Most of us know someone who gave up a promising career and moved home from a busy metro to a small hill station, seaside town or village, leaving behind traffic jams, deadlines, bad eating habits and everything else that brings on the blues in the big city. For the rest, a shift to the simple life is a part of that clutch of wishes that may never come true, like becoming an astronaut.
Ashish Arora is part of the tribe that made the dream come true, and transplanted his life from the Capital to a hillside town in Uttarakhand. “Of the 100 people who visit us, 70 always say that we are living the life of their dreams. Of these, at least 30 ask how they should plan a small town move, five actually get down to it, but finally, it is just one or two who actually make it,” says Arora, who moved to Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand, from New Delhi in 2004 and now runs Himalayan Village resort, Sonapani. The reason only one or two actually pack their bags and make the change is because a drastic move to the outback takes much more than a well-laid-out plan. We picked up some lessons from those who went ahead and live the dream.
Mumbai to Peth village, Dahanu taluk, Maharashtra
Till just a few years ago, Venkat Iyer, a 41-year-old ex-IBM project-manager-turned-organic- farmer, never thought catching rides with truck drivers would become a regular commuting feature in his life. But nowadays, he finds it cheaper to thumb a ride from Mumbai (he gets picked up from the Western Express Highway) to his farm in Peth village, Dahanu taluk (a couple of hours’ from Mumbai), where he spends most of his time. “I have a Maruti Zen parked in Mumbai, but it is expensive to drive down regularly. Besides, it is safer to hitch a ride with a trucker than zip on the highway, and definitely faster,” says Iyer, who bought a 4.5 acre farm three years ago after he and his journalist wife, Meena Menon, 44, decided that they should move out of Mumbai.
The genesis: For Iyer and Menon, it all started with looking out for a small weekend getaway near Mumbai. “We are both nature lovers and had money left over after our ‘wise investments’ bit (the couple have a flat in Goregaon).” But they never quite managed to zero in on a property. Meanwhile, Menon, who was working on a project related to organic cotton farming in rural India, visited several farmers and came back enchanted with their lifestyle. Suddenly, the couple was talking not about a weekend getaway, but a place where they could farm organically and live. “Seventeen years as a software professional, and I was beginning to question what I was really doing. My MNC lifestyle was not helping me grow as a person and neither was city living. Don’t get me wrong. The job was great and so was the work environment, but I guess I was fed up with long hours and short deadlines,” says Iyer, a thoroughbred Mumbaikar.
The planning phase: The more Iyer thought about it, the more convinced he became about trading his hectic lifestyle for life in a village. “The weird part was when I talked to colleagues at IBM, they all thought it was a great idea.” However, one piece of advice the couple consistently got was to assess their assets and liabilities and determine how much would be needed to survive if the farm was going to be their only source of income. “The feedback we got put the figure at Rs6,000. I calculated what I would get from my provident fund, gratuity, etc., once I resigned, set aside money that would give us a monthly income of Rs6,000 for a few years and then worked on getting rid of all the liabilities, like car loan EMIs, credit card debt, etc. The balance money in our kitty was to be used to buy land.”
By 1 January 2004, Iyer had resigned and, in February 2004, they zeroed in on a small farm in Dahanu. “From the onset, Meena and I had decided not to spend money on building a new house. We just repaired the existing structure, got an electricity connection, put in a fridge and gas, and we were set.”
Hitchhiker’s guide: Venkat Iyer puts in at least four hours of labour daily.
However, there was a small change in the plan. Menon was offered a job with a leading newspaper which she didn’t want to pass up. “In a way, that was great because now we had a steady source of income and the pressure to make the farm profitable from day one was off,” says Iyer, who moved to Dahanu alone.
The reality: What hit Iyer almost immediately was learning the art of doing nothing. “It was a big problem. After 6pm, the daily wage labourers would leave and there was nobody to talk to, nothing to distract me—no TV, no books. I had to learn to sit and just stare at the stars, look at the insects, hear the night sounds. It was a sort of meditation, one that helped me let go of the years of stress that city living had bred.” Coping with the feeling that no matter what he does, he will always be an outsider in Dahanu is the next challenge.
High points:“I’ve done what I would never have done in the city—write a book. It’s about my transition from a techie to a farmer.” Iyer’s health has improved as well. His city ailments like high BP, diabetes and cholesterol are gone. “Fresh air and organic food plus no stress have helped.” But, for Iyer, the biggest bonus has been that he feels useful again. “The farm, unlike any software project, depends on me for survival and that’s a great feeling.”
The golden rules: “Work out your finances, reduce material needs and dependence on money, and just do it. Have the conviction that this will work. Plan your move in stages, because it is difficult to chuck everything at once.”
