I walk down a road a few breaths away from the Kathak Museum in Wazirganj. Feeling a bit lost and somewhat in a daze from being alone for the first time in my hometown, I slowly cover the distance between Chowk and Qaiserbagh. My nostrils flounder and flare as the aromas of tunday kebabs, idris biryani and kesari makkhan malai flood my sensibilities. In this part of old Lucknow, traces of the Mughal empire become prominent, texturing the otherwise gritty city. These glimpses of Awadh almost cease to exist as we move to newer pockets of the city, particularly Trans-Gomti which is where I have now lived for the past few years.
A few metres ahead a gateway emerges with a twin fish motif plastered upon its flaky pale head — unwittingly, the fragments of a city of Wajid Ali Shah’s making erupts out of nowhere. I skirt a kirana store and then a narrow lane to reach the eye of a glorious dome which seemed to be made insignificant and humbled by its placement at the end of an undulated, mundane road. This uncelebrated structure seemed almost to be strategically hidden behind a cluster of plumeria trees in full bloom, lest it would become infected with pride, and lose its modesty. I walk past a crumbling wall with seemingly half-baked white bricks and a stretch of posters cutting each other mid-sentence, lapped together upon the now meaningless and ironic signage, “Putting posters on this wall is strictly prohibited”. I wistfully eye the towering gumbad and its magnitude and how obvious it now seemed situated where it was: perched upon dust clad, red sandstone stairs. As I move in closer, my inspection reveals that a Begum’s tomb is engulfed in the pit of this structure’s belly. I do not know any names — neither the street’s, nor the lovers’ who birthed this site. Like Walter Benjamin, I strayed today.
*A museum mapping project had brought me home— Lucknow again, did not include this unnamed road that had come from nowhere and seemed to lead to nothing. As the city unraveled before me, I decidedly wandered in. The burial chamber tucked away along with the memory of its dead— this tomb was under repair. A man, squatting over a tin box, was mixing a dark brown saccharine liquid with a popsicle stick. It smelled like something that I would want to spread on bread with morning coffee. Towering over this syrupy paste, he explained, “What you see here madam is a concoction of dates and other chemicals. This is a glue that was used to cement tombs like these during its initial days of construction”. For preservation purposes, he found himself in the middle of this tradition.
As I wandered through the corridors, the glistening stone of the tomb breathed a gush of cold air that landed upon my bare skin. The spiral staircase hiding behind a pillar led to the edge of the city. I walk, I walk and the 500 kms between Lucknow and Delhi splinters and it makes itself ridiculous.
Susan Sontag in her essay Under the Sign of Saturn forges an intimacy in describing Benjamin’s portraits, “dark curly hair over a forehead...youthful, almost handsome...the downward look through his glasses —the soft, the daydreamer’s gaze of the myopic...”: gauging his precise physical deterioration, she reads him as text itself. The richness of scrutiny is often one undertaken in a stricken stupor on the face of a new lover or in tracing the lines across an aging parent’s face — a familiarity that Sontag tries to trace in Benjamin's “opaque” and “inward” look. She wonders whether he could be thinking, or listening. Sontag’s gaze is piercing. Why does she begin with these intimate descriptions that she doesn’t necessarily return to later in her essay? In her preoccupation with the literary critic, why does she perceptively choose to grace her essay with descriptions of Benjamin’s photographs?
In On Photography, she writes, “To collect photographs is to collect the world” — photographs for Sontag are “miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire”. Benjamin is taken up by the baroque, surrealist and the modern era in its ability to “make everything a ruin or a fragment —and therefore collectible.” In his rather spatialized conception of the world, he is able to invite the connoisseur and the flaneuse to acquire and mull over their subject at leisure. Similarly, Benjamin’s photograph for Sontag essentially becomes both materially and metaphysically acquireable. Its metaphysical collectibility, its ability to be contained, lies in the potential of the lens to bracket, capture, and extract a particular moment in time; which, in the moment that it has been shot, also begins to efface and move towards its decay. The photograph then reads as a “freeze-frame”, complete in itself, encapsulating a world of its own, a world of Benjamin’s making that Sontag tries to excavate. In examining his distilled portraiture, she gains access to Benjamin’s fractured interiority through his decaying exterior. His Saturnine temperament, the deadness of his past become available to be untangled and deciphered, metaphysically. Charting the vast canvas of his thought, Sontag, “free to daydream, observe, ponder and cruise” is perhaps a flaneuse, a meta-flaneuse in Benjamin’s world, exploring him through her essay.
