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Why are people leaving big cities for smaller towns

Relocation isn’t without its paradoxes. In the pandemic, as people shift homes to hills and beaches, it brings with it a slower pace, a connect with nature, sometimes lesser pay cheques but ultimately a fuller life.

Written by Shiny Varghese |
Updated: September 26, 2021 4:58:39 pm
Vasudha and Sanjay Sondhi at their estate (Courtesy: Parvada Bungalows@VS Fruitree Estate)

“Mama, chhi, chhi,” squealed two-year-old Rudra. He was in a park with his mother Neha Dara, when he walked into a puddle on a rainy day. Dara, a travel writer who has spent most of her working life trekking in the Himalayas and exploring local markets in small towns, was horrified. Not because of the slush on his sandals, but his reaction. There had to be a better way he could connect to the natural world.

“We initially moved from Delhi to Chandigarh in 2017. But with the pandemic, even in the parks and forests of the city, we felt ill at ease if people were not maintaining distance or wearing a mask. That’s when we decided to move to the hills. We rented a cottage outside Rajgarh town in Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmaur district, last October,” says Dara, business head at RoundGlass Sustain, a website on wildlife conservation and biodiversity.

Moving cities is not new to a pandemic. Mobility was an answer to the plague even in the early 16th century. Young Tudor king Henry VIII would often leave the neighbourhood, travelling a few miles away, “essentially trying to outrun the spread of infection”, says Euan Roger, principal medieval records specialist at The National Archives, the UK, in an online lecture. “It was very much for the wealthy. You had to have a second home or a place to stay in the countryside,” says Roger.

Moving cities is not new to a pandemic.

In early 2020, the pandemic came with its scythe to mow down health, jobs, lives and livelihoods. In January this year, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reported that in the services sector, employment fell to 128 million in the quarter of June 2020. Many chose to move to smaller towns, away from high rents and hamster cages of metro living, and the sight of migrant workers walking home will forever be representative of the pandemic’s hard economic lessons. For many among the privileged, though, it opened up doors to greener pastures and was a sign to embrace more thoughtful living. Bloomberg News (in a report on April) called this global phenomenon an “urban shuffle”. It was not really an urban exodus. Most of these shifts have been within the 300 km radius of a larger city.

For Rudra, this has meant finding mountain trails, gaining confidence in climbing slopes and being all right with mud on his sandals. “He’s learning that there are others in the world around him and that it’s important to accommodate their needs as well. For instance, in the winters, he knows we have to return home by 5 pm because after that the leopards come out. He turns three in a few months, and if we were in the city, he’d be in playschool learning his ABCs. But here, he’s learning so much more, and that, for us, is invaluable,” says Dara, 38.

While such a shift may seem to be an act of privilege, relocation can also mean relearning how to negotiate space even within family structures. Last year, after four years in the Capital, comedian-anchor-writer Kabir Singh Bhandari packed his bags for Kolkata, his hometown. “I wasn’t in a full-time job anymore and couldn’t afford rent for my 1BHK in Lajpat Nagar. Moving in with my parents seemed like the best option. The house had a balcony, the air-conditioning worked, my mother would enquire daily about what I wanted for lunch and dinner. Then, slowly the frictions began. First, it was a light I hadn’t switched off or a fan that was running if I was in the next room.

Parvada Bungalows in Uttarakhand (Courtesy: Parvada Bungalows@VS Fruitree Estate)

It came to a point that I sat down and told them that I love them too much to be fighting over such issues. It wasn’t such a big deal, like I had let loose a serial killer in the house,” says the 34-year-old. He is aware that the arguments are a small price to pay for the advantage of coming home to parents who have no objection to supporting him. “Of course, unlike in Delhi and Mumbai, where I could bring my girlfriend home, here I can’t, but then I remind myself I’ve already broken up, and it seems like everyone, including my exes, are already married. On the bright side, Kolkata still has the best kathi rolls in the country. But, end of the day, I get to spend time with my parents and it’s made me realise that there are a lot of things in their lives I was oblivious to,” says Bhandari.

For music composer Azaan Khan, grandson of legendary sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan, moving to Goa late last year came with its uncertainties. “When projects at OddBird Theatre & Foundation (a collaborative centre for the arts) were put on hold in Delhi, I knew there was nothing to hold me back. I am quite a recluse and the city never held any charm. But, I had to look for work to pay my bills. Thankfully, I found a few online teaching assignments. I’ve realised conversations here are different as well. In the cities, people can’t stop talking about the money they make or the cars they drive. The fear of the pandemic is inherent. In Goa, people move on with their lives and COVID-19 or vaccines never come up in discussions. I’m told my latest album, too, has more organic, tribal sounds. I take more time to write my songs, as well,” he says.

