No, I am not a flasher. I am a professional speaker though, and that can sometimes feel like being naked in public. I like to think I am respectable. Yet I spoke about my sex life to a room-full of complete strangers recently.
The misuse of sex in communication has been the proud domain of the advertising industry. We’ve all seen bad ads with cheap lines. And hoardings with scantily clad women seductively selling cement. So when I was working on my talk for a conference last month, I was wary. I had never talked about sex in any public forum before, and didn’t want to. But for some reason it just fit into this one. And since this event – WPP Stream Asia 2018 – was a conference with advertising, marketing and tech types, I figured it might go down okay.
The talk itself had tough rules – only 4 minutes, 16 slides that move automatically every 15 seconds. No clicker so no control. And 22 speakers back to back with me somewhere in that mix. Given the audience, I chose to talk about my journey from the city to the mountains. I could have talked about my one month in jail, or about writing. But I felt that the audience would really relate to my story about leaving the city – after all most of them are similar to the person I was when I left the city.
So I framed out the talk and ran it by multiple people. As always, my wife offered amazing insight. More importantly, she did not ask me to chop the sex life bit. Then I subjected my brother and some friends to dry runs in the name of feedback. Their tips helped a lot, but nobody asked me to chop the sensitive part. Wow. “Where are all the prudes?” I asked myself.
So you want to leave your gated community in the city for a gated community in the village? Like in the above ad of home-in-the-himalayas ? Your gated community must be eco-friendly, of course. Options abound. Tata Housing sells its “Myst Eco-luxury residences” in Kasauli as a super-premium gated community. “This exclusive gated community has been designed by the world’s leading expert in sustainable architecture…” says their website.
Another similar property touts “an exclusive residential address, a community of like-minded people who value the same ideas of wellness, privacy and under-stated luxury.” The background picture shows a large, eco-friendly gate.
In the city one key thing a gated community provides is security. What are they afraid of here, I wonder?
All these exclusive properties tout how sensitive they are to the environment. The Tata Housing site says “Never before has luxury been more sensitive in its approach and more evolved in the statement it makes about those who choose to live here. ” Strangely, none of them talks about how sensitive they are to the local people and culture.
Eco-friendly is better when it is also people friendly. And that doesn’t mean just a maid and a caretaker.
At the other end of this scale is Ashish Arora. He moved here from the city over a decade back. He has built a thriving business not by excluding the local community but by including them. He actively helps all the village people in their issues. He was recently elected to the van-panchayat of his village. He works hard to save the forest, employ local people, and is an integral part of the local community. He is invited to every local celebration. He pays homage when any villager dies. His wife Deepa single-handedly employs well over 50 local women through their enterprise called Chandi Maati.
Arvindji is another great example. He moved up here and set up a library which the entire region benefits from now. And of course there are many who work and contribute to the local NGOs.
These and many other amazing people are not here as expats, but migrants – woven into the local fabric.
You dream of living in the mountains. Who do you want to be?
You can be the rich city Expat who lives in the gated community in the mountains, making exclusivity statements. Or you can be the migrant who makes a statement by making a difference. Someone who connects with and changes the lives of the people around you for the better. As a city-bred person with education and exposure you can do so much for the local community. In return, you actually get to be a part of a real community – possibly for the first time ever.
Please don’t tell me you will live in the gated community and integrate with the local community. That statement doesn’t even sound right, does it?
About Chetan Mahajan: Chetan is a full-time author and blogger who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com . He also writes and edits this blog.
Heartstrings. The word is meaningless unless you have a pacemaker. I always thought of it as one of those unnecessary words writers make up – until I heard that voice yesterday.
It was the sing-song of her typical Kumaoni way of speaking that made me smile. It was the sound of simplicity, of an unhurried, uncomplicated life. It was the sound of home. I did not ask her name, but I did will her to speak some more. She did, asking the price of the bhindi, and asking why the beans weren’t fresh. I then caught the shopkeeper staring at me and I realized I was staring at the cabbage with a big smile plastered on my face. He looked carefully at the cabbage and then back at me.
I was at a vegetable store in Bhimtal, headed back home after many more days than were
necessary. And hearing the lyrical Kumaoni lilt of her voice triggered a joyful jangle inside me that I could almost physically hear. It was like some latent thing inside me was suddenly awakened, resonating with the music of beautiful memories. And suddenly “heartstrings” made perfect sense.
Maybe 38 days in the land of pubs, imported custom kitchens and business conversations was too much. Maybe it was just the knowledge that many of the meals I had with friends in the city cost more than a month’s salary for my friends in the village. Maybe the fast-talking, deal seeking “fame, success, money” types were just way too much work for my rustic soul. I pined for the land where speedpost takes 5 days, and no other courier works. A place where it isn’t strange to sit and have tea and a conversation with the postman when he brings your mail.
