Morning walks a blessing
"An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day" - Henry David Thoreau
The smoky mist lifts to reveal the grey-blue, pink hues of dawn. A crow and a cuckoo sing in unison interrupted at times by the twitter of a cuckoo, the crowing of a cock and the squawk of ducks in the pond. Somewhere in the distance, temple bells ring out in perfect harmony with church chimes and the muezzin's call.
It's 4am in Kolkata, India. Severely jetlagged by my long haul flight from New Zealand the previous day, I sleepily sip a cup of Darjeeling tea and mull over the dramatic change of surroundings, the mixed feelings of familiarity and foreignness, the warm homeliness and the chaotic variety and diversity of India - all the typical thoughts of an expatriate. My reverie is broken by muffled voices and the shuffle of feet. They originate from the members of one of the many ubiquitous Indian communities - morning walkers.
There is a very significant difference between walking in the morning and going for a morning walk, you see.
In New Zealand, one can go for a walk or run anytime one feels like it. In fact, since most New Zealanders start and finish early, people go for a walk or run at lunchtime or after work or on weekends rather than in the wee hours of the morning. But then we're privileged in New Zealand. We have the luxury of well laid out, long, clean, vacant roads winding through hills and dales and lush greenery, surrounded by blue skies and seas.
In India, going for a morning walk is a project, it needs meticulous planning. First, because you have to find a place where you can walk uninterruptedly without stumbling over something, bumping in to someone or being hit by a car. So you might have to drive or bus it to start your morning walk. The timing has to be precise too - not too dark so you don't trip over sleeping dogs or pavement dwellers, yet well before the tropical sun starts to blaze down on you. It has to be completed before the milkman, newspaperman and housemaid turn up. And it must be well before vehicle horns pierce the morning air like conches proclaiming the start of battle - of everyday life.
A walk in New Zealand is an individualistic exercise. It's me time, time to connect with nature and get some cardio while about it. In India, it's a collectivist activity like everything else. Morning walkers form a well defined community with a distinct culture and sub-cultures working within it.
There are the retired elderly walkers, the busy professional walkers, the bored housewives, the pretty young things, the roadside Romeos and the serious walkers. Each group is distinguished by its attire, general demeanour, pace and conversation. The retired elderly come in sports caps or woolly mufflers and monkey caps - the poor cousin of a balaclava - depending on their seniority and the time of the year. They walk at a moderate to brisk pace talking about politics, pension, inflation, the dissolute ways of youngsters and the golden years when potatoes cost two rupees a kilo. The bored housewives shuffle along in their saris, slippers and shawls, chatting about housemaids, neighbourhood scandals, cooking, jewellery and children - not necessarily in that order.
The pretty young things wear state-of-the-art exercise gear and lots of makeup. They text the world at large as they stroll. They sometimes even text the person next to them as they chat animatedly about fashion, boyfriends, lousy classes at college, and oppressive parents. Sometimes they cast furtive glances at the roadside Romeos.
The roadside Romeos come in bold t-shirts with proclamatory statements like "the world revolves around me" or "single and ready to mingle" and ogle the pretty young things.
The serious walkers are easy to spot. They walk purposefully in the right clothes and shoes as if their life is at stake. But then they're not much fun.
There's also the occasional solitary walkers - the kind who think lofty thoughts, hum a tune and compose a poem or two in their heads as they walk.
After having walked a few furlongs, exhilarated and pleased with their achievement, the morning walkers congregate around the "chaiwala" or tea vendor to get their morning nectar - that wonderfully sweet, milky and spiced concoction served in little clay pots or "kulhars". At this time, all is well with the world, troubles are forgotten and a general bonhomie prevails. After this, everyone goes home as the car horns start blaring and life takes over.
Often my friends from New Zealand tell me how they wished they had the sense of community prevalent among Indians. They ask me whether it comes from having a common language or religion. Not at all, I say. You don't need a common language or religion to have a community - all you need is common ground and shared travails. Want a community? Go for a morning walk - Indian style. As a saying in Sanskrit goes -"Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" - the world is one family after all.
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