A small group of people have chosen to move out of Chennai — beyond the suburbs — in search of a better quality of life.
Rom Whitaker and Janaki Lenin keep their eyes peeled for a leopard that turned up at their house some time ago. Any guesses about where the couple lives?
In a village close to Chengalpattu town and not too far from Chennai. Driving from the city to their home takes about two hours.
Three roads lead up to their wilderness home: The GST Road, the ECR (take the road to Chengalpattu just before Mahabalipuram town) and the OMR (take the road to Chengalpattu at Thirupporur).
Herpetologist Rom and Janaki belong to a small group of people who have chosen to live in the exurbs that are suitably linked to urban centres, mainly in search of a better quality of life.
Thanks to better roads, improved communication facilities and more hospitals and educational institutions beyond the fringes of the city, their tribe is growing.
With an inborn love for the dynamic quiet of the wilderness, Rom and Janaki moved to their 11-acre farm in 1997, when living conditions were far from comfortable.
Then, recalls Janaki, the OMR was a misnomer for a road.
With no divider, the narrow road posed great danger to motorists.
“In 1997, there was no landline. No internet. We would travel to the city just to send e-mails,” says Janaki.
Life has since improved for this couple. Driving on the OMR is now a breeze, thanks to the new toll highway.
Also, thanks to high-speed Internet connectivity, they do not have to go to the city just to catch up on their email.
Demetrius Issac felt constricted by urban living. It was having a toxic effect on his mind and body, but he resisted the desire to move to his one-acre farmhouse in Thandalam. He was not sure if he could stay cut off from the city.
However, one year ago, he took the plunge and now he does not miss Chennai.
“I shop at Poonamallee, which is just a short drive away from Thandalam. This suburban town has departmental stores that have just about everything. Some even offer choice foreign chocolates. Since the Saveetha Medical University is next door, I don't have to worry about medical attention in an emergency,” says Issac.
“With road and social infrastructure beyond the Chennai Metropolitan Area improving at a rapid pace, more and more people will opt for exurbia.”
Sudha's experience is similar. She and her daughter live in their 10-acre farm in Asoor, 8 km from Walajahbad. Sudha does her shopping in Walajahbad.
She does not feel socially cut off.
Train connectivity from Walajahbad to Chennai Beach enables many of her relatives to visit her.
As the town is connected by broad roads, those of her relatives who have their own conveyance also visit her often.
With its big orchard that attracts a diversity of birds and the pastoral ambience, Sudha's farm is a magnet for friends and relatives. Issac too says his sylvan farm enables him to be a better host.
Rafiq Sait of Gatsby Village, who moved to his half-acre house in Uthani two years ago, has a different take on social life in exurbia.
Visiting friends and being visited by them have decreased in intensity. However, living in a less polluted environment makes up for the disadvantages of exurban existence. He thinks it is only a matter of time before he makes friends around his new home.
Isaac says most of those who are drawn to exurbia look beyond socialising.
“People move to the suburbs because of land and houses that are available at affordable prices. Those who are go to exurbs invariably look for an alternative lifestyle.
On my piece of land, I grow my own vegetables and rear birds and animals. Thanks to the large space, I have a more active life. I have become fitter, having lost five kilos.” says Issac.
Sudha's exurban existence includes nine Indian hounds. “At one point, we had 40 hounds,” says Sudha. Her family has always been attracted to exurbia. They lived in Padappai when the town was exurban.
“We moved to Asoor after Padappai got crowded,” she says.
Their 11-acre farm allows conservationists Rom and Janaki to carry out experiments in afforestation. They have a variety of untamed animals for company.
And, when they urgently need it, civilization is not far away.
Their farm is well-connected to two urban centres – Chennai and Chengalpattu.
“The Chettinad Health City in Kelambakkam is just a 30-minute drive away. And, we have the district hospital in Chengalpattu,” says Rom.
That is like having the best of both worlds.