Sauntering Through the City Streets: What It Means to Be a (Female) Flâneur in Delhi

The concept of flânerie emerged in the 16th century, but it evolved into the present connotations much later, in 19th century France. During this period, the act of city-exploration and urban-traveling became a fascinating subject of discourse, and Charles Baudelaire famously brought up the idea of the dandy wandering in the streets of Paris, and contemplating various aspects of modern cityscapes. His idea of wandering through the city was closely associated with curiosity, exploration, idleness, for the sake of ‘l’éternel du transitoire’ (the eternal from the transitory). It is fascinating that he wrote about the female ‘passerby’ – in his poem, “À une passante”, referring to the female flâneur, but the concept remained largely male-centric.

It wasn’t until Marcel Proust that the term began to apply to women. Proust was fascinated with the possibilities of the new-age of women wandering through the industrialising metropolis, even as women’s public and private roles underwent changes during that time.

Given the origins, I have often wondered whether the concept of the female flâneur can be fruitfully applied to urban spaces in Delhi in the present times. Baudelaire’s idea of the ‘stroller’ seemed remarkably unsubstantial to my subjectivity as a flâneur in Delhi even though I was wholly fascinated with this idea of a detached observer just sauntering through the streets.

Needless to say, the concept of women roaming around through the streets isn’t a wholly alien concept in gender studies, as recent feminist debates have attempted to explore the significance of women’s reclamation of public spaces. My initiation into such debates began with the sterling book, Why Loiter? (2011) by Shilpa Phadke, which I read sometime during my college days. It gave an excellent insight into the debates around the exclusion of women from city spaces, with specific reference to women’s safety issues.

It was sometime around then that the concern about women’s inability to find equal right to public spaces became more pronounced. I remember participating in various campaigns between 2013 and 2014, as a university student, which proved to be incredibly eye-opening. The experience was exhilarating because it became my entryway into feminist activism, having known very little about it before. I must mention Jasmeen Patheja’s radical community of “action heroes”, with whom I was briefly associated back then, who were talking about incredibly pertinent urban-specific gender issues relating to public safety, such as street-lighting, walking in the city at night, and even sleeping in public parks.

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However, the concept of idle and leisurely strolling in the city (as the term was meant to indicate originally) without necessarily associating it with feminist issues of reclamation of spaces, is slightly different. My invariable inability to be that detached observer sauntering lazily through the streets couldn’t be effaced. After all, I had read about flâneuring far too much, and the incongruence of the idea for a self-styled female flâneur in the third-world developing metropolis that often excluded women from the mainstream, was hard to ignore. It made me wonder, did the disjunction simply occur due to the difference in time and space between 19th century France and 21st century Delhi, or did it have more to do with the gender of flâneur?

I must confess that I have had slightly romanticised notions of walking through the city – which somehow always stood at odds with the reality of my walks through the city. In fact, by the time I actually developed an interest in urban-walking, the urban space of Delhi had already transmuted into a hyper-paced city with relentless constructions and breakdowns. I am referring to the post-Commonwealth Games period which heightened the pre-existing mall-culture in the city and entailed endless construction dust and debris all over the landscape. The Metro was ever-expanding, and stations were cropping up all over the city. It was a nuisance and it was a blessing. And there was no escaping it. But importantly, the suddenness of the freedom to travel should not be forgotten in the cultural history of the metropolis.

Indeed, I managed to see much of the city only because of the Metro. It had revolutionised city travel, and it was incredible how you could end up from one completely different part of the city to another so quickly. It, in fact, made it possible to really travel through the city and see it. And in those years, when students seemed to have much more time than they do now, I seemed to have been perennially in transit. I must highlight that I began using the metro only after 2011 or 2012. By then the CWG was over, and the city was dealing with its after effects, and it was practically impossible to use other modes of travel like the bus or auto (this was just before the Uber and Ola boom), simply because of the frequent traffic standstills due to some construction work or the other. The BRT discouraged driving in those areas. Besides, auto fares had been hiked abruptly in my second or third year of college.

Whatever be the case, I was glad to have begun using the Metro after avoiding it for the first two years of graduation. It was liberating, time-saving, and economical. Travelling in the metro, underground, before 3G and 4G, gave one tremendous amounts of time to read and think.

