Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Big City and the Small Town

Some like the bustle of the big city, its night life, its distractions. Some (like me) find the small silent sleepy town much more agreeable. How about you?

I have (considered by most) a top-notch education. But I don't like living in crowded, noisy places. For me, quality of life is defined in very basic terms: clean air, sparse streets, tasty and nourishing food, clear skies, flowers, birds, trees and parks, little crime, honest shops, ways for children and elderly to mingle with the young (community spaces), etc.

(a scene of Chandigarh in the Monsoons)

I find all these aspects missing in the metropolitan life, at least in India. Cities like Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore are overcrowded, their infrastructure stretched to the breaking point. It is hard to even see the stars at night in Delhi or Bombay.

(a familiar sight in Delhi)

But then, a big city offers "exposure". The experiences are many and varied. The opportunities to engage and earn are plentiful. One can meet many interesting people, find like-minded friends, visit exhibitions and shows, and so on. Big cities are cultural hubs, whereas small towns are conventional, archaic and can be suffocating to some.

In short, while a small town is healthier, it is, like whole-wheat bread and cucumber, quite boring to most. There was even a research study which surveyed young people in India and asked them why they wanted to live in Bangalore or Bombay. The answer was, surprisingly, that these cities offered a rich night life, i.e. opportunities for relationships and more.

And in India, as compared to Europe, highly-skilled creative people don't easily find jobs in small towns. They have to move to metros or risk being jobless.

With the advent of the internet and proliferation of broadband in India, one can easily stay tuned with the world even in a small town. One can watch award-winning films at home, read the latest books on one's kindle device, find out what's happening in the far corners of the world, interact with people from all over, and still enjoy peace and seclusion. One can even work from home.

I have been trying to live this virtually-connected-small-town life for eighteen months now. I lived in Bangalore, and then in Noida. Now we live in Chandigarh, considered the most beautiful city in India.

But it does have its challenges. For one, one needs an incredible amount of self-motivation, awareness and richness of inner-life to survive an almost monastic existence. Secondly, if one is living with a spouse or partner, there has to be a very high degree of harmony between the two. There are days and weeks when my wife and me don't have any interaction except with each other.

Sometimes I think a lack of externally forced structure is not something most people want for prolonged periods. Yes, a weekend's vacationing or even a whole summer can be invigorating. But to live a semi-retired life for years and years is not for the easily bored. The sense of "worth" that a regular job, struggle in one's career, or even mindless occupation in the rigors of living provides seems to be essential for human beings.

For a poor country like ours, people give a higher priority to money and future security (that life in a big city can provide) than to a pleasant life here and now.

What do you think?

A few articles on this topic (culled from the search engines):


mg said...

Harman, I totally understand your point. How one wants to lead their lives depends on what provides solace to that individual, which in my opinion is most important. For some it can be the busy and active life of a city and for the others it can be just being with family and friends and realising that life is not a race to a pot of gold, but a journey in itself that should be enjoyed.

I have lived the busy life as have a lot of us and there is a price you pay for that. The time taken away from family and friends by this constant push to move ahead is a huge cost. I think there is a need to strike a balance between the busy life of a city and the life of a small town, whichever provides the most satisfaction to an individual. For me, its time to switch gears, to slow down the pace of life and to accelerate its enjoyment. Maybe I can do that without switching my coordinates.

Pramod said...

Harmanjit I have been following your blog(and essays) for a long time and I really appreciate your decision to move to a small town. My experiences have been somewhat similar.I left my IT job in search of truth, and now I am well on my way.

I found the essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" by Georg Simmel very appropriate to this situation.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Pramod:

I read with interest Georg Simmel's monograph (available at http://www.altruists.org/static/files/The%20Metropolis%20and%20Mental%20Life%20(Georg%20Simmel).htm ).

Where my preference for the small town is because of the lower stress levels and healthy environs, Simmel seems to value the depth in one's living (which he equates with a non-intellectual, emotional subjectivity) which is demonstrably less in urban settings.

Thanks for the reference.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Comments by various people on facebook:


Rohit Chadha at 12:09am January 7
Hmm, I think the post is too simplistic and dare I say romanticizes the small town. Small towns in India do have their own set of problems such as lack of proper health services and good schools. Besides, I am not sure that they have better crime prevention and access to less polluted air and clean water. That part very much depends on which small town you reside in.


Girish Kumar at 2:17am January 7
could not agree more ...coming from a small town myself ...there is different kind of easiness that i miss in big cities ....if there are enough opportunities i would prefer living in a small town..

Small town provides better community ..


Harmanjit Singh at 7:05am January 7
Slashdot says something about this today as well:



Suraj Kumar at 12:31pm January 7
I was just about to refer to that 'City hurts your brain' article and realized you've already done so :)

Let's see how cities fare in the post-peak-oil world of tomorrow - their high energy / entropy way of life - isn't just sustainable. What a source of energy has this species exploited and come to depend upon! Finite, fossil fuels that hurt the environment. Every individual/species-as-a-whole tends to use energy to it's reproductive advantage and boy we're a super example. But is the modern human any different?

