Thursday, November 17, 2016

Flaneuse-ing in Madikeri: In The Byword


A version of this essay was published in The Byword, a magazine of literature, arts and culture published from New Delhi in their third issue. 

EDIT: The magazine has now changed to The Punch, an online publication. You can read this piece on their website here.



This starts in Madikeri. Everything starts in Madikeri. Not just because that is where I learned to walk first, one fat foot before the other. I was a fat child. Chubby was the favoured word then though, of course. This begins in Madikeri because that is where everything that is me begins. Everything goes back to this little green dot, a speck pulsating unhurriedly on the map of coffee country. 

Without a beginning somewhere you couldn't possibly have a continuous now or a continued measure of progression. If all this, the now, is that at all. So I believe. So we all need to believe. It is faith and belief and illusion and all that, like a conditioned belief in a deity that by any name you might wish to revere. We all need our illusions.

So this began a summer in the 1990s, I want to say, when the shadows on the red oxide veranda fell long and slow in the afternoons. The idyllic went further, with mango trees at four arms’ length, two Kashmir trees – firs – that stood in front like intricately carved stone sculptures guarding the sanctum sanctorum in ancient worn out temples. Granny told stories, starting sometimes in the morning if I pestered and begged enough, and continuing, one after lunch, two before bed, like a dose of antibiotics that could make the summers bearable. Granny, an excellent storyteller to rival every writer in the world, died a few years later. 

I wonder what happens to the stories when the storyteller dies. 

With every passing summer, I began to favour the words sandwiched between pages that smelled musty or crisp, depending on how well and long they had been thumbed. Granny was aging, and her stories were not enough for someone who wanted more and more and more, greedy, hungry, obsessed with collecting stories.

And that is how and why I started walking. 

Madikeri in the early 1990s was slow, quiet and beautiful, as most hill towns are. It is mostly all these things today too. Having worked my way through nearly all of the collection of hard bound Russian literature that grandpa had left me, and with no access to book stores save for the one that sold the day’s newspapers, some stray magazines and crime pulp with garish covers, I wound up one summer at the district library. It was within a newer building in the fort complex, a plain box of a structure, not airy, not too well lit and marinated for years in the heady mix of the smells of books very old/never used and books newer/much borrowed. I loved the fort that it faced though. The roads that led up to this fort, its old chapel turned never-open museum, the library, the government offices and hangers-on aplenty, were all encompassed within a stone compound that I have only once ever circled. These roads were where I drew my first maps for. 

The map has been in my head for years now. It began where the corner of my house ended. This house from 1962/63, named after how a bulb in the veranda looked like a star from the curve of the road after the central post office in town, was in the outskirts, in a village before the town grew a fat belly and swallowed it in. From the edge of the garden, a narrow path led past the ‘line mane’ - houses, a row of small houses, all without gaps, a style very typical of labour quarters in plantations that dots my region densely. My nanny lived in one of these houses. Past this ‘line mane’, I would walk down to the fields that we once grew paddy in, till labour became sparse and buying rice became cheaper. I don’t remember those years when we grew our own rice very well. But I can picturize fields green as bright emerald, with cranes and tittibaa, a close cousin of the crane I assume, decorating themselves like props here and there between the paddy stalks. I am not sure the imagery is from the fields that we could see from the house, but I do remember a time when it was green and not the colours of the rainbow that the houses built upon this farm land today are painted in. 

Across the fields, left and then a right turn would be a road that was lined with state built police quarters on one side – white walls and brown roof tiles, standard, regulation, except for a pot on the window sill here, a bicycle leaning against the back door there, each distinguished only by the clothes hung out to dry, the only separating identity that hinted at who lived these otherwise uniformed lives. On the other side was my favourite view, that of Stone Hill – Stewart Hill officially – and the other nameless little hillocks that extended a little to the left and the right which my parents and I, on some evenings, drive up to, to watch the city lights come on or the sun go down, leaving behind skies the colours of lapis and peacock plume and jewels upon a grand crown. Then past the remand home for juvenile wrongdoers with high gates that you could still see through of, an old friend’s house, another hillock I once played Seven Stones and Hopscotch on that had now been carved through to house big houses, past Fair Traders, one of the first departmental stores in town, run by people from the neighbouring state and a brief crossing over of a main road.

