S02E10: On Looking

In conversation with Aslam Saiyad

Or listen to it here:


Deepika: Have you seen that Instagram trend where you take a screenshot of a video of many words that change every second, and the one that you take a photo of indicates what you need to see/invite into your life?

Arpita: Yes! It’s quite random but fun to do and I think around new years many of those kinds of things pop up where you get to pick a word, quote or phrase.

Deepika: So I did one of those and the word I got was ‘Pause’. And as it’s supposed to – it led me to think about what that means for my life and how I might want to embody it.

The timing of it was also interesting because I just interviewed our guest for this episode and began reading a book by Alexandra Horowitz that we both have been wanting to explore more deeply for a few years now and which we’re reading in our book club this month.

Arpita: On Looking–Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. It’s a book that speaks to how we stop really truly seeing the world around us when we are pro-occupied and busy with our daily lives and how there is value in removing our blinders and beginning to see again. But before we dive into it, tell me more about who you spoke with.

Deepika: I spoke with Aslam Saiyad who runs an immersive, slow walking group called Go Hallu Hallu in Mumbai.

Aslam: I’m Aslam Saiyad, born and brought up in Mumbai. I’m a photographer. And since last 12 years, I’m doing photography commercially and I run Hallu Hallu now.

Arpita: So ‘Hallu Hallu’ I’m guessing means ‘slowly slowly’?

Deepika: Exactly, and their logo is a cheerful tortoise–an invitation to slow down and catch your breath in a hare paced world. Or as they describe on their Instagram handle, ‘We walk with you to discover people, birds , plants and water bodies and try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. When we do that, we develop empathy.’

Arpita: That’s interesting – you often hear of walks where you go to learn more about a place in terms of information and stories but you don’t always think of building empathy through a walking tour.

Deepika: But it does, doesn’t it? It was something that came up even in our last conversation with The Hyderabad History Project–how walks help build connection and relationships with the city and its people.

But I agree, the word empathy is not what comes to mind when you think of your typical walking tour or photo walk. The idea, instead, is to champion the joy of observation, to slow down and pause long enough to really look.

Arpita: So how did he come to this? What sparked this idea of doing things hallu hallu?

Aslam: People living in Bombay are so so busy with their work. It’s very fast, but even our entertainments are very fast and fun-filled. We don’t engage with the surrounding, right. So, this was with everyone in Mumbai. And even with me, it was something like that. So, when I became a photographer, I slowed down and started looking through the camera and I saw people who were there before also, but I did not bother to talk to them.

Deepika: I resonate so much with what Aslam says and you know felt it most strongly whenever I was on a Mumbai local train. There were so many sights, sounds and people whose path would cross mine and yet there was never a moment to pause and actually sit with any of it.

Arpita: Horowitz actually captures this sentiment about going through life in a blur without really pausing to look in her book also right? She says how she would be ‘at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of’ her ‘ordinary looking’. And adds how the consolation is that this deficiency of not really looking is quite human, we’ve all got it. “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.”

Deepika: Yet there is that conundrum, isn’t there? That there is so much sensory input in our world that to navigate the city, we have to block out to get by. And I guess that’s how this glancing gaze becomes the norm.

Arpita: Cause we definitely aren’t born this way – I mean I hangout with my nephews or my friends’ kids and immediately you sense how differently they see the world – how they delight in a weird rock or leaf or want to sit on the sidewalk suddenly and look at a particular insect – their gaze is so different from those of adults.

Deepika: I know what you mean. Hanging out with kids automatically just invites a different way of seeing! For Aslam, it was the lens of the camera that helped him take off his blinders.

Aslam: So when I became a photographer, I started exploring the places around me and like many other places across India. And I wanted to do a project, some photography project. So I started exploring Bombay and basically, in my own neighbourhood, I started observing things which I didn’t before.

So there was a river which was flowing, I didn’t know the name of that river before. And I started exploring that people used to call nala on the rivers in Mumbai when they flowed outside from the forest area, they became sewer or nala. And I started exploring these areas – the forested area. And during this time, I got to know that there are people who are living along this river and which I did not see before. And like most of them what happens we people when we visit the parks, garden or something like that, we are so busy enjoying things we forget to actually see the nature and things around.