He even convinced his father, sitar player Ustad Shujaat Khan, and his mother Parveen to move out of Delhi a few months ago. “For my parents, it’s meant long walks in the forests, attending neighbourhood ceremonies and filling their lungs with fresh air,” says Khan, 32.

Azaan Khan (Courtesy: Azaan Khan)

A sense of community and a creative eco-system seem to be a magnet for many who are choosing Goa as a pit stop. For Delhi-based architect Verendra Wakhloo, 64, it was about doing away with excesses. With the lockdown in March 2020, design projects were fewer and the need to connect with the outdoors grew. “While it’s too early to write an obituary to the city, there is the need to find smaller communities where people can anchor meaningfully. I carry a certain naivety about life, and in Goa, my need to feel wondrous finds a response in the bounty of nature. In Benaulim, south Goa, where I’ve taken a house, people are doing amazing things, growing their own food, making things with their hands, there seems to be a possibility of holistic living, where you feel you don’t need the city,” says Wakhloo.

On the other hand, with many people opting for Goa, its realty prices have soared. Abhimanyu Sharma became aware of this when he moved last year from Ahmedabad to Siolim, north Goa, with his wife, Shreya. “Property prices have skyrocketed and rents are steep. Currently, in Siolim, for a 1,200-1,400 sq. ft two bedroom, you would pay nearly Rs 40,000, but if you go deeper into Moira, you could get it for Rs 25,000-30,000. When I lived in Gurgaon, I was paying the same rent for a bigger house. So, you can compare and then you can’t. Here in Goa, I don’t mind driving a smaller car or having a cheaper phone, but it pays off when I can sleep well at night, watch the bamboo trees outside my window, or walk down the beach,” says the 34-year-old.

Sharma, who works for a start-up as head of emerging businesses, says that his terms for work are non-negotiable now. He chooses to continue in Goa and keeps his phone on silent on weekends. “Earlier, you moved to the city that gave you the best job. I feel pre-COVID was far more materialistic, all that mattered was how much money you made. Then, when we saw our loved ones go, many younger than us, we knew, it was life first. I’m quite clear now, I want to put my life ahead of my career,” says Sharma.

A sense of wonder and time slowing down are what people have found in the relocation. Just as Dara cherishes reading stories to Rudra at bedtime, as the sun sets through the pine trees, for Khan, it is about swimming in the ocean and eating off the earth. “Goa’s masterplan has so far maintained a balanced arrangement of settlement, orchard and agriculture. So, there is a river of landscape that meanders between houses. In a city, our sights are often stymied by the boxes that surround us. In the countryside, what you experience is the vastness and before that green expanse, you are reminded of your mortality,” says Wakhloo.

 

Abhimanyu Sharma at home (Courtesy: Abhimanyu Sharma)

For Vasudha Sondhi, 56, and Sanjay Sondhi, 58, the pandemic offered a fresh start. The couple had finished building a place in Uttarakhand in 2018 and had imagined it as a home. But work in Delhi kept them busy. Their core business is to manage outsourced sales and marketing for national tourism boards and international hotels and destinations. However, with the rise in COVID-19 cases last year, international business was in the deep freeze. They chose to move to their place in Parvada, a village barely 10 km away from Mukteshwar. Sanjay, who always wanted to farm, took over the plantation across their three-acre estate, filling it with apple, apricot, plum, peach, Rhododendron and pear trees. Meanwhile, Vasudha put her energies into training the local staff and furnishing the homestay which they call Parvada Bungalows@VS Fruitree Estate.

“The homestay has given us the opportunity to know the village and its people better. There are boys from the village who work with us now and some want to set up rooms in their own homes for tourists. We’ve helped them do that, and soon we hope to meet the tourism officials to recognise Parvada as a tourism village,” says Vasudha.

But staying in the hills is not without its challenges. “When you’re young, it feels all right. But for the elderly, especially my mother-in-law, finding a good hospital will mean travelling nearly 60 km; a chemist is six km away,” says Vasudha. Dara, too, affirms the constraints. “The flip side of living in the mountains is that sometimes when there is a storm, we have no electricity all night. Which also means, we might not get water supply, and the tank runs dry — not the easiest time with a sick child.”

What is it about the city then that makes people restive? Architect-academic Durganand Balsavar, dean, Saveetha College of Architecture, Chennai, 55, says it has to do with the inaccessibility of public spaces and public institutions. “With the lockdown last year, there were no urban open spaces, park, beach or university to go to. Our cities were long overdue for change, even before the pandemic.

There is little agency to appropriate and inhabit an urban space. We need to keep our conversations open, and each city and neighbourhood needs to take the initiative to know how they want to inhabit urban space. A phase is emerging, where civic society with all its diversity, is rethinking the nature of change. This needs to be complemented by urban planning authorities, with more vigorous institutional explorations in universities,” says Balsavar.

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