Growing up in Delhi, I had fond memories of a summertime ritual. It was called ‘tahalna’ or strolling, and basically, that’s all it was. People would emerge from their homes for a leisurely walk after dinner and stay out till it was time to sleep. There was always such an air of bonhomie in these nocturnal meetings. Whole families would be outside on the roads, in the parks, or just sitting on the steps outside their homes.
Most houses or apartments were planned either around or adjacent to a small neighbourhood park. Kids would rush back to these parks to resume their evening play after dinner. Teenagers would lurk in the shadows, catching up with each other – boys and girls separately at most times, but the odd couple could also be seen furtively whispering sweet nothings to each other, and also looking out for suspicious ‘uncles and aunties’. Parents would finally have the time to relax and socialize after a hard day’s work.
These were not men talking to men and women talking to women, as is the unfortunate case even now at formal get togethers, but husbands and wives talking to each other – without doubt, a much healthier way to connect. The seniors would shuffle around slowly or sit on the park benches, or just outside their homes – old men talking politics to other old men, and old women talking about their family problems to other old women (I find they still talk the same way when I eavesdrop on their conversations while taking a morning walk in a park, even though these have happened in different times and locations).
A change of scene
I moved to Bangalore more than two decades ago, and one of the first things I noticed was the weather. Bangalore seemed to exist in an ecosystem of its own. When the rest of the country lay parched and dry under the blazing summer sun, this city would shiver delicately under a summer deluge. The weather was consistently, maddeningly perfect. I finally understood why visitors from Bangalore hated our Delhi weather so much.
In Delhi, the seasons of the year and the weather were all important, and we ran our lives according to their rhythms. Over time, the residents had evolved simple mechanisms to overcome the extremes of Delhi weather. Air conditioners were unaffordable luxuries in those days. Instead, in summer, people would shut out the daytime heat by closeting themselves inside darkened rooms, emerging outdoors only at night to enjoy the cool air with the ritual of ‘tahalna’. When the searing summer heat had abated, the Delhi resident looked forward to winters with longing. People would spend as much time as possible outside their homes, basking in the warm winter sun.
But the Bangaloreans? They seemed to have a poor appreciation of their lovely weather. I was very surprised how little they liked to spend time outside, preferring instead to stay snug inside their homes. I could imagine people being busy through the day, but why stay inside in the evenings?
I wondered what they did. They watched a lot of television for sure. In the early nineties, the idiot box had well and truly established itself as an opiate of the masses. Most people I knew had a favorite serial to watch night after night, and nothing could have dislodged them from their thrones when that serial was playing on the box. Kids too were hooked to television. Some people read, I suppose. Others might have caught up with their chores. But really, I wondered – the weather is so screamingly beautiful – why weren’t they outside??
Nostalgia…and a love for the open skies
I quizzed my husband repeatedly about this. Not only was the typical Bangalorean unwilling to step outside their homes to walk about and meet their neighbours, but in general, they seemed not too keen to be outside.
The Delhiite would think of ways to be out on the streets or on their rooftops or gardens. People in Delhi could spend their entire winter under the warm sun. Every activity would move outdoors. Summer days were awful but summer nights were always spent outside. And was there a greater joy than that of sleeping under the open skies on a string cot, with the desert breeze cooling us down?
Nothing exemplified the Delhiite’s embrace of his awful weather more than the ‘barsati’. This was a typical Delhi phenomenon – the rooftop apartment that was a tinderbox in summers and an icebox in winters – that also offered some unparalleled joys to the occupant. When it rained, you danced on the rooftops. The balmy winter sun was all yours to drowsily savour, and summer nights could only be enjoyed to their fullest on a roof that had been cooled down with buckets of water.
So, the Bangalore resident who chose to ignore the gift of a perfect weather befuddled me. For years I wondered about this curious phenomenon. I tried repeatedly to persuade my husband to take a post-prandial walk with me, but after a few reluctant sorties onto deserted roads, both of us abandoned the prospect.
Transporting a culture
Last year, I proposed the idea of a weekly night walk to friends in the residents’ group that I was part of. But first, I had to ensure that all bases were covered.
I thought if we chose a weekday, no one could offer excuses (Oh, we have plans for the weekend!). And if we met at 9 pm, office hours would most likely not become an excuse either (I had not accounted for wily IT types who claimed to work at all times of day and night). By 9 pm, dinner would have been over, and other chores could be hastened for that one night. Traffic too would have died down, and walking through empty streets was a rare pleasure that one could look forward to.
What better way to unwind than to meet with friends and have a relaxing nighttime stroll, ending with a ‘lassi’ or an ice cream? Or perhaps a cup of coffee, if there were a nip in the air? Happily, they agreed to try out the idea, and the Tuesday night walk was a weekly ritual that we all started looking forward to.
For more than 18 months now, we have met on Tuesday nights week after week, almost without a break. In the earlier days there would sometimes be only two of us. Those were the times that we got to know the other person very well because the night has a way of making one spill out deep, dark secrets. There were times when it rained, and yet we walked. There were times when last minute cancellations would make the group thin out suddenly. And there were times when friends would appear from every street and join in, swelling the ranks. But regardless of attendance, we walked, ending the stroll at a favourite watering hole (of a vastly milder variety).
Long live the walk!
In the last few months, there has been a dip in the numbers and the enthusiasm for walking. First it was the inclement weather. Climate change hit our Tuesday walks, as night after night of unseasonal rain forced us to abandon plans. Then it was the NRI season as the babies and ‘babas’ descended from foreign shores onto Malleswaram during their summer vacation. Then, of course, laidback Bangaloreans prefer to lazily lounge inside their homes and it needs some convincing to pull them out. But I am optimistic that it will sustain.
(Ironically, Delhi has become a city at war with itself. Huge steel barricades and gates are seen everywhere. I wonder if there is any more ‘tehelna’ inside these fortresses.)
Well, whether it’s a night walk or a morning walk, whether it’s on Tuesday or some other day, I do hope that we will continue walking the streets – because there is more to ‘Tuesday night walks’ than just the simple ritual of strolling around. Something wonderful happened when people met like this. They realized that they had a lot more in common than just the location of their homes. They discovered that they had common friends, or maybe common experiences growing up, and then common interests in music or sports. This is how the fabric of the community gets knit ever closer.
When people start being out on the streets in a deliberate manner, they start noticing things about the place where they live that they would have been completely unaware of otherwise. They start noticing broken and uneven pavements, or poorly lit areas, or impromptu garbage dumps that should be eliminated.
Streets where people walk are better than those where people only drive through. Streets where families are out at nights are safe, and the overall security of a neighbourhood improves. Streets are the lifeline of every city, and when streets improve, the city improves.
So, I keep my fingers crossed, and send up a prayer for the Tuesday night walk. And meanwhile, let me get my walking shoes on.