Deepika: And through this process he slowly began re-introducing himself to Mumbai and was captivated in particular by those communities which skirted the city gently along its coastlines or rivers. Those that were always there but not actually always seen – overwhelmed as they had been by the more common and recent towering concrete buildings and infrastructure of the city.

Aslam: Mumbai is known for its beaches, its Film City, and Bombay is the economic capital of India, like that. But Bombay has its own people, and it has its own languages, art, culture, but hardly any of us know that. So I want from my walks, mostly my walks are based on indigenous people. When I want to take people to these places where this, they talk with them, they eat their food, they go into their homes, look at the culture, they appreciate their culture, they acknowledge the things what they are.

Arpita: You know when he’s saying that I think of how when you enter a city like Mumbai, the tall buildings immediately pull your gaze up and you lose sight of what’s on the ground. And if anything the communities he’s talking about here – the indigenous ones – they’re grounded in the city like few of us are really.

Deepika: Exactly, the people that Aslam is referring to are the Warli community whose origins can be traced to the Sahyadri Range in Maharashtra, dating back to the 10th century AD! They have lived and navigated its forests and rivers much longer than any of Mumbai’s urbane population.

Arpita: And you know back when I was studying, I had an amazing chance to visit a Warli hamlet in Palghar which is outside of Mumbai and while one of course does not want to romanticise tribal lives and take away from the many struggles they continue to have – I still have this very vivid memory of that experience of how it was a totally different way of life, so deeply communal and how intertwined that life was with the immediate earth and skies.

Deepika: Yeah and one of the first things I actually associate with the word ‘warli’ is actually their art which is centered around nature, its elements and is still so intrinsic to their way of life and how they continue to inhabit forests and live in the company of wildlife. 

Even now, in Sanjay Gandhi National Park their homes are decorated with intricate geometric patterns of flowers, trees, hunting scenes and everyday life. So much movement and so many stories represented right there! The National Park is home to at least 12 padas or hamlets of the tribal community, and the nearby Aarey Colony to 27 hamlets, making it the highest concentration of an ancient tribe nestled in a metropolis in the world. (Source)

Arpita: Wow I didn’t know that and I don’t think most of us do! And yet in anything I read or come across on tribal communities in India, there’s a constant push to ‘develop’ in a way that disregards this celebration and respect for nature and instead is transforming landscapes and erasing their lived realities so thoughtlessly.

Deepika: It’s something Aslam also seeks to bring attention to through his walks and through interactions with people from the Warli community. The process of understanding the world a little differently begins for walkers when alternative lives and narratives unfold.

Aslam: In Mumbai, we have a very big issue of Aarey forest. And this metro project, because of this metro project, it is going to affect the people who live there. But what we what we are getting is we are getting a facility of Metro transport system. But we are where… like when when somebody asked me you want to travel in Metro. Yes, I want to travel. But if I don’t know who are getting affected if I don’t? I don’t know. First of all, I won’t care about that people. Right. But when I take people to such people, or indigenous place homes, so definitely, I’m not taking the Bombay’s population, more than two crore I don’t know. But I’m taking 10 people to their homes. So at least these 10 people will see the other side. And if somebody asked them, they might think about ki arrey nahin, the metro is not that important, but the people living in Aarey, the animals living in Aarey, they are more important.

Deepika: Aarey Forest, which is a green lung of Mumbai and in the heart of the city, has been in the news because of the proposed metro car-shed that is to be built by cutting down a part of the forest there. What is interesting is that so many Mumbaikars have come together to protect and stand up not just for the forest but for the rights of the people living there.

Arpita: And from what I’ve read about it and followed over the years, that has happened because there has been a movement towards knowing, understanding and having empathy that he speaks of, right?

Deepika: Yes, and it again comes around to how much we are willing to look at and see. Aarey is an example of indigenous people and citizen groups coming together because of a shared understanding and respect for the forest.

Aslam: What has happened is because of urbanisation the indigenous people they look upon us like they have like beautiful rooms. We are living in tall towers. So when we visit to their homes and appreciate then they can happy with their own culture. So that’s also part of my walk, that’s the other side of my walk where they should be proud of their own culture. Basically the value is to create empathy. This was one example with our indigenous people.

