Breaking the City Habit

Breaking the City Habit

(First Uncity post – reblogged. Update at the end.)

Cities threaten us – with pollution, with traffic, with papers full of crime. We are even threatened by the number of classes the neighbour’s kid goes to “Music, soccer, cursive writing and Tuition!!” you say to her with a gritty smile “Wow!”.

We forget the simplicity of our own childhoods. The big green trees, the vast abundance of time, the easy conversations. The time when vacations lasted months – not the “long weekend” which is invariably too short. We forget a time with a lot of time.

We think the city habit is a necessity. And breaking habits is hard, so we adapt. We make financial plans, and factor in “quality of life” as one line item. To achieve this quality of life we then work long hours and weekends, otherwise we risk missing that increment, that EMI.  And we give that small inner child seeking open green spaces the lollipop of a “park facing” house.

I lived this very life for many years. But something never felt quite right. Many things about our city life – the ironies and absurdity – bothered me. But when my six year old son started wheezing and the doctor and some friends said it was pretty common in city children, we were forced to relook at our priorities. In Goa, Chail, even Allahabad my boy breathed clean as a whistle – but he choked up the moment he entered the city.

It wasn’t him. It was the city air.

And I didn’t think any city or career was worth putting my little boy on medication.

So after 20 years of corporate urban life we decided to leave the city. My wife had wanted to move to a simpler life in a greener nicer place for years. But quitting the rat race can be hard if you’re married to a rat.

We started our search in the spring of 2014. We both knew we wanted to live in the Himalayas. After a year of travel and research, we packed our bags and moved to the Kumaon Himalayas in March 2015. We chose that area because we liked a school there.

We moved tentatively – unsure how long we would stay. We rented a place instead of buying or building. I quit my city job but switched to consulting so I continued to work remotely. We rented out our city house – so we could go back if needed. We weren’t far from Delhi – an overnight train journey.

The move was a big change for everybody. A family of four, it would have to work for each one of us. The biggest change was for the kids. They had moved from a massive urban English medium school to a tiny rural Hindi-medium one. My wife – a US licensed psychologist – moved her practice to phone & Skype and – surprisingly – still retained half her clients. She published her first book, and has even added new clients after moving here – and now does dedicated therapy retreats where people work with her one-on-one in these serene surroundings (curious? www.vanditadubey.com).

Since the move life has become simpler. Easier. Our house faces the mother of all parks.  We get milk from cows, not plastic packets. OurIMG-20150406-WA0001

View from our park-facing house

neighbour has five cows, and my daughter – a newly discovered naturalist – knows each one personally. No milk-enhancing injections or funny fodder here. And the milk is so fresh it’s still warm when it reaches us. Vegetables and fruits are often plucked from the local farms and orchards. We don’t need RO Filters. TV’s are few, and watched lesser, so people talk more. And the few TVs around look like TVs – not like king size beds tacked to a wall.

“Throughput” in management speak “has gone down”. We earn less (money). We spend less (money). But we have a lot more time. We go for long walks and explore the mountains around our house. I play a lot more with my kids. Badminton, Monopoly – whatever. Last October we completed our first trek as a family.  My son, now 8, walked 30 km over 3 days – up and down mountains – without any problem. My daughter rode a mule – and developed a relationship with it. She now wants one to ride to school everyday.

We have rediscovered living in a community. We share food with our neighbours. We celebrate festivals together. We reach out to neighbours when we need help.  Credit cards are not accepted, but people extend credit because they know you.

My kids don’t go to any classes or tuition. They enjoy school, and live without pressure. They learn much from nature – and from an awesome science teacher in their school. Their curiosity is alive and well, and with the internet available (yup – we have broadband!) – in a controlled manner – they have access to learning beyond what the school offers. And we have time for them.

We don’t fear crime or traffic. We often leave our doors unlocked. The kids – 7 & 8 years old – walk to their friends’ houses without any adult, and sometimes the 3 km to their school. Sure, we have to deal with the occasional scorpion. And keep our dogs safe from leopards. But the threats here are fewer and less vicious than those in the city.