When it comes to exploring the city, it took me some time to develop myself into as authentic a flâneur as I could possibly be in New Delhi. Initially, it was majorly about walking through busy, sometimes commercial places, like Connaught Place, Chandni Chowk etc. It was hard to isolate heritage places from places of commerce in the city. Later, during my Masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University, due to the sheer distance, as I travelled daily to get to campus I inadvertently undertook various saunterings – mostly around South Delhi. Rather unconsciously, I wandered around all the areas near the major campuses in Delhi. Since I frequented the CRL, I went around North Campus, the ridge area, Civil Lines, down to the old ice factory (the name of which I cannot recall), Majnu ka Tila, and the slum settlements beyond, as a habit. Those places were meant for idle walking. Needless to say, the term ‘flâneur’ evokes the idea of a kind of dreamy walking, which was in some spots of the city alone.

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There was, however, always one major concern with flâneuring in the city, which western poets could not fathom – flâneuring as a woman in an extremely sexist environment does not present the same aesthetic as a male’s experience would. In fact, I realised even then that there were too many factors that had to be incorporated into the concept of flâneuring to nuance it adequately when it came to Delhi. I found the clothing and attire, age, appearance, class markers, time (of the walking), and simply, being a woman in a city that was highly prone to sexual harassment in public places, were some of the things that determined the experience of ‘casual wandering’.

For instance, there are several hidden gems in the ridge area near the campus, however, they have not always been accessible to a female walker. I distinctly remember venturing into the Northern ridge several times (with friends), to explore the area around the caged Khooni Jheel (I gathered the cage was to keep in the alligators or was it to keep people from drowning in it. I found out much later that it had a gory colonial history attached to it. The now lurid green water body, which is no better than a peat bog, is even said to be haunted by no less than the ghosts of British women and children who died there during the revolt of 1857).

But one dare not linger in the ridge after sundown, especially if you are a woman. It is common knowledge that the ridge is the adda of thieves, addicts, and rapists. Even other heritage sites can prove to be perilous. The walk up to the Mutiny Memorial can seem mundane in summer afternoons, but extremely uncanny by night. And if you are familiar with the campus area, you would agree that the walk towards the Hindu Rao Hospital can feel sinister on one particular stretch of road beyond the residential colonies. Then again, the path leading to the Flag Staff Tower is pretty in the morning when joggers crowd the parkified area of the ridge, but extremely forbidding after twilight (if you don’t count the fireflies that flit around after dark making the area seem rather mystical).

This reminds me of my trip to the ruins of Tughlaqabad, in my idealistic pursuit of the ‘picturesque’. It was a hot July afternoon and we had trooped up the fort with relative ease, photographing the gorgeous architecture along the way. But then we made the poor decision of walking down from the area, through the residential settlement and exiting from the other side, thinking it would be a good hiking adventure. It initially looked fine, until a straight stretch of road loomed ahead. Then a car filled with hooting and drinking men went by (thankfully, without stopping). But instead of turning back, we kept walking. It was as if the heat and the looming road with its rising mirages had us hypnotised. We walked several miles that afternoon.

As a flâneur, you would not mind the walk. But a female flâneur on a deserted road could become an easy target.

Flâneuring in Delhi is not a mean task, and sometimes cannot even remotely be impromptu or ‘casual’. The city can be incredibly precarious despite its seemingly innocuous spaces. Of course, if you flâneur through adequately populated places in South Delhi, CP, and perhaps around Lodi, your experience will be safe and sanitised. But it is only when you take those risks, do you manage to find some unique experiences in wandering. In retrospect, some of my own adventures could have ended badly. I was certainly taking too much risk, caring too little, fearing too less, back then. But that kind of zest for seeing the city cannot be sustained if the city becomes more and more unsafe with each passing year: the Nirbhaya case occurred at the end of 2012, some months after my Tughlaqabad misadventure.