Arpita: I get what he’s alluding to there – certain forms of urbanism and development, materialistic living – they’ve been mainstreamed as examples of what is quote unquote ‘ideal’. Many communities such as these tribal ones – if they don’t share that view or wish to embrace this mainstream idea – end up feeling marginalised and somehow lesser?

I remember coming across an EPW article by the historian Ramachandran Guha where he writes about the functioning of government schemes in tribal areas. He shares how it was found in one case that the officials in charge of these schemes were lacking in any intimate knowledge of these communities and he adds strongly that, “We look down on them and rob them of their self-confidence, and take away their freedom by laws which they do not understand.” Source

Deepika: This is precisely why Go Hallu Hallu walks are designed the way they are–to connect people to other ways of living and other communities. But also, in the process, to bring value and respect again for the lives of indigenous people.

Aslam: So basically all my walks are started with indigenous people. See, so I have Dahisar River, Versova Koliwada, then we have East Indian Walk. So these are our most popular walks.

Deepika: The Kolis, a fishing community, in Versova are another space that Go Hallu Hallu walks to. Their recorded history dates back to the 12th century.

Arpita: Right cause Mumbai began as an archipelago of islands so it’s no surprise that it has these old fishing communities.

Deepika: Kolis continue to live along the coast, by the sea and in creeks, their livelihood intrinsically tied to the sea. So much so that many of the names of original fishing villages of the Kolis continue to be in use today like Worli, Dongri, Mazagaon, and Naigaon while others like Colaba came from ‘Kolbhat’, and Apollo Bunder was ‘Palva Bunder’. Original inhabitants in so many ways!

I remember first getting interested in the community when I was living in Versova and went to a Koli festival in my neigbourhood. I remember the food, and music and dance and just a sense of celebration of life that was so palpable! It’s such an amazingly vibrant community.

Arpita: I can just imagine your fish loving self joining that party! I really like the idea of an annual festival also making room for people to start to know of other cultures and histories that inhabit the city. It opens the door also for more difficult conversations like what the city’s pollution and infrastructure projects are doing to the livelihoods of those who have been living here for centuries.

Deepika: Yes, festivals are a great way to create awareness and connection! I visited the Mumbai Urban Art Festival a few weeks ago at the very vibrant Sasson Docks in South Mumbai and it was amazing to see that different walls reflected the lives of these indigenous communities–one with Warli art depicting the sea in a spiral pattern and the other in black-and-white of the Koli fisherwomen.

It’s also why Go Hallu Hallu walks are so focused on connecting people to the lives and stories of the multitudes that live within the city but that which we might not have contact with or knowledge of otherwise.

Aslam: I want to give people all directional, multi directional experience. So my walks are not basically gyaan. We don’t want to lecture people. That is lecture can be one part of it, maybe, not every time. But I want to give another thing, that is you just go there, to their homes, feel the things, eat their food, listen to them, see their architecture, feel it, sit down, spend hours over there. So I try to.. want to touch their subconscious mind. They might not understand directly, but when they like after a few.. as time goes that thing gets into their minds. And next time when they visit the same place or some where they connect with some people and they get a these are the Warli and they live in Mumbai.

Arpita: It sounds very immersive and I like the idea of it being so interactive and experiential!

Deepika: Exactly, and the walks are structured like that as well and are longer than your average walking tour. Some start at 8:30am and go on till post lunch or about 2:30 pm – a good 6 hours.

Arpita: That’s quite a lot! So what happens on these walks? How does he curate them?

Aslam: It’s a gradual process of experience I would say. I deliberately.. I want to do this because I know this is going to get into their heads and minds forever. now there is a Elephanta caves in Bombay. If I want to do Elephanta Caves walk, what I will do, I want somebody who knows about the archaeology or history of the Elephanta caves. Right. I visited Elephanta caves. And I hired a guide. Okay, the guide was local. So I went around with him for a one and a half hours, he explained me about the sculptures of the Elephanta. For me that sculpture is just one part of that walk. The other part is a person who’s talking to me and the island, which I’m visiting.

