Walking as a Metaphor

COVID Pandemic and the Politics of Mobility

in Transfers
Author: Avishek Ray1
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  • 1 National Institute of Technology Silchar, India avishekray@hum.nits.ac.in


This article reflects on the dissenting act of mobility as articulated by migrant workers in India, who, during the nationwide lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, are walking back home, hundreds of miles away, in lieu of public transport. Their mobility—precisely, the act of walking—has thus acquired a metaphoric status, and laid bare the ideological practices of territorializing the city-space. This article argues that the migrant worker's mobility, from within the axiomatic of the prevalent “mobility regime,” can be read as a powerful metaphor of our tensions within the global political-economic order that the pandemic has so starkly exposed. The article provokes less literal, but more literary, understandings of mobilities in general, in order to come to grips with the manifold contradictions, paradoxes, and counteractions in the way the world moves.

The term “movement” is fraught with a bivalent potency: on the one hand, it means mobility, the literal meaning, and on the other hand, it has a socio-political connotation associated with dissent. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Rosi Braidotti, Michel de Certeau,1 among others, recent scholarship has started to make forays into examining the cultural association between mobility and dissent. Contrary to sedentarism, mobility, and by extension, nomadic subjectivity, alludes to a non-conforming, non- instrumentalist lifeworld. Thinking in these terms, mobile subjects embody radical politics within the context of the cultural framework of movement, which has to be understood with reference to the specific articulation of mobility, and the spaces they can access and are denied. Departing from here, this article reflects on the politics of mobility as articulated by the migrant workers in India, who, during the nationwide lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, are reverse-migrating. Thousands of them are walking home—literally hundreds of miles.2

This article teases out how their mobility—or more specifically, the act of walking—acquires a metaphoric status in the context of the classist confrontations in and ideological practices of territorializing the city-space. “In Modern Athens,” writes Michel de Certeau,

the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes “a metaphor”—a bus or a train. Stories could also take this noble name: every day, they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories.3

Metaphors are literary in as much as they are spatial. This article demonstrates how the “spatial” and the “literary” switch places in the context of the migrant worker's mobility, which renders the walk metaphoric—the metaphoric aspect of the mobility is thus illuminated by its spatial aspect. The paper provokes less literal, but more literary, understandings of mobilities, in order to come to grips with the manifold contradictions, paradoxes and counteractions in the way the world moves.

Borders generate dynamism in and of themselves, and that cross-border movement—of both people and artifacts—has become a part of a “modern” state system. This is true of not just the national-statist borders, though. While “deterritorialization” characterizes the contemporary globalized lifeworld, our cityscapes are being increasingly territorialized.4 In the wake of the so-called “urban turn” the city-space is imagined as mappable, griddable, and segregable.5 This furnishes imaginary border(land)s within the city. Territorial techniques of urbanization, what Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Caglar call “city-making,” furnish urban “enclaves.”6 In Boston, for example, the Uber app is twice as likely to cancel rides booked by Afro-American riders,7 and thereby racializes urban mobility. Some city roads, for instance, feature separately demarcated tracks for bicyclists. The Google traffic app offers user-based navigation solutions customized for cars, two-wheelers, pedestrians, and so on. Certain gated communities restrict the mobility of certain occupational communities beyond the gates. In essence, these examples point to how imaginary border(land)s realign the geographies of the city, and in so doing, furnish an “enclavist” identity not only for those who thus imagine the city, but also for certain interstitial-heterotopic communities: say, the maid, the food-delivery personnel, the bicyclist, the (im)migrant, and so forth.

This separatist undercurrent thus restricts certain forms of urban mobility based on an imagined taxonomy that deems certain practices of mobility degenerative and others virtuous. It institutes a rupture between the “acceptable” and “unacceptable” practices of mobility. From within the framework of this cultural polarity, the migrant worker's walk is symbolic of a specific socio-spatial production. The migrant worker is an urban outcast, but an important source of “surplus labour.” The spatiality of the city barely acknowledges them, yet the migrant workers—the maids, the drivers, the masons, and more—are indispensable for the city to function. Moreover, among “the 395 million intra-state migrants in India, 62 million are estimated to be Dalits,”8 outcasts in the literal sense. The migrant worker continues to remain unenumerated in the statist register. This implies they are not “legit” citizens in the statist gaze, to begin with—or at least, cannot prove their citizenship by way of furnishing papers.9 They must therefore inhabit “heterotopic spaces”10—slums, squats, rookeries, and so forth—within the city, yet exteriorized from the coordinates of urban spatiality. However, amid the lockdown migrants do not have the subsistence to stay in the city. Public transport is withdrawn and the inter-state borders sealed. They are thus forced to walk home. Out of the heterotopic ghettos, they are now walking right on the highways!

