Saturday in the Park. Chicago. 1973. A wonderful song, I’m glad my brother Anant reminded me of it this morning. A serendipitous moment, because I was thinking of green spaces and walking.
I love walking. Those of you who know me would also know I’ve never learnt to drive. So walk I must. And walk I do.
I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, yesterday, with a bunch of people at MIT, discussing how platforms should be built. If you’ve been there, you’ll know it’s a walking city. A city where you can go practically anywhere, starting from anywhere, using your own two feet. Liberating for us non-drivers.
Other cities have that feel as well. For example, Manhattan can be a bit like that: if you have the time and the inclination, walking a hundred and twenty blocks can be an extremely enjoyable and satisfying experience.
I work in the City of London, and it’s the epitome of a walking City. The Square Mile. Compact, full of narrow alleys and almost-hidden places. Places like Postman’s Park, with its Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice (and a well-hidden almost-vintage geocache).
The City is full of places like Postman’s Park, where we can spend a little time in solitude, when we are least alone.
I’ve had the privilege of travelling extensively, and the city that has unnerved me the most is probably Los Angeles. A place where you feel naked if you’re not behind the wheel of a car, preferably a village-sized one. And yet it wasn’t always like that. I was delighted to read about the secret staircases there, hangovers from a carless past. Not all of them remain accessible, not all of them have been preserved, but enough remain to delight the rare walker.
A few days ago, I acquired an old map of Calcutta, the place I was born, the place my father was born, the place my family called home till 1980.
Looking at it, I realised it pretty much defined the locus of my life from 1957 to 1961, and from 1969 to 1980. Where I was born. Where I went to school. My university. Where my dad was born. Where he died. Where his dad died. Where I grew up. Where my family and friends grew up, lived. Where a few have, sadly, died.
The map is not all of Calcutta. But it’s where I walked. Even today I feel I know every street on this map, even the ones you can’t see, especially the ones you can’t see. That’s what nostalgia does to you.
What the map does very well is to depict the Maidan. What we used to consider the living, breathing lung of the city. A vast expanse of green where nothing permanent could be built, but for a few colonial exceptions.
Want to watch the sunrise? Go to the maidan. Walk in solitude? Go to the maidan. Support your football, cricket or hockey team? Same answer. Relax with friends and sample some of the most amazing street treats? Ditto. Somewhere to slink away in twilight? Your wish is my command.
I had the joy of many Saturdays in the park. And I cherish them still. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve wanted to be close to a park and close to a river. Because.
Because I wanted to go for a walk in the park. And I could. And it was enjoyable.
Generations to come may not have those options. Sometimes I’m not sure which will go first, parks or walking. The signs aren’t good for either.
Get on that open road. Walk in solitude, where you are least alone. Spend Saturday in the park.