I will say okay, like, show me the whole island and I will walk with you. So he will show some spot of the island where the locals visit, the tourists people they only visit that cave part. But the locals the people who are living in the villages, they have their own place to go there, it can be a waterfall, there can be a small water body or some place. So I want to visit with that local, that whole Elephanta island. So my Elephant Walk will be like, an hour in caves, and three hours in the island, whatever they are doing. I’ll go with them if they do fishing, if they’re catching crabs, what they eat, what they do, how they live their life or how their house looks like? So this is how I curate a walk.

Arpita: And how often do these walks take place?

Aslam: Every week we have walks sometimes Saturday, Sunday, sometimes to work on Sunday. So there are people that are like we have multiple walk leaders so I have to rotate them properly. So in monsoon we did a lot of Dahisar riverwalk because it becomes very lively at National Park, very green and red. So it’s also seasonal and also availability of the walk leaders also sometimes it also we need to think about that. We also have a one more walk at Chaul, near Alibaug. So, again, we need to take ferry from Gateway of India. So, that is closed, it will again open in October. So, there are so many parameters.

Arpita: I especially like the idea of a local guide cause showcasing an alternate culture by someone who lives that culture is in of itself quite powerful but also more importantly in many ways builds pride and confidence and leadership for those communities like Aslam had mentioned earlier is the endeavour.

Deepika: Yeah if you remember in the movie Gully Boy there is this scene where a bunch of foreigners with cameras are herded into one of the slum communities and the whole thing is extremely discomforting in terms of the power dynamics of the situation plays out – where the community lacks ownership and is a passive recipient of the outsider;s pitiful gaze.

Go Hallu Hallu in that sense goes right in the opposite direction. It wants to break that dynamics and have people meet with an openness that allows for that true space of empathy and exchange to develop. Aslam was very clear that the goal of these walks is to foster connection and understanding and that can never happen in a rush.

Arpita: So does he do this alone or how does it work?

Deepika: Aslam started his journey with Gopal MS who goes by the hugely popular handle @mumbaipaused on Instagram. For both of them, the idea was to discover what was in plain sight because of the tunnel vision so many of us have as we go about our lives in the city–where we’re in the city but not always fully inhabiting it.

Aslam: Hallu Hallu means slow and when you are slow, you start looking at the things okay. So if I’m in a car, going back to a place, I will definitely will see the place, and I will get engaged with the place. If you change your mode of transportation to a bike, you start feeling air, the temperature of the surrounding, you are more engaged than a car. You are on a bicycle, you are still slower, you can stop you may stop more frequent than a bike and even if you are walking then definitely you get engaged with the people. You can stop you can say hi, you are at a slower pace. You can be get engaged with whatever things around. So I want people to relate a lot to the concept of Hallu Hallu is that you should get slow at least  slow so that you get a chance to get engaged. So that’s why Hallu Hallu.

Arpita: Ifully resonate with that – it’s one of the reasons I don’t really enjoy driving like many people do. I think I enjoy being the passenger so much more cause then you just get to look at the world around.. and I was recently in Gwalior and I was just so hooked to seeing the local market pass by cause it was so fascinating and strange. You miss stuff like that if you just gotta look at the road!

Deepika: I love driving but yes, agree that being the passenger or being on a bicycle or on foot allows for a different view of the world. An expansion of time that makes room to be curious, to stop, to look. Aslam explains that it’s not about being slow in life but opening yourself up to another way of inhabiting the world.

Aslam: We are not telling you to walk slow. Walking itself is slow. When you walk, you have a chance to interact, you have a chance to say hi to somebody and somebody replies, you can again get into the conversation. When you’re on bike or car, you don’t get that. So Hallu Hallu means just not about walking. It means, if you rush to station, railway station or bus, you want to catch the train or bus immediately, right? And then you go to the office you come back home. Similarly, that you’re very quick and when you want to rush every time you are crashing. Okay. So Hallu Hallu means if you take 10 minutes, like you have more 10 minutes, like you go before 10 minutes and just sit down on a railway station and just sit there and do nothing. And see the people of the train, the station, observe the bookseller or the person who is polishing the shoes. So that is Hallu Hallu. You’re slowing down and you’re giving yourself time and also giving time to the person who you meet everyday but you don’t have the time to talk to him right, so Hallu Hallu like you said just sit there and say hi. Or just ask his name, you’re meeting somebody everyday but you never wish him or you never talk to him. So that is Hallu Hallu.

