I like to be invisible. Growing up, I used to piece together stories, in my mind, about the power of being invisible. As an adult, I managed to find quiet corners in the loudest rooms. The idea of walking barefoot in Bangalore and thus standing out in the crowd scared me.
” What is the problem ? a friend eased my worries. He hadn’t and wouldn’t want to either.
The tuning, I realized, was to adapt to the surfaces. Is it a city where willing experimenters could walk barefoot? Not just on the manicured lawns of homes and apartments, but also on the way to groceries and work?
Grounding for energy
Barefoot living is seen by some as a lifestyle choice. They call it grounding or grounding. Clint Ober, proponent of the concept, espouses the human body’s need to connect with its natural energy source – the Earth – to improve health. Practitioners point to peer-reviewed research as validation of its positive effects. But how much of that could be followed by a choice in a metropolis not known for its high walkability and cleanliness scores? Outside of barefoot-themed walks and runs — by actor Milind Soman included — and itineraries of old barefoot wine tours, I couldn’t find any references of townspeople knocking off the shoes.
The thing is, I like to walk and do it regularly. But I don’t like to wear shoes. I suspect it has something to do with school day shoe bites. The open sandals have worked well, but there are times when I feel the need to throw them on, more out of instinct.
I learned, while preparing, that the earliest forms of proper footwear date back to around 9,000 years ago. From old leather wraps to chip-laden smart shoes that track health metrics, they’ve come a long way since then.
There was concern about being noticed, but that wasn’t really the story. It was about discovering what this exercise meant to me. At the start of the rides, the need to get rid of an exaggerated sense of occasion was the first obstacle!
The first look at the ground ahead gives us signs of what to expect – a bag of crushed curds, orange peels and broken bottles, on a rain-swept street near Vijaya Bank Colony, a residential area near Bannerghatta Road. I stay nearby.
We are wary of blisters because the feet try to adapt to these objects and these uneven surfaces. Vendors, piled up sand, debris and pits left open on the trail after roadworks interrupt the pace of the walk.
We constantly worry about stepping on things that the previous night’s rain washed away. The word of warning for walkers with friends – “infections” – always plays in the mind. Eyes on the ground is the only way, at least to begin with.
The first light steps on the unpaved margins remind me of my home in Kerala during the monsoon. There are flashes of a forgotten backyard, of swaying fronds, of moss on the walls, and of quiet mornings. It’s a grittier sort of dampness, spaced between gravel pits and sharp street stones.
The closer view of the ground directs me towards a certain chance. Many sidewalks have footprints and paw marks on wet concrete. I try to gauge brand popularity from discarded packaging.
Sidewalks vs Parks
I arrive at the prime location of Bengaluru. Strolling the famous cobblestones of Church Street, thanks to a multi-crore makeover, is different. The same goes for the long concrete MG Road tarnished by a broken grille which was repaired just recently.
Stones and pavements are hot in the afternoon sun making the walk unsightly, but some sections are better. However, some of the Church Street bins are overflowing and leaving food waste and dregs on the sidewalks.
I transform into the sprawling green lung of Bengaluru, Cubbon Park. The lawns are a consolation for my feet but the rough paths that cross them make walking more difficult than on the roads. This is the only stretch that leaves your heels with serious pain.
More or less, the walks in the park go well. After enduring the roads and traffic, they feel like a noise-free, simulated set. I also try to walk barefoot in the park near my house. The vision is constantly tilted skyward towards birds and trees. I play something on the earpiece and realize that I haven’t reached that level of ease in walking without looking ahead. I then stop to put on the shoes that I carry in my backpack to rush to work. I am looking for a water tap to wash my feet. It is not here or in other areas that I have walked. I miss the common roadside taps in Kerala.
Jump and hurry
By day 3, strides are more assured, spotting objects to dodge takes less effort, and pacing is better, but it’s more about getting used to the scenery than improving itself. Some sidewalks are broken, others unevenly positioned; there are occasional jumps over potholes, but that’s something me and all of us have gotten used to. Walking around the sections barricaded for the construction of the Namma Metro becomes more difficult with the largely unregulated and criss-crossing traffic. Without shoes, crossing busy roads becomes very tricky.
