City City Bang Bang, Columns

In praise of Pagdandis & Dusty Trails

One of the pleasures of travelling outside urban centres is to wander off the beaten track and go where one’s feet take you. But even in remote places that are sparsely populated, there is always the pagdandi to guide you. A road beaten into the earth by the tattoo of thousands of footsteps that have preceded yours and fashioned a road where none was. A passage optimised over time, with the experience of years, maybe decades baked into the path. Following pagdandis allows us to explore unknown vistas with a safety net- you know that even if you are in the wilderness you are not really alone.

The pagdandi is a form of collective instinct that eventually becomes common wisdom. Pagdandis begin as tentative experiments. Intrepid individuals choose a certain path where none exists and over time one of those trajectories gains favour from later travellers. The moment even the outline of a path is formed, it provides strong incentive for others to follow in its wake. Eventually it becomes like a river on land, winding its way using the erosive abilities of time.

The foot-path is an act of democracy, order created not by external edict but by the consensual collaboration of thousands of unrelated people acting in invisible concert over a large period of time. In that sense while being located in space, it is a document of time, of a resonance between human beings from vastly different eras all being in the same place trying to reach the same destination, all adding to what they are using. In the words of author Robert Macfarlane, “footpaths are mundane in the best sense of the word: ‘worldly’, open to all.  As rights of way determined and sustained by use, they constitute a labyrinth of liberty, a slender network of common land that still threads through our aggressively privatized world of barbed wires and gates, CCTV cameras and ‘No Trespassing’ signs”.

If the road is built for travel, a trail is built by it. The road brooks no interference from the natural landscape that it cleaves through. It is high on intent on low on empathy. If it needs to bring down hillsides, cut a swathe through settlements, vault over pesky obstructions or bore a hole through unyielding mountainsides, it does so. It has a job to do, and it efficiently does what it is asked of it. New highways in particular are brusque and abrupt; they look to connect two points set in a certain topography, and they go about their job with a single-mindedness of purpose. Rules are metalled roads; solutions are dusty pathways. Roads crumble with time and use; pagdandis become more firmly etched in permanence. Erosion is useful, and when it stops being so, little diversions spring up around the old pathway as if by themselves. It is disuse that is the pagdandi’s enemy.

If the road is all intelligence and resolute purpose, the pagdandi is about wisdom and perseverance. The trail has no desire to conquer the natural, it finds a way around it. It uses the contours of a landscape to make its way. Nobody loses; nature yields a way without losing self-respect. The trail does not understand straight lines, for human beings left to themselves find that the shortest distance between is never a precisely straight line. It undulates gently even on plain ground, and on hills, it wraps itself around the landscapes as it rises and falls, always willing to tiptoe around any obstacle. Pathways are your best friend in the hills. Unlike the roads which need to circumnavigate the hillside, cutting a wide arc as they spiral their way up, the pagdandi shimmies up the hill, sure-footed and spry. The choice between sust kadam raste and tez kadam rahein (will not dare to attempt a translation of Gulzar’s exquisite words)is never clearer than in the hills.

Way before we glorified the internet as the bastion of user created content, the pagdandi is a testament to the power of crowds to find order within chaos, extract shape from the formless. Every user adds to what is being used and makes it even more tangible.  A little like a ratings system on the internet- a map of likes and dislikes emerges formed by the thicket of pixels generated by thousands of users. A hashtag follows the same principle as a pagdandi- a word becomes a place thanks to the number of people who land on it. It burrows itself into existence through repeat use. Like so much in the digital word, the dusty trail is an organic evolution, not an expert imposition.

As Linguist Guy Deutscher argues language came into being and evolved following a similar pattern. As he says in his wonderful The Unfolding of Language, “language seems so skilfully crafted that it appears to be the work of a master architect, and yet it’s complex structure must somehow have arisen of its own accord”. Much like the unschooled pathway, language was a product of an insatiable human desire- in this case, to communicate. Unintelligible grunts began to fall into place with repeated use by a few, which then gradually took on a more recognisable structure and form. Just like a pagdandi can exist only if we continue to walk on it, language needs to be used. Both evolve with use; as contexts change, both modify themselves to accommodate the new- not with any forethought or design but organically, as a result of an undirected collective effort.

The real charm of a pagdandi is that it offers a tantalising glimpse into the unreachable. It represents a fantasy that there is a path to somewhere else, or to some time else, a desire that ornithologist W H Hudson describes as wanting ‘to slip back out of this modern  world’. That eventually is at the heart of why these little dust-laden, foot-stomped little paths call out to us. To take us where no road can.