Deepika: It’s amazing how instinctively children (and dogs) do this–exploring, seeing/smelling something the adult isn’t. On so many occasions I’ve watched children tugging on their parent’s arms to point to something or darting off to follow the flight of a bird or to pick up and play with an assortment of dried leaves. 

Arpita: My friend’s son for example has this incredible collection of rocks which have been put together from all sorts of outings and each has a story which he can tell you in detail! And you know Horowitz describes this, she speaks about how fundamentally, walking is a place of exploration, an opportunity to explore surfaces and textures with all your senses. She writes that ‘It is archeology: exploring the bit of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fistful of pebbles and a twig and a torn corner of a paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground.’

Deepika: What is powerful about Hallu Hallu walks is exactly that–this space that is created in otherwise really agenda driven city lives to experience spaces spatially and sensorily and to see what it brings up in each individual.

Paromita Vohra, a Mumbai-based filmmaker and writer describes her experience after going on a Go Hallu Hallu walk to Mahakali Caves in her column for Midday. She writes, ‘I admit that at first, made impatient from Instagram reels, I thought, “this narration can have more drama!” But as I submitted to the flow of attention, my being gentled, I became open.’

Arpita: That’s a powerful testimony for their walks. I love the underpinning idea too that they are helping people explore the notion that slowing down isn’t just something one does on a novelty walk – it’s a practice that you can engage in anytime, anywhere.

Aslam: Just go to a neighbourhood ground playground and sit there and look how the children are playing, or look at the trees around in your society, how does count how many trees in your society that you have like, how your societies.. let’s see what we have five trees, 10 trees, 20 trees. What type of trees are they indigenous? Are they planted? Or they are wild trees? So this concept is Hallu Hallu. we don’t want to give like a lot of information. We want people to sit down and get engaged what the whatever surroundings you are in. You can drink a tea, you can have water, you can eat food, or you can breathe the air or you just see the things around.

Arpita: You know as we are thinking and talking about slowing down, I can’t help but remember another book we read at TCC’s Reading Circle – In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore where before he speaks to the importance of slow he talks about its inverse – our obsession with fast. He writes how – ‘Speed has helped to remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating. Who wants to live without the internet or jet travel? The problem is that our love of speed, our obsession with doing more and more in less and less time, has gone too far, it has turned into an addiction, a kind of idolatry. Even when speed starts to backfire, we invoke the go-faster gospel.’

And when one looks at the state of our cities, the quality of our lives in these cities, our collective holistic wellbeing – one can’t help but wonder if something is not seriously backfiring here and that our speed maybe needs to be checked?

Deepika: Yeah I remember him writing that ‘Urban life itself acts as a giant particle accelerator. When people move to the city, they start to do everything faster.’ But yeah like you say there – when we speed up we lose sight of so much. 

What Aslam and Gopal hope to do is build value for slowing down and really seeing. What underpins these decisions is to celebrate the everyday and the ordinary, and to let those new ways of looking guide us to newer ways of being.

As you go about the year, we hope you will make room for pause, to slow down and to experience all the sensory inputs that abound in and around you!

Outro: If you live in Mumbai and would like to join a walk, follow the Go Hallu Hallu page on Instagram for latest updates and reconnect with some of the oldest inhabitants of the city. In our next episode, we’ll be talking to Divya Varma from Ajeevika Bureau, a public service initiative focusing on migrant workers, a highly vulnerable but invisible group of people working in the informal sector. She talks about their everyday reality and the role that each of us can play in ensuring that workers have access to basic rights. Do listen in!

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast for more episodes – you can follow us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts or a podcast app of your convenience. We are also on youtube, look up the channel The Curiocity Collective or follow us through our social media pages. And most importantly, if you like what you’re hearing, please do share these episodes with your family, friends and community members. Leave us your thoughts, comments and feedback – we love hearing from you!

TCC is a not-for-profit initiative that is funded by you the listeners. If you’d like to support the work we do at TCC, there are different ways that are listed on the Support and Contribute page of our website http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

You can also write to us at team@thecuriocitycollective.org or message us on 6300711451 if you feel called to make a contribution to sponsor an episode or a podcast series. This could help us with our research, writing, adin and editing costs to build further resources that speak to our collective well-being.

This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The Sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.