Another day on a narrow two-way road adjoining the Indian Institute of Management
campus, a pile of garbage blocks the walk on the only path.
Do I have to walk a few meters on the road, go around the rubbish and then return to the sidewalk? Or do I have to cross to the other side in the face of a constant flow of traffic? Bare feet removes the ability to continue on the trail even if it were to involve a bit of deft footwork around the stinky trash mound.
There is an unopened tetrapack of mango juice. It’s new, this attention to detail for what constitutes the average pile of trash on the streets on weekdays. My feet are developing greater spatial awareness, I tell myself, and begin to cross the road as a motorcyclist speeds up and stops before knocking me over. A few gesticulations and muffled words that I can’t quite catch – the man is wearing a face mask – before setting off. The rest plays like animal crossing video, slow and laborious. A car stops to let me pass. Eyes on the ground, eyes on traffic, it can discourage even the safest. I rush to the other side.
Same but different
At KR Market, the city’s largest and busiest wholesale market, on a stretch littered with discarded packaging materials, crushed vegetables and misplaced sharp objects, I see Hari and his friends with large bags flowers. Nobody wears shoes. Brotherhood confers; they are here to buy materials for a festival at a temple in Koramangala. The motive is spiritual, I understand. They don’t ask me what belongs to me.
What’s wrong with the experiment I’m doing? The question comes up while I’m having a coffee in a restaurant in BTM Layout. The cold floor feels a bit like home. Outside the restaurant, I meet a food delivery man from Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. While waiting for his order, he tells me how difficult it is to achieve daily goals, navigate traffic and rain. He looks briefly at my feet. But that’s it.
Who is watching?
Waiting at a signal with three other walkers on a muddy stretch in Bilekahalli, I wonder what I would say if one of these strangers asks me why I am walking barefoot. It gets too internal; of course no one asks. I always decide that walking barefoot might be a lot easier in an unfamiliar city where there’s no identity baggage to throw away.
Could these marches be widely promoted as a campaign? What could be a relevant cause? I read on the phone while walking in Mico Layout (another sign that it’s getting more laid back). I walk barefoot to fund medical care, raise awareness of abuse and disease, highlight poor road infrastructure; there is nothing about barefoot walking as something you have just done, as an experience and a hobby.
I look away from the phone as I enter a subway construction area towards Silk Board. A frail man in his thirties walks barefoot over the rubble, looking lost. I go back to the phone and the articles promoting barefoot walking. They sound great – improved sleep, reduced inflammation, decreased anxiety. The search drifts to lists of “hidden risks”. I stop at something on tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons).
Climbing the escalator at the Chickpet subway station on Day 8, I realize that my feet are doing quite well with the varied and inconsistent surfaces the city has thrown at me. I am now standing in a crowded subway car, with at least four passengers staring at my feet.
There’s no benchmark to compare but decades of civic reporting and citizen activism later, the city’s roads still don’t seem to have gotten any easier on the feet, covered or bare.
Lines of people line up for the next train at Majestic Station. It’s chaos, it’s a clock. I look at my feet. No sprain yet, no twisted ankle. The soles are not pretty but they feel new. I’ll get new.
The reporter walked barefoot for eight days, mostly covering parts of South Bengaluru and the central business district. The shortest walk, in a park in Vijaya Bank Layout near Bannerghatta Road, took about 35 minutes. The longest, at 90 minutes, was at Bilekahalli and JP Nagar. He carried a pair of shoes in a bag for most walks. Other times, he left the shoes in his vehicle before exercise.
Master painter MF Husain was nicknamed the barefoot “Picasso”. He never wore shoes because they would be bad for his knees. In a column, novelist Shobha De wrote that he was once refused entry to a club in South Mumbai because he showed up without shoes.