This map took me many trips to the library to draw, many trials, much unease as I grew older and the boys from out of town a little more boldly rowdish. I loved climbing, any steep roads, of which of course my hill town had plenty, was to be mandatorily added onto my map into town and back. Even if it added the length of the route, even when they were most often unnecessary. Sometimes it would be raining. Over the years, the monsoon holidays found me stubbornly going to return and borrow books, often by unheard of writers that I never was inspired enough to remember, a Mills and Boon now and then, sneaked in, in between heavier tomes. Rains in town were nearly always drenched in mist as well, heavy, close enough to grab a fistful of, wispy enough to blow away when you wanted to see more than three feet ahead of you. 

In the end purpose I always had for sauntering about town, I broke every rule of the act of a French idea I was to learn only many, many years later. The French word of flaneur is as lovely as any word from an unfamiliar language could sound. They once dedicated an entire genre of sophistication to flanerie, the act of being a flaneur. The derived meanings of the word lent more romanticism to the act of flanerie than does what it meant in the original descriptions, in 19th century France when Paris and its mysterious streets almost seemed designed for the leisurely walkers. A flaneur was a stroller and when first conceived off, the idea usually meant a wealthy man – it was always a man – often an aristocrat who could afford to stroll around all day long, thanks to unearned income in his family name. The poet Baudelaire’s derived meaning is what we know the flaneur by. He described a flaneur as “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.”

Much later, I would learn that a flaneuse was a female flaneur, and that gender distinction would come with a whole new can of proverbial worms.

From the time that my attempts at being a flaneuse begins in the hills to the now, to the maps I draw unintentionally every time I go to buy bread or the raw materials for a salad or curry or eggs for my dog or wine for date night or something else that running a house requires, I like to think I get to know this city I live in. In all its glorious filth, noise, loves and summer flowers, in what it is and what it means to be here. The city that shall probably never be mine in the manner that the hills are mine, for a decade of experiencing it has yet to make it the home that ten years of living out of the hills hasn’t made those hills not a home. Yet, the disdain I exhibit, the nonchalant rejection in words of what this city is, is perhaps the best homage I could possibly give it, for it is only with the most beloved that you can show such arrogance, safe in the knowledge that when you want to be unquestioningly accepted and loved back, it will always be around, patiently waiting for when you want to come to your senses. That is this city to me, and more, and that love letter to her is something I will write someday, perhaps when she no longer belongs to me. Not now.

Past Fair Traders and after crossing the main road, there were two paths that I could choose from. And I chose depending on how confrontational I wished to be. One was quieter and included crossing a small meadow with wild yellow flowers and powdery red roses. One needed to tread over a footpath that boys, just learning to smoke and assembled in groups of four or five, would sometimes line themselves along the ledge, not really bothering you, but happy enough to hand out some unease as you hurriedly walked past. A flaneur was never to hasten along; they say the French aristocrats, in staying true to the idea of flanerie, sometimes used all their time in the day to walk their pet turtles. This footpath though, accorded views of the town from an angle you couldn’t catch from anywhere else. The other path was steeper, laid with large unevenly cut stones and sometimes, jeeps and bikes attempted to use it as well. On both sides would be old houses, colonial in their tone, with grand dames tending to their fashionable gardens in the warming mid-morning sun under spacious straw hats – a very English occupation. I always imagined being invited for tea and miniature cupcakes, though it of course never happened. Neither did they seem to house people my age that I could make friends with, squashing all my hopes of an English cup of tea and cake.

This steep path sharply rose up and came to an uneven narrow road, rising and falling gently till it gave away, on one side, to a flight of steps that led past my then best friend’s house. Sometimes I would be tempted to pop in to say hello, we never called in advance in those days. But most times, in honour of the solitary, reflective activity that flanerie was meant to be, I would pass by, in “leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savouring the multiple flavours of (his) city,” like Cornelia Otis Skinner put it. I was happily selfish to feel and touch and smell and taste the marvels of my town just by myself, jealously content to keep to myself her secrets and quirks, feeling with her all that she felt, like Susan Sontag’s “connoisseur of empathy.”