I cannot help but remember one cringe-worthy incident when once, in my absent-mindedness, I had made the blunder of helping out a fellow at a coffee shop in Hudson Lane with directions. Somehow, he managed to follow me to Rajiv Chowk, probably expecting to discover where I lived. Thankfully, I had met a friend along the way. By the time the man appeared before us, we had made the clever decision of rerouting our journey entirely to throw him off. This seems like the grotesque parody of Baudelaire’s poem on the passante on the streets of Paree. His view of the saunterer is fashionable, romantic – very different from the present realities. Even Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur in Arcades Project, which is inextricably linked with commercial places, like coffee shops, seems remarkably impossible in Delhi.

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The incident at Hudson Lane back then reminded me of the precautions I must always take while attempting flâneuring, especially when it came to interacting with people around the city as the place seemed to be filled with men who were susceptible to stalking. But more than that, the incident served to help me understand that a female flâneur will always be subject to assumptions (in a country like India). A ‘flâneuse’, like any female solo traveller, is always suspect, for stepping into unfamiliar territories and seeking adventure. She must battle with the stereotypes before engaging with the urban landscape. After the incident, I purchased a pepper spray almost all the women I knew had been making a hullaballoo about since the December 2012 gangrape.

My idea of the city has transformed over the years. It was very only very recently when I realised this passion for Delhi ran rather deep after all. But I began to actually engage with the city because the ‘casual observer’, that I wanted to be, couldn’t remain ‘casual’ for long. That was one more disjunction from the typical concept of flâneuring: it was simply not possible to remain detached and take in the architecture as a spectator alone. Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: The Eruption of Delhi was a very timely book for me. It was, in fact, immediately after reading the book that I began to write on Delhi.

During the initial phases of the lockdown in 2020, I had driven around Delhi once for some work. The empty roads had felt otherworldly. I realised then that the experience of flâneuring is contingent upon the crowds to a great extent, rather than just on the city architecture. Indeed, the aesthetics of the city are built around the people – the bustling masses of ever-travelling pedestrians and vehicles. The quotidian aspects of the cityscape are so crucial to the act of flâneuring. And having been cooped up at home for several months, I can’t help but recollect the pleasures of walking around the busy streets.

But times have been changing swiftly over the past several years, and I am forced to ask: is the city evolving into a space that disallows a woman’s explorations altogether? I had become a ‘saunterer’ quite accidentally, and sometimes I wonder how I had the courage to explore the city, mostly solitarily. Would it be possible to take similar risks during the lockdown, after all, we don’t know how long it might go on for. But how does one avoid the dangers of travelling through the city when the streets are mostly empty?

I vividly recall one incident during my first year of college when some of us had decided to go to GK M Block market for a snack after lectures. There happened to be an auto-strike that day and we couldn’t find any autos to take us back. We decided to walk back as KNC was hardly a couple of kilometres away. The walk was easy except that just as soon as we had reached some CWG construction site near Gargi College’s walls, a man appeared from nowhere and flashed all of us. There was a stunned pause. It was our first experience of sexual harassment on the streets, and we absolutely had no idea that such things happen on the streets. With a roar, we scattered on the road, clutching our sides, ready to roll over with laughter.

Somehow, in the company of other women, the incident was hilarious. The man disappeared immediately, perhaps put-off by our mirth. We didn’t know then that we should call the police or report the incident. We were still schoolgirls at heart in our first semester of college. It took us a while to grow up. But it didn’t take another incident for us to learn an important lesson about Delhi’s roads: that there were some roads that had to be taken, there were some that had to be avoided, and there were some that couldn’t be taken at any cost. We never walked on that road after that.

Today, cases of violence against women are on the rise, and the statistics are horrifying. There are about 90 (recorded) rape cases in Delhi on a daily basis. During the lockdown now, the roads are mostly empty and feel like that day when the man appeared before a group of girls, unafraid of confrontation – it is a wonder that men are not intimated by numbers when it comes to sexually harassing women in public places.

But the question arises: what happens to women walking in the pandemic era? The landscape of the city is very different just five years ago. Delhi feels rather alienating now. Has the city become a metropolitan that negates flâneuring altogether for women like me? The prospects for casual observation for female flâneurs seems bleaker every day. And so, pandemic or no pandemic, is the poetic idea of spontaneous perambulations ever possible for a female flâneur? The bigger question is, does ‘wandering’ in the city remain a matter of male privilege?

Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. Her book of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published by Simon & Schuster India, last year.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty