New Careers: A Walking-Talking Business

by Iftekhar Ahsan

I was born to Rajasthani parents into a clan of people known as Rangrez. We’ve always dyed cloth for a living. Since we moved to Calcutta and started dyeing in factories, the romance was taken away from the craft. I did not enjoy doing that, so I moved away and started exploring other businesses. I dabbled in several projects before this, but none of them agreed with me. But each failure was important to teach something or the other. I started with a cyber cafe, then selling CDs, then working for an event management company, followed by a Pepsi distributorship. All were good while they lasted, but they did not make me happy.

I stumbled upon the idea of Walks of India when I was hosting some friends from the U.S. and Turkey. We’d hired a local guide to show them around, but she was focusing on the monuments of the city and did not really exude any love or enthusiasm for what she was showing. Also, we saw that travelers coming to Calcutta were shepherded around in a cocooned manner from air-conditioned flights, to A/C airport, to A/C cars and hotels. We thought this was too protected a setting for anyone to get a real travel experience. And hence, we decided that we must get them out and get their hands dirty, for them to get a real feel of what our city is all about.

I found out people who were doing walks in India and outside, met them and did some walks with them, and finally settled with a model for Calcutta Walks. Some of the cities I walked included London, Singapore, Shanghai, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Goa, Varanasi, etc. I realized that I already knew and loved most parts of my city, and that these tours would have to be an extension of my personality. I’ve followed that model so far and been pretty successful.

A walk is led by a person in love with the city/locality and showing it with enthusiasm. We call our guides ‘Explorers’, simply because we do not claim to know it all and want to present ourselves as lovers and explorers of the city. The less rehearsed the lines are the better. In fact, we don’t even want to have fixed routes. Whenever a new person joins us as an Explorer, we tell him/her to learn a locality as well as they could, and then lead a walk however they want. But yes, they must have enough fodder on the tour to go on for hours on end. They should not use all that information in one walk — instead, tease the travelers with bits of information on various things. One also needs to make some pit stops along the way — at interesting workshops, markets, food stalls etc. The idea is to make it a treat for all of the travelers’ senses.

Our walks are continually evolving. When we started out, we were told that no one would walk with us, listen to our chatter and pay us money for it. But it has so happened that in the last five years of our existence, we’ve doubled every year. From a few walks in a month, we have now begun to operate more than one walk every day. We now intend to create walks based on the life of Calcutta-greats like Tagore, Bose, Vivekananda, etc. There are also photography walks as well as literature walks on the anvil.

It has been an interesting learning experience for me. I’ve come to appreciate the different points of view that people come with from around the world. I used to be more rigid in my thoughts but like Gulzar says: Acche bure ke farq ne basti ujaad di, Majboor ho ke milne lage har kisi se hum.

Since I’ve never been a history buff in school or college, I picked up my facts on the job. Of course, I always enjoyed reading novels and that made my knowledge deep and varied. But there has been times when some things I’m not too sure of are caught by some walkers. Once, I showed a World War airstrip which is now a major road of the city, and mentioned that fighter jets used to take off and land there. There was an American pilot and flying enthusiast in the group. In the middle of the walk, he took me aside and said that jets weren’t even invented until the end of World War II. We laughed out loud, but kept this secret from the other walkers. On another occasion, I had a group of three Jewish people from America and Australia, and I went on and on against the Israelis and the atrocities they commited against the Palestinians. They went back and we had long email conversations after that, in which we debated our points of view. It was challenging but fun.

Through ‘Walks of India’ <> , I have encouraged and mentored walking tour operators in a few cities so far. We intend to have walking tours in all major and minor cities of the country. The sharing of culture is one of the most beautiful exchanges in the world and left me transformed.