Mumbai to Jhadpoli village, Vikramgarh taluk, Maharashtra
It’s difficult to imagine what could have prompted a thoroughbred ‘town’ boy like Hemant Chhabra, 46, to give up the bylanes of Colaba and move to a small village outside Mumbai. But Chhabra says that nothing about Mumbai really excites him anymore.
The genesis: After travelling around the countryside in his 20s, Chhabra says he felt claustrophobic in Mumbai and wanted to get out. “I knew the answer for me lay in farming.”
The planning phase: In 1988, along with a friend, he bought a small piece of land in Jhadpoli village (two hours’ drive from Mumbai) on the pretext that it was a solid investment. “In the late 1980s, a suggestion about moving to a village was not really welcome and my family was not ready. In fact, even buying the land did not make business sense to my older brother and business partner. So, I had to tell them that I wanted to get into land development, but what I really wanted to do was set up a mango orchard.”
Slowly and steadily, he began to spend more and more time on the farm tending to the fruit trees. “The move was gradual. Initially, I was at the farm on the weekends and took care of my leather business on weekdays. But I loved the serene atmosphere of Vikramgarh and did not really want to go back to Mumbai for long stretches any more, nor did it make sense to travel so often.”
In 1990, Chhabra got married and says that initially, his wife Sangeeta was “scared” to accompany him to a remote village. “But once she lived here, she pretty much wanted to quit Mumbai.” In fact, the couple’s second baby was born in the village with the help of midwives.
The reality:The real test began after the kids grew up. “They missed the company of other children, especially after trips to Mumbai. So, we decided to invite a few of their friends to the farm.” Slowly and steadily, for the sake of the children, Chhabra and his wife converted part of the farm into an outdoor activity centre called Hide-out.
Now Chhabra’s wife and children, who are teenagers, live in Mumbai. “It’s about choice, and if the kids want to experience big city life, then I am fine with it. My wife comes as often as she can, but right now the kids need her. I visit Mumbai once a week or so, but it’s difficult for me to live in Mumbai even for a short period now.”
According to Chhabra, the real challenge for a city-bred person is adjusting to the dynamics of life in a village. “It takes time and you have to get used to doing much more physical labour than what you do in a city.”
High points:“Great health and peace of mind,” says Chhabra.
The golden rules: “Stop thinking too much. You will wait for the rest of your life then. Just do it, but do organize your finances first.”
New Delhi to Bangalore, Karnataka to Puducherry
Rahul Nanda, 33, and his wife, Anuradha Sharma, 37, always knew they would leave behind life in a metro and move to a smaller city. When and where, of course, was not decided till they visited Puducherry in 2004 while living in Bangalore. “When we moved to Bangalore from New Delhi in 2003, we thought the pace would be better than Delhi’s madness, but we landed in a city that was growing fast,” says Nanda, who used to work in the marketing department of SBI Cards, while his wife was attached to the risk analysis wing of the same company.
Since the early days of their courtship in 2001, the duo had two dreams: having a good quality of life, and setting up their own business. “We decided early to work hard and have enough funds in place so that we could realize both our dreams,” says Sharma, who holds a double master’s degree in applied statistics. However, unlike most people who move to smaller towns and are willing to give up high monetary gains, she was very clear that money was important. “Sure, the expenses in a smaller city are less, but that does not mean we aim to earn less.”
The genesis: Nanda is upfront that while Bangalore was great for his wife, who landed an assignment with Marketics Technologies Ltd (bought over by WNS Global Services, a Business Process Outsourcing service provider, this year), he was unable to find a firm footing. While waiting for the right opportunity to come along, he completed a diploma in hospitality management, which eventually helped him snag a consulting assignment with a bed-and-breakfast outfit in Puducherry. “By then, we had almost decided that Puducherry would be an ideal place for us to settle. It has good schools, medical facilities, and the crowd was urbane. The city was cosmopolitan enough to match the charm of any metro and yet untouched by problems like traffic, congestion, pollution, crime,” he says.
The planning phase: “The thing about dreams is that to make them work, you have to make sacrifices,” says Sharma who, at 37, is pregnant with the couple’s first child. Since very early in their relationship, both had decided on a simple lifestyle, not getting caught in the EMI trap by buying either a house in the city or swanky cars. They even delayed their marriage till 2006 and decided to wait for kids till some part of their dream was in place. “We both made career choices that might not be conventionally correct, like I took a salary cut in exchange for a stake in the company, but eventually the gambles paid off,” says Sharma.