Past the best friend’s house and then straight ahead over another flight of steps through a dingy array of poor houses with unkempt hedges that lazily separated the neighbours, through another steep incline that again passed by large, old bungalows of the old-rich, I drew on the map in my head. The nouveu riche were in other parts of town and I, being born into a family that had made these hills a chosen home for a few generations, was happy to not have to relate to them and their modern architecture. The old world in me, musty and clinging on to the simplicity, the subdued elegance of the brown tiles, red oxide floors, large gardens and creaky stairs that led on to an attic full of intrigue and mystery – all illusions of a grand, self- important past – preferred the old, the reused, the antique, the vintage, to the gleam of the new and modern. It was always easier in the hills to exist in an era very long gone past from the rest of the world. We were mostly happy. 

It is inevitable, I suppose, how the modern comes sweeping in to remove mercilessly all that we hold dear and close, not ready yet to let go of the past, not ready to let go of our many illusions that brought us comfort and warmth during our many inadequacies and insecurities. The grandeur that an aristocrat presented, in pursuing the leisurely – never boring or wasteful, mind you – occupation of being a flaneur made a steady decline once industrialisation gripped the world. The inconceivable idea that one would consciously want to waste time sauntering about, clearly with no purpose other than to acquaint themselves with the alleys and street corners they would otherwise have no use for made a flaneur another anachronism in a world of other such props. Something fondly remembered in stories of yore, indulgently talked about along with the rest of all the stupid, unproductive, pointless things people back in the days did. A flaneur was not to think of profiteering from flanerie either and was not expected to form poems or write essays about the things he saw and felt. In that sense, in the very act of deriving a more inclusive meaning for the word, and articulating it, Charles Baudelaire was the first of the new flaneurs, a definition he thus gave to himself and those, like me, who would follow him over the next centuries.

A flaneur was one who did not deliberately try to go unrecognized, it wouldn’t do for a 19th century gentleman to attempt something so obvious and crass. But neither did he particularly enjoy being talked to when he was lost in a reverie of his own making. I followed that instruction to the dot. Sometimes the umbrella was a welcome decoy, held just a little this way or that to hide my face enough to walk past an acquaintance of the family that I would otherwise be obliged to make empty small talk with. Mobile phones serve that purpose these days; a sudden text message that happens to be urgent or a fake important call feigned to avoid prolonging an awkward hello.

By this time, I would have been wound my way to a much higher plane in town and reached what has remained, all these years, my most favourite house. I sometimes wonder if I imagined it up, conjuring it from the medieval manors and run down towers that I read about in the books I grew up with through childhood and teenage. It is a two and half storeyed house, reached at the end of a long driveway. Red, Indian Red, I think the technical name for the colour is, with its outer walls wrapped tightly with ivy, a green as dark as black. I loved this house, both for how odd it was in the landscape and yet, how well it blended in with the romance of growing up in the hills. I never found out who it belonged to, nor did I want to. It was nice placing my stories within its compound and I never wanted to ruin it by finding out that its people and their lives were nothing but ordinary, prosaic. I did try a few other routes now and then, but invariably, the short road in front of my favourite red house was always included, even if I had to make a detour at times to pass by it. 

I would be close to the library now, and would have walked for just about half an hour or so from home. It was a small town by foot, smaller if you drove, back in those days. Many years later, we were to get traffic lights in one square in town, much to everyone’s amusement. When it broke down in monsoon, the long, hard months of relentless rain and shocking cold, no one tried to fix it. It lies there now, conveniently forgotten and dismissed as a foolish idea if someone new into town brings it up. A straight road starting after the red house passed by an open playground on my left and presented a fantastic view of a part of the town on my right. I would slow down there, sometimes even stand a few minutes to admire the houses and the thin roads below my feet. My favourite time of the year to take this route was towards the end of May, when the town would be readying itself for monsoon with slow drizzles in the afternoons and opaque veils of mist inching along lazily after 4 pm. Up there, it always charmed me to see the clouds below my feet, the houses small and conquerable. In the tropics, it was a blessing to be able to love the wet, cold, grey months, knowing that the sun would bear down upon us soon enough.

