We finally saw the pointlessness of constantly trapezing through life and unthinkingly clambered out (on all fours of course) of our ancient liana curtained, arboreal habitats, never to look back (except in Tarzan comics), dropped our tails and eventually became bipedal.
Homo erectus or by whatever name you may like to honour our Originators with, could not possibly have fathomed that this greatest giant evolutionary Leap for humankind was actually taking those first tentative, unsteady steps in an erect position into the Future.
We were all walkers to begin with (and still are), but walking got downgraded slowly as other fancier modes of getting around took over.
As villages grew into towns and towns metamorphosed into cities, walking came to be pedestrainised just as not walking became a metaphor for upward social mobility.
The walkers were relegated to the bottom of all hierarchies; from foot soldiers in the military to peons in the bureaucracy and maids in the household. They made the first moves, led from the front and were the first to be sacrificed, just like pawns or “paidals” in a game of chess.
Ironically, with the invention of the wheel and particularly when it was put on automobiles, the space for pedestrians and patience with them has been rapidly shrinking.
Haven’t you seen two, three and four wheelers charging at hapless pedestrians with the ferocity of hungry hounds at Delhi’s traffic signals?
Incidentally, a very high number of road accidents involve pedestrians being hit by motorised egoists. And now we hear that the harried pedestrian is to be heavily fined for even remotely coming in the way of over speeding, road rage icons like Salmon Can.
Bigger the city, the narrower the sidewalks and more risky the zebra crossings. Is this a neo-liberal strategy of automobile makers and their representatives in Parliament to get everybody into a car?
Eating into pedestrian space is understandable given that policy makers and contractors, both urban and rural, are in cars; but the loss of patience with pedestrians signifies a deeper societal malaise embedded in historical inequality, perhaps? The next step could well be a licence for walking!
Faced with a loss of dignity, over time pedestrians too have adopted a more or less universal but reactive culture of their own.
Ignore honks and horns, cross the road when and wherever convenient, get out of the way of speeding vehicles only in the nick of time, don’t look back and accelerate when the red light is about to change.
Whether, pedestrians learnt this from drivers or the other way round remains a mystery.
Pedestrians come with varied gaits and grace, largely related to their BMI(Body Mass Index): Wobblers, strollers, jaywalkers, joggers, quick paced (usually cardiac or hyper-thyroidism cases), weight carriers, the tired, the resigned or philosophical leaning on walking sticks, darting kids, heavy housewives walking dogs and the careful dropping their grand children to school; the last category (usually old, retired people) on the lookout for wayward vehicles even in pedestrian areas.
Like in most social norms, the gender divide among pedestrians is clearly visible, with women usually walking several steps behind their men and hence more prone to being hit from the rear.
Recently, however, men have taken to relieve their spouses of carrying babies intermittently (metaphorically too!), thereby literally reducing the gender gap between the two when walking.
Appreciation of the virtues of walking, a relatively recent phenomenon, however, is a post cardiac-condition urban development, especially among the over fed.
And with more and more of humanity headed for urban habitats, sooner than later all of us will be thoroughly pedestrianized; jostling, pushing, peddling, shuffling, squeezing through dense crowds that characterize public space in today’s cities.
Wouldn’t swinging on branches to get to your lady love have been more romantic?
Alas, foresight came as an afterthought.
Photos by Geetali Tare