MARCH 18, 2021
AS PERVASIVE SHUTDOWNS seized the world, I sat in my cubbyhole of an apartment in Delhi, angry. On most days, I shouted at my boyfriend, at my mother, and at that one friend who listened to everything patiently, and on the ones when anger seemed too out of reach, I cried. It was the weeping that made me feel worse. In January, when the Netflix series Pretend It’s a City dropped, I fired up my laptop and wept, alone, through the first episode.
Between Fran’s rants and Marty’s chuckles, I found strange, comforting company. The seven episodes with exceedingly dry titles like “Department of Sports & Health” and “Library Services” were reminiscent of the weird city shops and markets I regularly visited months before.
But, more than that, Fran Lebowitz’s pre-pandemic New York took me back to my mother’s village, Amaur, in north India, a place I last visited three years ago. And close on its heels were more memories from my walks in rural south India, where I stayed in January 2015, as a journalism student, measuring up and down the roads of strange locales where I did not know the language, did not understand the weather, and often did not know what I was doing there.
Memories work in wondrous ways, their labyrinthine urges and musty sinews catching us on inconspicuous moments. What are these nebulous threads that connect a contemporary Netflix docuseries to my recollections of walking in rural India?
My mother’s village, Amaur, 40 kilometers away from my hometown Kanpur, was a permanent hangout place for my family for a couple of days each time I visited home from college or, later, work. The last time I was there, in April 2017, just when the current Yogi Adityanath government had come to power, I remember feeling a little betrayed by my surroundings. There was a marked departure from the time before. A tightness in the air prevailed as most Hindu fanatics rejoiced the era of the extreme right government. The new government had just then implemented one of the key promises made by the party in its election manifesto by setting up an “Anti-Romeo Squad” to check “eve-teasing,” stalking, and harassment of women. It was a measure that veered into moral policing rather than its purported aim: ensuring women’s safety.
But years earlier, this was where I had spent long summer vacations, doing nothing, laying in a charpai, getting stung by bees in the middle of the day. I enjoyed the company of my maternal uncle at his bageecha (farmland) along the highway. On our 20-minute walk, I would scrub my hands against the houses made of mud, dip in and out of the small pools of water in the vicinity, kick idle storms of mud on the kaccha road, in the process unspooling all the tensions I carried from home and school. Under the summer sun when we walked to and back from the farm, I remember the sun didn’t feel as strong on my back. There would be no sweat, just a rash or tan on my slim arms after we’d return home.
Lebowitz’s walks around New York reminded me of my mother’s village because of the carefree nature of her strolls. The show is a raconteur’s walking tour of a city she enjoys being in. Through the episodes as we followed her on walks all over, it took me back in time to the bare muddy streets from my childhood summers. As she walked in a panoply of smoke through the roads, it transported me to an experience that was exactly opposite of what I was watching onscreen — the languor and stupor of those hours returned to me as I saw Fran take those meditative walks around the city, noticing urban minutiae.
Paradoxically, Fran’s purposeful gait, her sense of receiving the various ways the city was in conversation with her own body, reminded me so much of the idleness with which I had interacted with my mother’s village. As opposed to Fran’s complaints against the people stopping in the middle of the street to look at their phones, or the Times Square, or the pleasures of smoking, I was happy in my mother’s village. When you are 11 or 12 and have daily things taken care of by parents and other people around you, there can be very little left to complain about.
It was Fran’s flâneurie, then, that became a tonic for me in lockdown, the best way to spend those otherwise enraged hours; I projected myself into her place, even as the surroundings in my mind were so very different. Lauren Elkin defines the flâneuse as “an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.” It is derived from the word “flâneur,” which is so closely associated with the male walker, that it cannot be used to address a woman walker. Coined by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin in the 19th and 20th centuries, flâneur is said to have existed first as a genderless word. (Elkin mentions that the feminized variation is a concocted definition because “most French dictionaries don’t even include the word” or, worse, define the term “as a kind of lounge chair.”)
My sense of relief and camaraderie with Lebowitz, however, would change after a few episodes, when I saw the third dispatch in the series titled “Metropolitan Transit.”
Decades before I came to walk cities and call myself a flâneuse, I had walked through Amaur as an amateur. This was in one of north India’s largest states, Uttar Pradesh, a place where women still wear full face veils and squat outdoors in the ungodly dark hours of the morning to defecate. Walking there, I remember mud was a big agent of wonderment for me. The village had yet to get electricity, and we only had my aunt’s Anganwadi paperwork to read as a form of amusement. I walked to go from one relative’s place to another, I walked when I had to use the outdoor washroom, I walked for hours around the village chasing a goat, or my friend Gagan who ran behind a flat tire with a stick. Walking was what infused life with more meaning there and became an entrenched part of how I remember that place.
The streetscape of Pretend It’s a City has a strangely sublime visual appeal to it — an aesthetic now lost. It falls short of sketching a wholesome portrait of the city. While we get to hear so much about Fran’s woes, dalliances, friendships, and access, Pretend never draws out a nuanced analysis of New York, which has otherwise been the protagonist of a large section of pop culture. The image of Lebowitz standing on a relief map of New York City, the camera looking at her from above, recurs throughout the series. In those shots, it is as if we’re being told that the megacity is smaller in comparison to the raconteur: she is the city, even bigger than the city. When not walking, she loves hiding inside her apartment, which again tells us more about her than about the city.