Speaking of the highway, Doland Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, and John R. Myer write: “The highway could become a sequential exposition of the city, by visually relating it to focal points, and picking out symbolic and historical landmarks.”11 Today, the phenomenon of the migrant workers walking on the highway has become a symbolic landmark, not least because it serves as “a sequential exposition” of the territoriality of the city. From under the veneer of urban spatiality that had rendered them heterotopic and their mobility peripheral, migrant workers have populated the highways, at a moment when no one else can step out of their homes. Typically, highways are not meant for walking. Walking is prohibited on the highways. In that sense, the migrant workers’ walk is doubly subversive: they are walking on the highway, which is shut down during the nationwide lockdown. As an infrastructural network, the highway—ironically, in most instances, built by migrant workers—bridges and sustains the city. It leads to and emerges from the city. It is not “inside of” the city, yet, in a sense, it is integral to “city-making.” Without it, the city would be reduced to an “island.”

This ambiguous status of the highway transposes onto the city's relationship with the migrant workers as they choose to walk across the highway. The highway as a transversal site—where the walk unfolds in the context of what Kevin Lynch calls the “imageability of the city”12—points to the wider ramifications for the metaphorization of the walk. It disrupts the fixity of urban cartographies and ascribed identities, that is, the “enclaves”migrant workers are otherwise relegated to. The banishment of migrant workers from the city is an act of cabotage. Establishing a “right” to remain in the city means a territorial claim. The liminal practice of determining who “belongs” in the city and who does not, who retains the privilege of mobility and who does not is central to the territorial imagination of the city-space. The migrant worker's walk, in that case, has to be made sense of as a symbolic practice of (counter-)mobility that reconfigures territoriality with reference to the migrant's agency.

The metaphor of walking—consider, the expression “walk out”—particularly in the context of India, has had a longstanding cultural association with political dissidence. In the face of the colonial techniques of sedentarization—precisely, the intent of what James Scott calls “seeing like a state,”13 whereby the “nomad natives” and their practices of “unproductive” mobility were sought to be disciplined—expressions of “counter-mobility” would be pegged onto the discourse of dissent.14 Consider, for instance, the expression of the protest march, articulated so eloquently by Gandhi in India (and also to a great extent in South Africa), and how it has been leveraged as a tool to “write back to the empire.” This particular connotation of walking as dissent reappropriates the idyllic-sublime aspect of walking, as illustrated by the “philosopher's walk,” or for example, the act of flânerie,15 and is starkly reified in how the migrant worker enacts her walk on the highway. Yet, the dissident mobility of migrant workers paradoxically comes home to be subjugated under the “mobility regime,” when they are forced to walk amid the lockdown, and thus expose themselves to the virus.

Metaphors in themselves do not produce meanings per se, but instead interfere with the context in which meanings are produced and reappropriated. They emerge from the incongruity between an expression and the context in which it operates, what Roland Barthes calls the “second order signification.”16 The signification of a metaphor thus cuts across the context from which it emanates and the one within which it is laden with meaning. Likewise, migrant workers’ walks are a condition of forced mobility arising from the lockdown amid the pandemic crisis. However, it becomes semiotically potent in the context of how, currently in India, “[a]n immobility regime dominates now … [y]et, the same regime has generated an extreme mobility.”17 Its cultural signification is derived from the paradoxes of the issues of mobility within the framework of neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism itself is a regime of extreme mobility—of people, goods, labor, and so forth, what Mimi Sheller and John Urry call the “new mobilities paradigm,”18 but still largely a privilege. What is most intriguing about this pandemic is that it exposes how, in a political-economic order in which extreme mobility is the norm, any attempt to impose a regime of immobility (that is, the lockdown) will inevitably temporarily generate the opposite of extreme mobility. In other words, extreme mobility begets extreme counter-mobility.

Mobility is intrinsic to the identity of the migrant worker—hence the term “migrant.” What characterizes the migrant's mobility however is its forced and peripheral nature—both in terms of the economic forces that precipitated the “imperative” of having to migrate for work, and now the loss of that work forcing them to return “home.” What this pandemic is conversely exposing is the so-called freedom of immobility, playing out across the world in vastly different but predominantly class-based contexts. Those who retain autonomy in the “new mobilities paradigm” are those in (upper-)middle-class occupations, who can afford to be sedentary, for an exception; and, during the lockdown, can continue to work from home, procure delivery services—for things like grocery shopping and courier mail—and shield themselves from the virus, while the migrant worker is forced to be mobile, oftentimes in service of the former.

It is important to recall, in this context, that when a group of migrants reached Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh in North India in late March, health workers apparently used a hose to spray disinfectant on them “amid fears [that] their exodus is spreading the virus.”19 The “cleansing” of the migrant workers foregrounds the incongruity in the inevitability of the migrant having to be mobile even if that means defying the lockdown and the “mobility regime” has to come to terms with it. At a deeper level, we can arguably see the hosing down and the chemical sanitizing of the migrant workers as symbolic of the last desperate act of maintaining the urban disavowal of migrants and the disenfranchisement of their mobility—a desire to expunge the dirty and obscene face of our present economic system by an active cleansing of its human manifestation.