Before I was fully out of breadth, I would have climbed some more and reached the entrance to the Madikeri Fort, a local attraction that tourists come to, to pose before the two stone elephants, peep through the watch towers to see special views of the town and pray at the shrine. The complex houses government offices, it has for perhaps since Independence. There is a clock tower that sometimes works, but mostly doesn’t. There is a lovely chapel with stained glass paintings inside and several plaques for Britishers who died here, far away from home. The chapel has a museum that displays a haphazard collection of the king and queen’s gowns, tattered and falling apart from the edges, a few stone sculptures found in the district, most missing a face or an arm or a breast, some old palm leaves and such other odd things. Few are labelled with care and the staff, when they do open the museum, doesn’t really care for you to hang around for longer than a minute or two that it takes to walk through the short hall.

The library building is just next door, and by now I can’t wait for the warmth it offers, permeated with the deep settling smells of books that haven’t been moved from the time they were placed on the shelves, mint new and anticipating generations of readers. I started once at the children’s section, but the preachy stories on the right, moral way to live and the comics that took me minutes to read through didn’t hold my interest for long. I would head for the novels section, running my fingers through spines that were laden with dust. I felt sorry for the unloved books sometimes and took them home, sometimes never reading them. But at least the borrowing card would have my library card number entered on them. They too had been loved once, for however short a while.

My hours at the library would depend on how quickly I found something interesting – most times I just couldn’t choose the three I was allowed to borrow from the pile I had collected, ever greedy, ever hungry for a little bite from all of them – and how close to lunchtime it was. Meals were always taken at home, lunch precisely at 1.30 pm in my mother’s strict food calendar. It was only later that Periyan’s opened, serving the first burgers in town and we all grew old enough to be allowed to eat out by ourselves. Many years after that, restaurants became places you consciously decided to go eat at, not conveniences when you got back from travels and couldn’t hurry home to cook a meal on time. Things began to change only much later, not then, in those years.

With my three books in a bag and thoughts of a few others I had to wait to borrow the next time around, I would start to make my descent. It would be the other way now, not as interesting but just as necessary in the map of my head. I would walk past the shrine for Ganesha, submitting a quick nod in the direction of the idol when I still believed in all that, and hurriedly passing by, taking extra pains to ignore the interruption in the years when I started not to believe in all that. Next up was the central prison, with imposing gates and a tiny inset window that I always wanted to knock on and ask to peep through but never mustered up the courage to. It kept small criminals – robbers, cheats and such like mostly who tended to vegetable patches that you could see if you went up and peeped over the stone walls that circled the fort. They would stand around sometimes and flirt with their wives or girlfriends some evenings, away from the uncaring eyes of the prison guards. The women perhaps waited long, passing the time looking at people who had business in the government offices, stray dogs that lived around, the garishly painted black stone elephants with their forever surprised eyes and those like me that collected such scenes to add into stories someday.

Once out of the other gate into the fort that overlooked the toy-like town police station and the hallowed corridors of the fancy North Coorg Club, I would be in the main town. My descent took me past the curve of the road before the post office, from where grandpa saw the light bulb in our veranda resemble a distance star, in the ‘60s, and named the house Minuguthare, the shining star. 

From then on my map became a little fluid and the path I took depended on whether I had to get back home or could saunter about town for a while longer. Sometimes I had to go straight back, and walked the steep slope down to the bus stand, past the shop we once used to buy our coffee from, through the grandly named Industrial Estate and then over to my part of town, sparse, quieter, unpeopled. The Industrial Estate was a row of grey buildings where fabricators, mechanics and a tyre shop functioned. As did the only local daily in the district and the famous bakery that everyone in town bought bread and biscuits from, till big company biscuits in shiny packaging became popular.

At other times, I would walk into town, into the Chowk where the traffic lights had once been ill-advisedly installed. Walking past the row upon row of shops, all owned by families that saw me grow up every inch along the way was entertaining if I was in the mood for a bit of socializing, which I very often wasn’t. The solitary characteristic of this flanerie suited me just fine. On some days, I would even end up hailing an auto rickshaw, blasphemously. But the route back from the house of books just wasn’t inspiring enough to stick to, I gave myself an excuse.

