives in the hope that her hijab will someday win the staring contest it is always subjected to. You can follow her on Instagram.
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