The walking began with the Sahyadris. It is the late 70s in Bombay and some of us, college-goers all, board the 4.20 am local from V T Station headed towards Karjat. The Western Ghats rise steeply and the intrepid find themselves on the Deccan Plateau, with many a peak to scale. I learned to rock climb, to rappel, but above all I learned to walk. I always brought up the rear: I was deputed to do so as I was patient with the slow climbers, but I also chose to as I got out of breath easily while walking uphill. I now suspect that this was what made me a saunterer.
I only recently learned that the word is derived from ‘idle people’, who, in medieval times, wandered about asking for charity pretending they had to go to the Holy Land (a la Sainte Terre). Or as Thoreau remarks: ‘Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.’ Was I a classic idler? Or at home everywhere? The romantic in me would like to think I am both.
By the time I reached the Palanis in the late 90s with two kids in tow, I had ambled in cities and towns in several parts of India. I had walked with friends, with students, my brother. And alone. Not many people like walking in cities in India. Neither did I to start with. Soon enough I realised it was not the city that was a problem, but the reason behind the walking. Walking with a purpose did not suit me. While I continued to walk to grocery stores and milk booths, it was only when I sauntered that I discovered what I did not set out to find: an old balcony, a bush with edible flowers, kittens playing with a child. Invariably these meanderings took place in cities which I did not live in: Bhubaneshwar, Madras, Bhuj.
My life in the Palanis was inextricably connected with the hiking life of KIS: down to Dolphin’s Nose and Vellagavi (oh dear and up too!), Cloudland’s Peak (my all-time favourite), Gundar through a path twisted through knotted trees, ubiquitous Perumal, and the wonderful ’80-mile round’; but it was the walk down to the plains that became my joy, for on these longer trails I could saunter. I felt no sense of rush: the whole day lay ahead of me and I felt blithe and carefree, unconcerned about papers to mark, or dogs and children to feed. And to date I continue to maintain that the best hikes were the ones on which we lost our way, for those were the longest. And since I did not have the responsibility to find the way and reach our destination, I walked without aim and without care. I was honing my skills as a Sainte-Terrer, a saunterer.
I learned to love the lichen, the moss, the fallen logs, the shola, and even the eucalyptus trees (though Pippa Mukherjee’s instructions were to ruthlessly pull out the babies of this exotic species!). I named the pines on the way to Berijam ‘weeping’ pines and in true cavalier style never learned to identify the plants or animals I saw (other than the mighty gaur). Meanwhile my children ran around, gathering mushrooms, building imaginary houses in the forest and inventing their own names for their favourite nooks and crannies.
I still remember fellow teacher Sheila Menon walking with her family around the lake. She often complained of the heavy American textbooks her children had to carry (because they walked to school) and insisted on a separate set to keep at home. I was often embarrassed to drive to High Clerc in the 1990s when most people walked, including then-principal Paul Wiebe. It still amuses me to recall that the principal who replaced him bought a big car and drove to school, a distance of about 500 metres (perhaps there were health issues that I didn’t know of).
My daughter says that walking from Ganga compound to High Clerc and back gave her a sense of freedom and independence. While she did not saunter, she noticed the clouds and the dogs along the way. I have not decided whether my son followed in my footsteps or I in his. But he is the better saunterer. As a child he walked for miles in Kodai: from home, back home, and his trails were dotted with tea stalls and occasional run-ins with bison. Up to La Salette, down to the lake, and to unnamed places I have never seen. He still does when we come to Kodai, escaping Goa’s unforgiving summers.
I know that women are not encouraged to be saunterers. Gender is not considered in planning urban and other spaces. More recently vigorous campaigns have been trying to reclaim women’s rights to ‘loiter’, to be akeli-awara-azaad (alone-vagrant-free). From there it is one more step to sauntering, an exercise in aimlessness, and a gift to able-bodied people. For Thoreau it was a crusade against busyness and productivity. Of course, in his case, I am told, he was able to saunter over the hills and in the woods partly nourished by the freshly-baked donuts fetched for him by his mother and sister. As for me, I loitered at Daily Bread. I walked up to the old cemetery, without feeling at risk or in any danger (I was wary of bison, though).
‘I’m going for a walk.’ How often we have heard someone say these words and exit the door. Walking out of my house is often an escape from the tedium of my indoors, particularly in the past year as we tightened our ‘bubbles’ against a raging pandemic. But long before this, it had already become the bedrock of my life: my love for the Sahyadris; my bond with the mighty trees on Ganga compound; my connection to my neighbourhood in Moira*, its people, its fields and its birds. Villages in Goa are designed for sauntering: the paths weave around each other and slip over hillocks gently. Mostly it is old men who walk idly; women are always rushing to the fields and the shops. Unlike Kodai, it is too hot to venture out for a walk in the middle of the day: early mornings and the hour of cow-dust is when I wander.
I have not been up the Ghat Road for more than a year now. Meanwhile, I saunter whenever and wherever I can, in preparation for my journey to a la Sainte Terre.
*Moira is a village in the Bardez taluka of Goa