Over the years, I broke and made up all the rules of 19th century flanerie, with a heartless disregard and respectful adherence, by turns, of what it once meant. Over the years, I would end up moving to along the coast and then to a city and then within the city, to neighbourhoods and homes so different from the other that they might have been in different cities themselves. Every house that I lived in though, was close enough to a railway line – a facility utterly unplanned and unsought – and it was the lone whistle of a night train that used to lend comfort on lonely nights. Over the years, I would draw many more maps, from hostel to university, or the college library, from the first house to the bus stand to go to work, from the posh neighbourhood during a brief ill-fated stay to find an auto to take me to work, from the shops, to the salon, short forays, always squeezed in between long hours of work, always hurried, purposeful. To Edmund White is attributed a quote that I particularly love and the execution of which I especially miss, “A flaneur is….someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks, and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.”

Once the idea of wasting time took over the pleasure of doing just about nothing, I read someplace that the act of being a flaneur became a referent for understanding urban phenomenon and modernity. How ironic. How apt and recycled too, at the same time, to tweak a sentiment to suit newer sensibilities. Walter Benjamin popularized the notion of a flaneur being a modern day artist-poet who was keenly aware of the modern life and was an amateur detective, an investigator. Alongside, he paid heed to flanerie being just as much a sign of alienation in a large impersonal city and an evolving symbol of capitalism. You no longer walked without purpose, you always had a task to complete and move on, and the few times that you thought to stroll, you did so in malls or shopping lanes and at least window shopped.

Over the years, cyberflanerie evolved as a concept that a few people studied as well. In the glorious early days of the internet, you often went from one website to the other, clicking on random links, not because you always had a choice, but sometimes because you didn’t quite know what you wanted. For a generation that grew up without the web and then took to it like a birthright, the internet must have been the New World, to be discovered, explored and a little feared, for its power was yet unknown. With apps for rising with the sun or after to taking you where you have to be to lulling you to sleep to everything in between, the age of unknown discovery seems long over. Though that said, we, the generation that took so gloriously and so fully to a digital world, make our own maps online too, even if they are in the order of sites and pages visited everyday to the theme applied to Gmail or the way we arrange our bookmarks. Cyberflanerie died before it was fully born, I read somewhere. It is what it is, everything, I suppose.

As for me, I straddle the two worlds as best as I can these days, feeling constantly like I am betraying the other when I am in the arms of one. Walking the hills and lanes and back roads of Madikeri, a minor city these days, is inconvenienced by short visits home, there are other things of priority. Navigating the unpaved alleys of the internet, however well versed enough to suit my work I now may be, sometimes feels like not a judicious enough use of my time on it, like it is never good enough, like it should have been more productive or useful or moneymaking or at the very least, intellectual enough.

My most elaborate map though, remains the one I made and honed over those heady years of relentless devouring of books. I can still bring up that whole setting at will, even to this day, even if I haven’t used that particular map for decades now. Undoubtedly, I colour it with more charm than it probably had, but that is of course a given, almost mandatory, to accord an extra dose of romance into pangs of nostalgia.

These maps are really meant just for me. If I were to give directions to a new walker, from my house to the now renovated district library, I couldn’t possibly find reasons to say why the route I took was better than any other the new person might have devised. Maybe some of those narrow lanes have been replaced by wider roads that adhere to municipality regulations now. Maybe the views I delighted in have been blocked by new constructions of hotels and shopping complexes to cater to the hordes of tourists who have discovered the town’s accessibility and are happy to be sold the glamour of the hills wrapped in souvenir packets of expensive spices and mass produced ‘homemade’ chocolates that come from elsewhere. The map I have in my head may just be fit only for a collector of old and unusable things. Not that it matters. These maps for a village, a hill, a town, a city are experiences each of us has to draw ourselves, marked with our histories, our baggage and our lived experiences. Thus each are personal tattoos, the true significance of which will make sense only to us, even if their outer appearances make for a stimulating conversation starter at parties of intellectual bohemians.

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