We do miss a few city things. Eating out is a big rarity – the nearest restaurant is a 40 minute drive, and the next one is 80. We cannot order Pizza – or anything else, for that matter. Provisions and choices are fewer. The pace is slower. Some city visitors – those that sync their calendars on their ultrabooks, ipads and mobiles – ask us “But what do you do here?”

Everything has not gone perfectly. Our son took a while to settle in. Initially he missed his school, and his old friends, and felt like an outsider. My travel was rather gruelling – 10 days a month can feel a lot more than one-third. And sometimes the lack of urban options and choices does irritate.

But all things considered, we love our new life. It has been a year now, and I don’t think we are going back. Sure, the city offers some good things. But they are no match for the many great things we have discovered away from it.

(Update August 2016 : We have been here 17 months now, and did the six day Pindari trek in May. A new restaurant opened close by. We sold the city house and are building one here. I am reducing travel and am trying to do more stuff locally – like the Himalayan Writing Retreat – https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/retreat/ . And we’ve started baking our own bread and thin crust pizzas.)

My New Title : Vice President of something obscure

My New Title : Vice President of something obscure

“So what do you do here?” the uncomprehending visitor asks, waving vaguely at the surrounding lack of an office.

It is not just a question of income. It is a question of identity. Most urban professionals define themselves by what they do. Work is identity. I recently met a city someone at an event. We spoke for 5 minutes and I knew enough to create his linkedin profile : McKinsie, Genpact, teaching at a B school … the works.

I knew everything about him. Or maybe, I knew nothing.

The past 18 months is the longest I have been without a full-time job since college.* Quitting full-time work creates a vacuum. I think it is easier for my wife since she worked 6limited hours in the city and works limited hours here.  Harder for me. Right now my answer to the “work” question is a long winded “Oh I do some consulting and write a blog and am working on a book, and am getting my website off the ground  … and so on”. It used to be much clearer when I just said “I run a company called HCL learning Ltd”. Clearer – even in my own head.

Now, there are 3-4 things that I do – not just to earn an income (some of them – like this blog – earn nothing) but to find meaning. I do some consulting work. I am working on a schooling website called Kyaschool. I am working on a book, and I write this blog.

“Is it easy to quit full-time work?” You ask. My answer depends upon who you are.

If you are a city type looking for inspiration or a hero to worship, I will happily oblige with a nonchalant “No big deal”.

But deep inside, there is anxiety. I am no longer a CEO / President / whatever. I have given up the label that used to define me, so who am I now?

Author? No – to earn that title I should’ve  written something I feel truly proud of. “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” doesn’t count. And this blog is too young.

Start-up guy? Hmm – but the site I am putting up is a duct-tape and bubblegum effort with a virtual team, and little expertise. There is a fair chance the whole thing will bomb. Or www.Kyaschool.com may be reduced to just a collection of Videos and Blog Posts.

Consultant ? Okay. It is a vestige of who I used to be. It is also the safety line back to full-time employment if I ever were to seek it again. Makes me feel less “left out” and a little more connected and relevant. So my resume (which, Insha-Allah, I will never need) does not have the dreaded “gap”. In many ways it is clinging to the familiar, because letting go of everything known is scary.

It is so hard to just be me.

It is not the worlds labels or expectations I am dealing with. It is my own (dis)comfort with being this new, free, unlabeled person.

Don’t get me wrong – work matters to me. Thing is, I want to do work that matters.  Over time I hope I will be able to let go and shift away from the security of the familiar into completely new areas which I know nothing about, but which matter somewhere deep inside. It could be waste management. Or something education related. Or writing.

I would like to think that eventually my work choices will stop being driven by familiarity or fear and turn into choices driven by passion. Gabriel Garcia Marquez says in “Love in the times of Cholera”:

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

I agree. But I do wonder how long the gestation period is for rebirth.

 

*This blogger relocated to the Kumaon Himalayas from Gurgaon, and the fun stuff he does besides trekking, writing this blog, riding the Himalayas, running marathons and contemplating the universe now also includes hosting the Himalayan Writing Retreat https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/retreat/ .