Through the series, Fran is in her usual acerbic, redoubtable form, gathering urban joys in her vicinity, commenting not just on people but also on seemingly inanimate things. It’s a part of her everyday life, this practice of curiosity. Absorbing minute city features from the subway’s stickiness, its art installations, to the manner in which people walk in the city, she actively engages with her creative impulse. She is a writer: this is her job. In doing this, in displaying this capacity for connection and for finding joy, Fran elevates herself to a directory, a repository of all things NYC.
As I pondered over the woman walking the city, my journey and time in the south Indian town, Sathyamangalam (Sathy), came to mind. I was visiting the place as a gawky 23-year-old wannabe journalist, there to gather notes and stories to fill the college’s annual newspaper with. Inside most of the villages, we were required to walk, understand, read the spaces around us. In a way, I was walking to speak with people and be able to write, but in the process my senses were helping me create a dictionary of observations about the place. Without even realizing, I was safely embarking on my journey as a flâneuse. This trip would go on to inform my walks in the cities where I would later live.
Sathy is a town and municipality in Erode district in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, about 2,200 kilometers away from my hometown. I paced the length and breadth of this place once famous for its sandalwood forests. Sathy was unapproachable to me for reasons different from and deeper than the obvious ones of not knowing the language, of being an outsider, and of not knowing much about the geography or sociology of the place. I was an alien to this part of the country.
Along with a dozen other students, I traveled to nearby villages scanning the region for newsworthy stories. Because of my lack of knowledge of Tamil, I sustained my work with the help of batchmates fluent in the language. Conversing with prospective subjects for a story or gathering numbers from a municipality office, I felt deeply removed and irrelevant there. What tied this trip to my previous experiences in rural India was the fact that I was walking to create a connection, to understand the places around and myself better.
One morning when we took a bus ride from Sathy to a village nearby, I remember getting down from the bus and noticing a barefoot woman draw Kolam at the entrance of her house. Usually drawn using rice flour, chalk, chalk powder, or rock powder, with natural or synthetic colors, Kolam is a feature unique to this part of the country. It signifies a washed house, a clean entrance, and is a sign of welcoming people in. The towns, villages, highways, offices, and houses of people were far neater and more organized here. There was a grand cadence to the way the public transport system engaged with commuters. The buses were painted in myriad colors, always bright. The careful hygiene with which people interacted with public spaces was completely new to me.
That January, I would still be six months away from discovering and relishing walking as a private passion. It was only in walking through the villages in south India like Sathy and others, that I subconsciously unlearned the walking-related practices and assumptions that school, parents, friends, and cousins had levied on me. In my hometown, Kanpur, we have laws that kept women indoors. Forget about walking: women are still largely forbidden even from being seeing in outdoor spaces. In the last decade, movements like Pinjra Tod and campaigns like Why Loiter? have taken root in urban India, yet most women still continue to be situated indoors. There remains a differentiation between the male and female streetwalker. We wonder if women can even venture outdoors during daytime and come back unscathed, if the “outdoors” aren’t just a little too dangerous for women to walk through alone at any given hour. Nonetheless, women still walk the streets, strategically oblivious to the dialogue and politics around. In walking these towns and villages alone, I was becoming a part of this largesse.
Lebowitz jokes about walking the city, “I walked around New York barefoot. The astonishing thing to me is that I’m alive, having walked barefoot in New York.” In her deeply observed jokes, she reveals that she is not a mere witness, but a participant, an eavesdropping writer acutely aware of her place in the city. “New Yorkers have forgotten how to walk,” she bemoans as she talks about watching the people on their commute. She brings up the way people are always glued to their phones and how there exists an all-pervasive absence of a sense of wonder. She says, “No one in the subway system has any spirit left — they’ve beaten it out of us.”
Back in 2015, it was not fashionable to keep a count of daily steps, but I remember feeling the lactic acid pooling in my legs as I measured distances across Sathy in footsteps. By walking, I felt a summoning of strange courage, the kind that made me feel that I too had a place in the gaggle of students gathered around the pencil-pushing government employees. I walked to make peace with myself, to make myself part of the milieu a little bit more than I obviously was. Lebowitz walked with a similar devotion — on her journey to look for places to smoke in New York City.
While in the south Indian villages of Gundri, Hasanur, etc., I felt a unique suspension of fear. I was a woman who had allowed herself to be altered, even unsettled, by the places she walks in, much like Fran. My immediate surroundings in Sathy addled my whimsies compared to the constant fear and vigilance I carried while walking as a child in Amaur. I was a woman, an outsider in both these places, but I was able to be more vulnerable in the villages around Sathy, places that I will likely never visit again.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Fran encapsulated what it means to be in the moment of the pandemic and watch Pretend It’s a City:
There’s a difference for sure. I thought of the title, Pretend It’s a City, when New York was packed with morons who would stand in the middle of the sidewalk. And I would yell at them: “Move! Pretend it’s a city!” The people who have seen it since then — an agent of mine said, “Oh, it’s a love letter to New York.” Before the virus, it was me complaining about New York. Now people think it has some more lyrical, metaphorical meaning.
Fran has the confidence of someone with many years of streetwalking and people-watching experience behind her. She is a master in her chosen fashion of expression and, with Pretend It’s a City, she and Scorsese made me feel at home — in my home — during the lockdown. Fran’s casual walking tour of the New York with her running commentary came with an imagined sense of yearning for a pre-pandemic way of life. Casually holding the railing while walking into a subway, Fran feels like she is from a different time in more ways than one. The bittersweet air that hangs over the show gave me a small window of hope and escape — just the right kind of distraction. It gave me the space and scope to understand myself and my place in the world a bit better, by showing me a city from before, and the way in which we two are irrevocably linked.