“How long have you been here?” This is a common introductory question that people ask. My response has typically been “a few years” which leads to a surprised “you seem to be pretty settled” comment often followed by an advice or a question like“X is a wonderful place to stay, my cousin loves it” or “My friend had a big problem in Y city, didn’t you face this issue?” The conversation typically ends with “do you plan to settle here forever?”
Is there a place to settle forever? Is there one place that addresses our changing priorities over time? Why do people from the same background experience the same place differently?
As a small kid when my parents decided to move from a big city in eastern India to a smaller one in the northern part of the country, I was excited. What made a difference to me then was that there would be a lot of cousins and we would all go the same school. For those teenage years there couldn’t have been a better place to settle in. We had relatives around, an ancestral home, a good social life. But by the time I ended school, I wanted to experience managing things on my own. There was no specific place that I aspired to go to as long as it took me away from the cozy cocoon of home. At that time, even places like Wardha, Warangal, or some place as distant as Pondicherry sounded attractive.
Eventually, I ended up going to college in the national capital. For the next few years, life revolved around campus, gang of friends and a few happening haunts to hang around with them. Bus travel was comfortable and auto was a luxury. The lack of norms was a big change and that made this big city a great place to live in. I finished my grad and masters and started working there. Interestingly, staying at campus in the hub and moving out to a suburb completely changes one’s experience of the city. After having worked for a few years in the same place, the descriptor “big and happening” for the place changed to “big and boring” and the itch to move crept in.
I then moved to a smaller city in western India, considered very safe for women to live on their own. All through college I had heard of it as a great place to be in and so I took the plunge. It was definitely a safe city, decent crowd and everything was at accessible distance. But priorities had changed. Infrastructure that allowed me to manage chores without disturbing work schedules, the ability to get an internet connection fixed post 7 p.m, conveniences of couriers being accepted by the security guard, gas cyclinders delivered on weekends are just some examples of things that started mattering more than the freedom to hang around at a joint late in the night. The surprised look I would get when I told vendors that there would be no one at home between 11 a.m to 5 p.m to take the delivery of something or get something repaired, bewildered me.
At work, I would often hear people giving reasons like “Mann nahin laga” for their desire to relocate to some other place. I also realized the need for anchors in the city. A friend once identified these anchors as someone at who’s place you can just drop in without an agenda- “bas chai peene aa gaye”. It’s difficult to find these anchors and build a relationship from scratch as we move from one lifestage to another and I learnt that it is perhaps easier to “settle” in a place where one already knows a few people who could potentially be their anchors.
My next move took me further down to south India. This was a big shift considering the cultural nuances and the language barrier. The city was bigger than the previous one and yet not as big. Infrastructure offered conveniences to manage chores and it was relatively safe. I was told that the traffic is bad, but honestly, if one’s home and work are at two different ends of the city, tell me one place where driving is not a nightmare . Since I was staying closer to my workplace, traffic did not bother me (though I often got lost in the older part of the city due to the one ways and lack of road signs). The culture was fairly cosmopolitan, good crowd around and something exciting happening in the city all the time. There were people that I knew from before who I can say were some sort of anchors. I did not even realize how time flew by. Considering all this, it was “the place” to settle in. But after a few years, the need for community, to be closer to family, to experience the festivity when Holi and Diwali came… all this started mattering, making me think of whether this was the place I wanted to be in forever.
I am sure just like I found reasons that made me “settle in” or “move”, others may have had their own connections or detachments. It is not just opportunities but also other aspects like family support, children’s education, spouse’s workplace etc that often override everything else and make people move places or stay put. Sometimes it is just the difficulty of unconditioning. People are so conditioned to a certain place that they struggle to unlearn some aspects and adjust anywhere else.
However as cities improve on infrastructure and cosmopolitan mixes reduce the cultural barriers; these concerns seem to be gradually fading. I’ve managed communicating in Hindi and English in different regions of India without the need to learn the local language to communicate. There is a shop in Bangalore which makes better boondi ke laddoos than any other place in the north that I have been to. A friend sends local Indian spices to her parents in India from the US because they are of better quality! As far as conditioning to a particular place is concerned, it is never too late. The other day, someone mentioned his plans to move to a smaller hilly town in the next few years. Tired of driving 60 kms a day, he wants to live in a place which gives him the peace of mind. And he wants to make this move after living in this city for 30 years! It seems that statements like “I was born and brought up here” or “I have lived here forever” may soon be a rarity.
As for me- I have moved again, closer to family and old friends. Is this the place to be forever, only time will tell…