I think the old men were indeed more wiser - for why else did they all preach living a simpler, non-materialistic life? Maybe its lessons learnt.

I wonder why ancient cities that are no longer cities collapsed.


Shalender Singh Birla at 8:48am January 8
Harman, I think the livelihood opportunities are a big attraction for many, especially those who are financially constrained.

So the question of choosing a small town over a big city arises after one is in a position of financial stability and has a capability/skill which can earn him a decent livelihood in a small town.

Why so many capable persons don't make any effort to explore it is a mystery to me. A question of comparing Bangalore with a sleepy Mysore never occurs at all to many of my friends.

Regarding the lure of night life in big city, i think it is just a short phase in one's life, especially when one is single and alone. When one live with a family, then it is a privilege to spend time with the family. Any management consultant would swear by that !


Sriram Naganathan at 9:42am January 8

I moved from Bombay to Chennai two years ago and now want to move from Chennai to a smaller town. With a group of friends, I have been looking for land to acquire and build a community. No success yet. Two observations:

1. If you move from a big city to small town, after having established some kind of location-irrelevant, income generation mechanism, your work may go up. My workload has increased after moving to Chennai. I have more time to spare and my clients know it. The horrendous commute time in Bombay has morphed into work time. I didnt mind, though.

2. In a large city, a kind of irrerevance to authority exists on a large scale. Iifanyone tries to encroach your property, flaunt your connections with the powerful, call the media...create a ruccus in some way and ward of troubles. Small town dwellers are at the mercy of omnipotent local bureaucrats and politicians. A panchayat chairman can ruin your happiness

Harmanjit Singh said...

Rohit: I think the fact that I grew up in Patiala has something to do with my apparent romanticism, but I don't think that is all there is to it.

Big cities, esp in India, are definitely unhealthy. And crime and stress levels are both objectively (con-men, dishonest shopkeepers, fraud, violence, rapes, pickpockets, fights, road-rage) and subjectively (i.e. being a matter of perception) higher in metros, if one leaves aside mafia-ridden small cities, say in Bihar. One is always on one's guard in a big city.

As far as water quality etc., there is an actual scarcity of water in Bangalore, Gurgaon, Bombay. Water quality in Noida is abysmal, in Bangalore nobody trusts the municipal supply quality, apartment complexes routinely install water treatment plants, and so on. Population pressures lead to a decline in both the supply as well as the quality of basic amenities.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Girish: Yes, the sense of longevity, depth, trust and honesty (the pillars of a healthy community life) is more in smaller towns for various reasons. You may want to read Gerog Simmel's essay:


Harmanjit Singh said...

Suraj: Agree with you. In the post-peak-oil scenario, Cities might leech more and more of the resources of their surrounding areas. Power will drive who gets the scarce resources.

We are in for tough times.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Shalender: I agree with you that employment is the biggest factor why people move to big cities. I hope in the knowledge economy, communication technology will be able to disperse the workforce in wider circles rather than concentrate them in urban complexes. But it is a distant dream. :-)

Harmanjit Singh said...

Sriram: (1) is very insightful. But a lot of big-city networking is required if one is to get a steady stream of work in a small city. That might not be bad idea. And social networks and online communities /may/ make this networking possible through online, as compared to in-person, communication.

(2) True. Though the sense of availability of institutions (media, police, justice) might be only for the elite and the very well-connected. I think that due to community pressures, a poor person stands better chances of redressing his grievance in a small town. There are however, long-standing inequalities (caste, religion, gender) in small-town India which will only go away slowly.

Nat said...

Life is a Faustian bargain. And a bitch. Eventually its a question of choice - nothing lofty about one over another.

pankaj said...

nice article. i personally also prefer the quiet and slow pace of small town life. and you rightly say, that small towns tend to be conventional and archaic. this holds especially true for chandigarh, the stamp of an agressive, partiarchal and conservative punjabi culture is everywhere.

srid said...

I never lived in small towns, but I certainly appreciate the absence of pollution and noise.

Di said...

hmmm....nice article.

"There are days and weeks when my wife and me don't have any interaction except with each other." Pray why??? I thought the very idea of living in a small town/community was closeness with people and neigbors. You don't have any? I think with advent of T.V, people in villages have changed. Also having lived abroad in "wealth" I feel, that Indians are truely more "wealthy".
--> even average family has maids/servants: I come home from work and have to do all "bai" work myself which is EXHAUSTING.
--> ordinary family has nice tiled floors in the home. No allergies or crap that carpet brings in.
---> After all the hardwork, the food we eat is pathetic (junk). In india, even average family eats "better" fresher food than I do. Yes we have all the money. I buy tons of fresh veggies/fruits but indian food I miss...I find it hard to make chappatis (never learnt it); I miss the mangoes; the nariyal pani. on and on.
Bottomline: India IS RICH. People have things which are priceless. This "poverty" of mind has to be removed. It is all matter of perception!!! Happiness/inner peace/society/family etc cannot be replace by $$$ or material things.

srid said...

Di, now that you have listed a selected few benefits of living in India.. may I show you the other side: http://harmanjit.blogspot.com/2006/12/is-india-beyond-hope.html


Di said...

Sri...I am now scared....