A village in the city

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After a cleansing year lived out in the rustic environs of the South Indian foothills and wilderness, the author returns to the vortex of the urban sprawl only to find that life is always going to be a balancing act

The key towards sustainable living may be to import a few rural values into the city. | Pixabay

I never thought I’d tire of the city until I spent a year in the village.

In the summer of 2018, I moved out of Chennai (my favourite city) to volunteer at a community in the foothills of Javadhu Malai. Not because I had tired of the madding crowd, but just to experience the other side of the coin. To check whether the proverbial grass really was greener out there.

To be fair, the city has only the synthetic kind of grass and not much of it so the village scored points on this. As for how the flip side was, oh you got me started!

A year of living next to the forest, copious amounts of oxygen, star-studded skies, sunrises and moonrises from the hills, daily sightings of birds, butterflies, snakes and centipedes never seen before in my 23 years of the urban jungle — the village and the city couldn’t be more different.

As a kid, I had lived in a fair share of small towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh but the mechanics of early childhood memory has ensured that I remember little of those days. So, at 31, when I experienced nature at is glorious best, it was ‘natural’ to feel overwhelmed and a tinge of regret for having spent more than two decades surrounded by concrete and carbon monoxide.

With every passing sunrise, my regret erased itself and was replaced by gratitude. I learnt the village way of living. Of balancing pots on my hips, walking barefoot in the forest, draping a saree in a 3*3 bathroom and going berry-picking with the kids. No fans, no television, no Internet, minimal network coverage — life was idyllic.

I did miss the city. On chilly winters of midnight hunger pangs, I longed for a Swiggy guy to zoom in with a dabba of egg noodles. On chillier mornings, I fondly remembered the geyser that lay unused in the sultry bathrooms of Chennai. And on rare afternoons, I sighed for all those unwatched movies and un-munched tubs of butter popcorn. But that was mostly it.

My monthly visits to the city filled me with pride and joy over the move I had made. The harshness of the city that had become so second nature when I lived there, was now exaggerated. I turned into a village snob. I would rave to family and friends about the ‘perks of being a villager’. They’d nod and say, “Oh I wish I could do that...” And I’d silently smile, then why don’t you?

But it would be a lie if I painted too perfect a picture for you. There were times I felt sad, lonely, homesick, exhausted of living a life that lacked the comforts I was so used to. I longed for Amma’s food, for conversations that happen only in the cities, for music concerts, midnight drives and bookstores. For capitalism and the freedom of dressing as I please.

In July 2019, I moved back to the city. It took me three weeks to adjust to its vapidity — literal and metaphorical. By August, I had become a part of the murk. My thoughts were sullied, as was my lifestyle. I became a regular revenue contributor to Swiggy and Zomato. Uber rides and airconditioned nights in my bedroom turned my baby-sized carbon footprint gargantuan. I indulged in long hot showers and longer periods of self-induced stupidity with Netflix and Amazon Prime binges. My skin saw less sunshine, my lungs grew darker and heavier, I complained about my first-world problems and my soul grew increasingly cynical.

A few weeks ago, I watched a video titled ‘Why Greta Thurberg will fail’. It was about us hypocritical humans who watched that little girl, admired her from a great distance and forgot about it the minute we turned away. That’s when it hit me. In just two months of living in the city, I had transformed into the worst version of myself — a self-centred, apathetic, entitled city snob, blissfully unaware of her privilege. The city was not to blame. It was all my doing.

It’s in moments like these that you have to dig in to your dictionary of axioms. It’s never too late. The grass is green here too. Change begins with you.

The next morning began with a whole new diet — smoothies, healthy lunches, light suppers, locally available vegetables and fruits and goodbye sugar, deep-fried snacks, Zomato and Swiggy. Fewer Uber rides, more buses and pedestrianism, and a firm commitment to not buying clothes for a year (only swaps).

I do occasionally slip into old habits, for I’m only human. But I’m getting quicker at bouncing back.

Right now, I have just five external Playstore apps on my phone — I intend to uninstall three of them by year’s end. I switched from Chrome to Ecosia — an eco-friendly web browser that runs on renewable energy and spends 80% of its profits on tree planting.

My lifestyle has changed. No buying stuff I can live without, learning that it’s not shameful to borrow things from people, less time in front of screens, more time on the beach, and silent thank yous to all the trees that I walk by every day.

There is still so much of climbing to do.

And I intend to do it.

One step at a time.

Living in the village has taught me how horrible we humans have been to our Mother. But this is not a rant against the city and its dwellers. The city has given me SO much, I would be an ungrateful wretch if I were to diss it.

This is just my small way of bridging the two lives.

My small way of creating a village in the city.

Come, join?

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