Praveena Shivram’s submission won the Open category prize at the Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Contest for the Personal Essay 2017. The topic was Walking, Like Deciphering.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t an empty promise I made to my body, fruitlessly setting my alarm for five am, already imagining in my head the powerful, calorie-burning footsteps I would leave behind on the streets that surround my house like the neat lines of the kolam, as women indifferent to the crisp morning air sweep the dust of the previous day off the cemented path outside their gates.
I want to say that the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because a cyclone had decimated my city, the fallen trees re-shaping the geography of my street in my head, like someone just twisted the kaleidoscope and everything was suddenly changed, making me wonder for the first time in years about the mango tree in that ‘Maanga Maama’s’ house at the end of the street, which was now a noisy school, obliterating the familiar smells of my childhood.
I want to say that the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t through the eyes of my 17-year-old nephew out in his quest to find Pokemons hiding behind the theppe kollam at the Kabali temple ten minutes away (by walk) from my house, with the four mada streets around the temple bustling with activity – flower market, vegetable market, Kalathy Stores’ rose-milk, Rasi’s saris, and people walking through it all without stopping, to smell the roses, shall we say, and now, the Pokemons too.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because my bike or the auto I was in (not the giant bus with its bulging stomach or the noisy share-auto with its listless faces, because I don’t do that anymore) stopped in the middle of the road like a tantrum-throwing child, embarrassingly and utterly unmindful of where it was, forcing me to navigate the ruckus of cars and motorbikes and buses and lorries and tempos and cycles and vans and wonder at how choked the roads were, and how I rushed through it all, clutching my phone in my hand, like Frodo and Sam clutched their sticks through Mordor, picking out my route and entering my familiar street with the iron-vandi at the corner and the little Ganesha temple in the alcove and only then easing my breath that I had been clutching tight in my palm, and angry and irritable that I might have to do this again, because life was unpredictable.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because the waters from the overflowing dams and rivers had sneaked up on us overnight and I worried about my feet wading through that water, full of unnamed dangers specific to my urban life – cockroaches, rats, snakes, electric wires – and most of all the frustrating realisation that I didn’t know my street that well after all, I didn’t know where the potholes were, where the cracks were, where the road dips and rises and where I would slip and fall, and that I didn’t trust my feet either because surely the intelligence it was born with, that tenuous bond it shared with the earth, was now eroded irrevocably and my limbs were nothing but an extension of my mind, and no, I didn’t want to go there.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because I was shifting from one house to another, diagonally across, on this same street of my childhood, moving from a broken marriage with two kids in tow to an equally crumbling unknown, with bags of things and cartons of books and pillows and mattresses and pieces of myself rattling in my pockets like loose change with every step I took, up and down, to and fro, as I thought this is what Kundera meant with the unbearable lightness of being.
I want to say that the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t a thing I did yesterday, a thing of the past to be cast aside as irrelevant nostalgia waiting for a chance to make its appearance, reminding me that once upon a time I did take a walk without it being a thing that had to be done, that I did take a walk without the need for natural disasters or a personal crisis or the lack of a machine to intervene, that I would walk from home to home, spending hours playing, waiting for my mother to figure out which home I was in, in those non-social media days with physical barriers strangely more fluid than this open virtual landscape; that once a year I would dress up in my pattu pavadai and carry a small silver cup with kumkumam and go from door to door down my street, once completely devoid of apartments and now completely devoid of independent homes, inviting everyone for Navaratri; that celebrations – Independence Day, Diwali, Pongal – were street affairs, because somehow we were all walking, we were all gliding by, not hiding in our closed cars or speeding on our scooters, we were walking and talking and smiling and nodding, and as our footsteps weaved in and out of each others’ lives, we built a tapestry, we built a community, and we built memories, but they (memories and such) aren’t as much a comforting salve as we would like to believe, and instead stubbornly stick to our bodies like wet sand.
I want to say that the last time I walked, I wasn’t uncomfortable in my aloneness, with the sight of apartment complexes filled with families I did not know latching on to my shadow, while I quickly made a call to someone – anyone – to keep me company, because a) I could and b) there is such pressure to fill every moment, like stuffing worms in a can, and you can’t stop for the fear of things overflowing and consuming you, and c) I couldn’t handle the truth of my isolated life that, thankfully, I could so easily erase with a click of a button.
I want to say that the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t actually me but the watchman in my building because I couldn’t imagine climbing down two floors to go to the corner shop for potato chips and felt, in my sickeningly benign privileged world, that it was okay for the elderly man to climb the two floors to take the money and climb back down and walk to the shop and climb up the two floors again for a tip of five rupees.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because I was part of an expensive workshop that required me to ‘walk’ and ‘study’ nature in a bid to understand myself better, to unravel the layers that refused to peel away, holding at its core the unseemly parts I carefully hoarded to then encounter in such a meticulously curated group, where I would feel like a voyeur sharing her spoils.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because I thought one more carbon footprint will make the world implode, like gases and acid dangerously swirling in your stomach, and that the slow silence of the world scared me so much that I retraced my steps, took out my bike and went to the same corner shop my watchman apparently could walk to.
, and therefore this mad scramble to capture every nuance and experience on our phones, never to be seen again after enthusiastic uploads, and in the places where we have lived long enough, our bodies refuse to cooperate and we don’t walk, so I don’t really blame myself.
I want to say the last time I took a walk, it wasn’t because there was an essay to be written, and even then, I couldn’t get myself to step out of this fictionalised, romanticised version of a walk, to listen to the stories of my street, because they were essentially my stories, and to hear them would mean to confront them, and it was so much easier to stay inside this fictionalised, romanticised self.
I want to say all of that, but perhaps I shouldn’t, because I have been told there is merit in silence, there is merit in keeping things locked up, there is merit in not voicing an opinion, so that one day, when the world, or at least parts of it, walks in unison, I can slip into it, inconspicuously and anonymously, like my footsteps on this street of my childhood, the real and the nearly-imagined.