So, when Nanda moved to Puducherry in 2005, Sharma gave up their house in Bangalore and asked if she could work out of Puducherry part-time. “I commuted to Bangalore twice a week and rented a paying guest accommodation on a stay-and-pay basis. It was a practical decision because neither of us saw the point in unnecessarily paying rent for two while using only one,” she says.
Sales to service: Rahul Nanda loves to spend time at The Beach Cafe.
The reality: “Twenty-four hour power cuts drive Rahul batty, especially when he cannot watch TV,” laughs Sharma. “Not being able to socialize much is a problem because the mentality here is of a small town and as of now we do stick out like sore thumbs.” Nanda, on his part, says he is learning to cope with a slower social life and now likes walking along the beach. “Also, since Anuradha’s travel to Bangalore has lessened, it’s easier for me to adjust.”
High points:The rent they pay for their sprawling bungalow in Puducherry would have probably got them a two-bedroom pigeon hole in one of Bangalore’s far-flung suburbs. But this move has allowed them to live luxuriously in a city that offers them the lifestyle they aspire to.
The golden rules: “Plan, plan, plan—economically and emotionally for the move. We took a good year and a half before we eventually took the decision. Live frugally when you can. This does not mean that you deny yourself the basics, but abstain from unnecessary expenditure. And finally, you and your partner must share the common dream, otherwise you will never succeed.”
New Delhi to Mukteshwar Nainital district, Uttarakhand
Among the many things on Ashish Arora’s must-do list while he is in New Delhi is a stop at Palika Bazaar to pick up DVDs of the latest films from around the world. “During our Delhi days, my wife and I loved to watch plays, movies and concerts. Now, we just splurge on DVDs,” he says with a laugh. The other thing he always does is collect a pile of newspapers. “What is raddi for most people is reading material for me. I miss not getting my hands on a newspaper every morning.” The utter lack of morning reading is one of the drawbacks of living where 37-year-old Arora now lives: Sonapani, a 20-acre estate in Mukteshwar, Nainital district, Uttarakhand.
In the neighbourhood: (from left) Ashish, Vanya and Deepa love interacting with visitors at their resort.
The genesis:Twelve years in New Delhi were enough to convince Arora, who was born and brought up in the foothill town of Kathgodam (the last rail head of the Kumaon region), that he could not spend the rest of his life coping with life in a metro. “With the passing years, I knew I could not sustain the level of superficiality at which corporate life operated at most times. Also, I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life, and I was unable to do that in Delhi. I just knew I had to be back in the mountains.”
The planning phase: The fact that Arora had worked with Sterling Holiday Resorts and then ran an adventure tourism company, Himalayan Wanderers, made it easier for him to find a suitable vocation when he was mapping his change of address. “I think the biggest deterrent to a small town move for most city-bred professionals is answering the question, ‘What will I do there? How will I sustain myself?’” But with his adventure tourism experience, Arora knew a market existed for an offbeat resort in the mountains.
So, in 2002, Arora and a friend came up with the Himalayan Village resort and activity centre, where people could experience the beauty of the Himalayas.
In about a year and a half (2003), he heard about Sonapani, an estate which had been lying vacant for almost 20 years. “We could not afford to buy the land, but the place was perfect. So, I convinced the owner to lease the property to us in 2003.”
Then, in 2004, Arora and his wife, Deepa Pathak, 35, went. “Our daughter, Vanya, was just 21 days old when we moved lock, stock and barrel to my parents’ place in Kathgodam first and then to Sonapani within a couple of months. Many friends and people we knew in Delhi were shocked at this decision. Some even said it was madness to move to such a remote area with a newborn. But other children survive in the mountains, so what made Vanya different?” says Arora.
The reality: Apart from getting the place going, the couple finds that their daughter Vanya’s education is a major area of concern. “While I’m all for home-schooling, Deepa is very clear that Vanya must attend a normal school. So now we are working with Chirag, an NGO which runs the local school, to get better systems in place.”
High points: “In Sonapani, my wife and I are developing a self-sufficient community, and that is a great feeling.” Another huge plus is that their daughter is growing up in a less materialistic environment. “She is happy to travel in our old beat-up Maruti 800. For her, the fact that our car is old and not fancy has no meaning.”
The couple also loves the fact that “they now meet people they would never have met before. We don’t miss good company and never get bored.” To keep their love of music and theatre alive, the duo have initiated The Himalayan Village Arts Festival, which happens in September every year.
The golden rules: “Have an unwavering belief in your dreams. The essential ingredients to making a move are to set a limit to materialistic things and, most importantly, know which hill station, village or seaside town you want to live in. Finally, don’t have a Plan B, because then Plan A is bound to fail!”