I missed the land of rustic familiarity. And the woman’s beautiful Kumaoni song-voice started the journey of my return, triggering the feeling of being back home. Everyone along way was a friend. After the vegetable store my next stop was the grocery store in Bhowali – the man there asked me about my prolonged absence. I then drove further on, and at one point crossed my contractor and architect headed in the opposite direction. We both stopped our cars, stepped out, shook hands, and talked briefly. They weren’t just helping me build my new home, but we shared a strange kinship. Like we were the few that knew the secret of the mountains.
I remember the look of envy on the faces of city people who see pictures of my home. And a few lines form in my head:
You chose the huge car, the massive house
Take pleasure in that hi-tech Bluetooth mouse
Why then, the Famous Grouse?
Village folks along the way ask for a lift. I give a ride to everybody who asks till my car is full. As I chat with them, I can feel the city with its 100 rupee teacups slowly peel off me and fall away like unwanted dead skin.
I feel new again. And I wonder, why did I ever leave?
Gurpreet Dhindsa was doing the Pin Parbati trek in 1995 when it struck him. These mountains – far above the urban chaos and superficiality – were home. This is where he belonged. He had to leave the city. He was 29.
He had planned the tough Pin Parbati trek with a group, but one by one the fellow trekkers dropped out. Characteristic of Gurpreet, he continued and finished the trek solo, without a guide or porter. Pin Parbati is a brutal 11 day trek across some of the toughest terrain in the Himalayas, but Gurpreet completed it by compass, map and sheer grit.
After the epiphany, he went about shutting down his Chandigarh-based FRP fabrication business. The next few years were odd-jobs and piecemeal assignments as a resort manager, trekking guide, motorcycle tour organizer etc. All fun, none paying much, but all keeping him in the Himalayas.
Gurpreet’s other big passion was flying. He had tried learning flying formally – gliders at Pinjore flying club. But his free spirit was stifled by the rules and regulations of the civil aviation authorities. Anything to do with an airport or airstrip meant external control by often archaic rules. Then he discovered Paragliding – a free and simple form of flying mostly controlled by the wind and weather. He started learning.
Six years of hobby flying later he hurt his shoulder at a takeoff in Nepal, and decided that he should get formal training and certification. By now Gurpreet was a part of the close-knit global paragliding community. He headed to the UK, where he earned his instructors license in a record 5 months.
Once certified, he set up PG-Gurukul (http://www.paragliding.guru/ ), easily amongst the best paragliding outfits in the country (I can vouch – I’ve been his student). He is based in Bir village – one of the global hubs for paragliding. The initial few years as an instructor were a struggle for Gurpreet, but once the defence forces recognized his abilities and started learning from him, everything changed. That was when he also started the more technical SIV (Simulation d’Incident en Vol :French. Translated : Simulated Incidence in Flight) courses.
But while the flying school was about earning (no self-respecting pilot wants to live by
Tandem joyrides) he was always looking to push the boundaries. That led him to competition flying. Over the past few years Gurpreet has had six podium finishes in international events and some near misses.
Sadly, the bureaucracy has arrived in this sport as well now. Did you know that they banned paragliding in Bir – over 500 km from Delhi – during the commonwealth games? The authorities might as well wear T-shirts emblazoned “ignorant non-pilot”. Gurpreet’s amazing achievements have earned him the world’s respect, but none from the authorities that regulate paragliding in India. That is because he freely speaks his mind from a place of science and true interest in the sport. And he is terrible at small talk and kissing up to people. He still has the occasional run-in with the control freak political administration. He still rails against how the administration selectively hands out flying “licenses” – through babu’s who have never actually flown.
But then he goes up to the launch site at Billing. As he takes off and some strings and a piece of fabric lift him off the ground, he leaves it all behind and heads home into the open blue.
People on the ground look up and say “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its Gurpreet!”
Cities come with a certain Ugliness. Sure they offer opportunity and conveniences, but in cities we feel threatened – by pollution, by traffic, by the alarm clock every morning. We feel threatened by the crime section of the newspaper – which is most of the paper. 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. We forget how we truly enjoyed reading before we heard of speed-reading. The time when vacations lasted months – not the “long weekend” which is invariably too short. We forget a time with a lot of time.
Now, we think living in the city is a necessity. It is also a habit. And breaking habits is hard, so we adapt. We “think things through”. We make our financial plans, and factor in “quality of life” as one line item in our plan. 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 – had been bothering 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 in Allahabad my boy breathed clean as a whistle – but he choked up the moment he entered the city. And I didn’t think any city was worth putting my little boy on medication.
It wasn’t him. It was the city air.
So after 20 years of corporate life and urban living, 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 unsure how long we would stay. We rented a place in the mountains 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. And we had broadband.
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. Evidently counselling works remotely too. She has even added some new clients after moving here.
Since the move life has become simpler. Easier. Quality of life has new parameters. Our house faces the mother of all parks. We get milk from cows, not plastic packets. Our 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 is 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 month 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 – 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 dog 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 like tight schedules and 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 for a bit. 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 eight months 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.