What is the work of a flaneuse or a flaneur, the enigmatic appeal that has beckoned writers to lose themselves in the urban sprawl — and to perhaps venture into the vast possibilities of being?
The Connaught Place roundabout, YMCA women’s hostel, Mandi house, all these places in Delhi in their serpentine existence have allowed for a confluence of identities: of the city, its people, this self, which has belonged as much to me as to the places that I have been in, the maps that I’ve birthed in its wake. Lucknow becomes Delhi, Delhi creeps into Ashoka, Sonepat transfigures itself and begins to resemble Lucknow. My walk is in circles today — the map, a labyrinth. My phone has drained itself, I continue to walk, hoping I might reach North Campus on foot today, the metro doesn’t allow the “slow revolutions” that straying does. The art of getting lost is gendered as well, “Abbey randi, kitna logi” someone yells from across the street. I jerk, flounder for my drained-out-of-its-battery phone and begin to walk towards the nearest metro.
What is the pleasure in getting lost, in going astray in a city that invites a wanderer into its chaotic cosmos — ‘chaosmos’ (a new favourite term), which lures the individual in with their own fragmented universe. The idea of the city as a chaosmos has much to do with its expansive quality, in the city inviting vast possibilities and combinations of experiences— exchanges at every crossroad. As we enter and explore the city with all our previous realities, people we had known, and beliefs we held dear, the cityscape, despite being contained within borders reveals itself to be permissive of a range of experiences.
Benjamin’s entrance into a labyrinth was as much through the city as through books - “the book was for him another place to stroll”, his own writing and relationships “an important… entrance to the maze”; for the Saturnine temperament everything is collectible: a text that needs to be deciphered. What purpose does this interaction between the chaosmos of the city and the individual serve? Does walking aimlessly in the city, absorbing the names of streets, eateries, locating public conveniences, affect who we are in any way?
When Sontag retraces Benjamin’s attempts to diagrammatically map his life across the city through his relationships and the places he frequented; it is not merely a physical mapping, the kind that he does engage with in the Arcades Project — it is as much “an act of the mind”. This is the very project of a flaneur, a meta-flaneur/flaneuse, if you’ll indulge me in this terminology. It is perhaps the slow paced pedestrian who while wandering is able to access a vast network of memories and form associations that begin to flood the present— a favourite childhood flower lifelessly lying on the road that I walk on, a monument that resembles something that I had read in a book a while ago. Sontag’s intimate portraiture of the literary critic, who chose to “survey his life as a space that can be mapped”, believed in this trace-like existence and wrote of the past much more succinctly than “contemporary experiences”. This form of associative writing, “events for the reactions to events, places for the emotions one has deposited in places, other people for the encounter with oneself”, is the experience of the meta-flaneuse/flaneur. The scattered nature of remembrance, for the flaneur, who continually absorbs fleeting images over a vast cityscape is able to tether or conjure a memory or two through a “a gaze that appears to see not a third of what it takes in”. In processing the present through fragments of the past — for the melancholic mind, pain and memory, collapses concepts of time and space. There is no dearth of metaphors then, opportunities for stitching together allegories between memories and the present for the wanderer who has learnt the art of getting lost.
A flaneuse in the city was not only a fantasy that I engaged in, where the cityscape ended up becoming fetishized. As a young girl in Lucknow, I was almost never allowed to leave the house without parental supervision. It was only when I turned eighteen and moved to Delhi that I could explore the city and subsequently the self through it. Traversing through the city was as much about exploring Delhi or Lucknow as it was about embracing my brief shadowy existence on this earth, of becoming increasingly familiar with the multiple selves that are all of us.
The exploration of Lucknow came much later, years after I had moved out, through projects and literary festivals I had attended akin to a starry-eyed tourist visiting a city for the first time. And perhaps, it was my first time actually being in the city that I had grown up in. My hope in writing this essay is therefore this: to not to simply reconcile the disconcerting selves that hover around the city but to embrace my borderland existence between Delhi and Nakhlau, Dilli and Lucknow — in traces, ruins and fragments.
(Most of the experiences from which this essay emanates are from my days as a student in Delhi. Although a lot of places were inaccessible and I experienced harassment while travelling, I also recognize that I have a huge amount of privilege in being able to aimlessly wander in the city).
Laing, Olivia. The Lonely City. London: Edinburg, Canongate, 2016. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.
Sontag, Susan. Under the Sign of Saturn. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.
Shatakshi Whorra is currently pursuing her Masters in English from Ashoka University. She is actively working on her new year resolution of ‘read more, write more!’. As a writer, she enjoys playing around with genres, mixing her poetry with her prose and vice-versa. She is based between Lucknow and Delhi.