Migrant workers’ walks risk spreading the virus. More importantly, the surfacing of the migrants on the highways disrupts the norms and protocols inscribed in territorializing the city. Highways—architecturally, they are laid out in straight lines—reflects the mono-dimensional manner of societal organization. They facilitate the city and constrain unintended use, thus recast mobilities into normative behavior. In this case, using the highway rather for a “wrong” purpose imbues the migrant worker's walk with meaning. The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek, metapherein, meaning to carry across or transport. It is thus constitutive of the idea of mobility. Mobilities, when read as metaphors, expose the transformative agency of the subject who moves and the circumstances under which the mobility unfolds. Imagining mobility in utilitarian terms as a means-to-an-end or with reference to normativity forecloses this possibility. Thinking in more elliptical terms, the migrant worker's (counter-)mobility, from within the axiomatic of the “mobility regime,” can be read as a powerful metaphor of our tensions within the global political- economic order that the pandemic has so starkly exposed. The same can be said of the many other mobilities and traffics that cross paths in the world.


I owe my gratitude to Stéphanie Ponsavady and Weiqiang Lin for their insightful feedback to a preliminary draft of this article. A preliminary version of this paper has been presented at the international conference on Architecture_Metaphor, organized by Goethe University in November 2020


Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Michel DeCerteau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91–110; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986).


Some are perishing on the way. The migrants’ exodus, particularly from the national capital, has received wide attention in the news and social media. However, this phenomenon may be assumed to have pervaded all the mega-cities. Although the migrant workers across the world have faced difficulties to a varying degree, what is specific to the Indian case is the fact that the lockdown here is nationwide (implying that the inter-state borders are sealed) and was announced on an overnight notice. This added to their plight.


DeCerteau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 115.


Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions in Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).


Gyan Prakash, “The Urban Turn,” Sarai Reader 2 (2002): https://bit.ly/2wiFZiw.


Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Caglar, Migrants and City-Making: Dispossession, Displacement and Urban Regeneration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).


Yanbo Ge, Christopher R. Knittel, Don Mackenzie, and Stephen Zoepf, Racial and Gender Discrimination in Transportation Network Companies (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016).


Suraj Yengde, “What Makes Injustice to Migrant Workers More Acute Is the Fact That Many of Them Are Dalits,” The Indian Express. 5 April 2020, https://bit.ly/3aPU3Ph. Dalit, in the Indian context, refers to a person from the “lower” caste who has been subjected to untouchability. The intra-state migrants here refer to a bigger set (including well-off migrants in white-collar jobs), of which the “migrant workers” I discuss in this article are a subset. Also, the figures here are rough estimates. There is no official data on this.


They often leave home for work at a tender age without having acquired citizenship documents. Thereafter, they are forced to always be mobile and therefore cannot afford to deal with the bureaucratic rigmarole of acquiring the documents, anyway. For details, see Aajeevika Bureau, “Political Inclusion of Seasonal Migrant Workers in India: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges,” Aajeevika Bureau, 2016, https://bit.ly/2xEvCWC (accessed 30 March 2020).


Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Diacritics 31 (1986): 22–27.


Doland Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, and John R. Myer, “The View from the Road,” in Community Values as Affected by Transportation: 7 Reports (Washington, DC: National Research Council (U.S.). Highway Research Board, 1963), 24


Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1960).


James Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).


For details, see Avishek Ray, “Of Nomadology: A Requiem for India(n-ness),” Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture 10, no. 2 (2019): 281–292, https://doi.org/10.1386/cjmc_00007_1.


Drawing on the notion of the sublime, several pedestrian trails across the world are evocatively named “Philosopher's Walk.” Among them, one in Kyoto, Japan, and another in Heidelberg, Germany, are particularly popular among strollers.


Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill & Wang, 1987).


Pramod K. Nayar, “The Long Walk: Migrant Workers and Extreme Mobility in the Age of Corona,” Journal of Extreme Anthropology 4, no. 1 (2020): E1–E6, https://doi.org/10.5617/jea.7856, E1


Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 38, no. 2 (2006): 207–226.


Aljazeera, “Migrants in India Sprayed with Disinfectant to Fight Coronavirus,” https://bit.ly/2VX4XwG (accessed on 30 March 2020).

Contributor Notes

Avishek Ray teaches at the National Institute of Technology Silchar (India). His research pivots around, broadly speaking, travel and mobility. He is the co-editor of Nation, Nationalism and the Public Sphere: Religious Politics in India (SAGE, 2020). His research appears in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Journal of Literary Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Multicultural Education Review, Journal of Human Values, among others; and he has held research fellowships at the University of Edinburgh (UK), Purdue University Library (US), Centre for Advanced Study, Sofia (Bulgaria), Mahidol University (Thailand), and Pavia University (Italy). Email: avishekray@hum.nits.ac.in


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies


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