Breaking Out cover.jpeg

The calling

January 2020

Chulha village, North India - July 1995/6am

The 'Purvai' breeze is chilly, goose-fleshing as the monsoon winds from the east scurry the clouds across the navy blue sky. I see silver patches in the pre-dawn darkness, hints of the expanse of water in the distance. As I walk and the light freshens, I can see the two big rivers, like lazy dragon-serpents, going wherever rivers go. Ahead, near the horizon, they meet the sun together in a blaze of water and light.




I don't know why, but I have always wanted to live in the country.


My earliest memories of village life are of going to Badaun, my father's birth-place as a kid, although this was even then a fair-sized town, too big to qualify as a village. This was an adventure - a train and a bus journey, then a rickshaw ride from the bus station to my grandfather's home. The town ended a few lanes behind the house, and beyond were fields and woods, and beyond that, a big stream that became a river in monsoons. We ate spicy beef curry cooked on wood-stoves and spent hot afternoons in the shade of the big neem tree. This is where I got the first whiff of the Indian village.


The first real village I visited was Bhamaura, where my father's brother–Qamar Chacha- was working. I was probably six, so this is 1974. It was winter and mustard and wheat crop were standing tall, swathes of yellow and gold everywhere you looked. Bhamaura itself amounted to just a small railway platform, where some passenger trains stopped to collect or deposit colourfully dressed villagers – blue kurta shirts and green sarees. There was also a government clinic, with a few beds, where Qamar Chacha, who was a doctor, administered to his patients. There was not much else, except trees and clear-water streams and sweet-smelling cattle – and that's plenty for a small boy. I loved the place, and was very sad to leave.


Lucknow, where I was born and spent most of childhood, is a little over 300 kms from the Himalayas—a train's overnight journey–and we holidayed in the mountains whenever my parents' budgets allowed. Although we spent most of our time in Ranikhet–a decent-sized cantonment town in the mountains–the cottage we rented was in a village below. This was my first real taste of village life and gave me the addiction for country life that I still carry. The morning air, the hot sun, the blustery, rainy, cloudy nights, everything was fresh and washed. Even the rocks looked scrubbed. They still do.


I joined the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in the final years of my school and the camps took me to many distant, remote places in India where I got my first-hand experience of 'living rough' in the country. I lost my inhibition of shitting in open air or sleeping on mud floors, among other more soldierly training. I trekked forests and sailed the Ganges and truly saw India's heartland, the sounds and smells that beat in the Indian village.


This was the extent of my exposure to village life, but being a bit of a romantic, I lost my heart to it. Fantasising is one thing, however, and going to live–and work-in the village is quite another. For one thing, it doesn't pay very well, at least not in India. For me, it was just a daydream since I didn't have any land to live on, to begin with.


As I graduated and started working, I seriously began wondering about how to leave the city for good, but could not find a way–or muster enough capital–to move into a village and start a life. For those who have never visited India, this may sound strange. In the developed world, infrastructure has enabled many to live in the country and work in the city. Good roads, fast trains and reliable energy erase the distances between urban and rural. In Europe and North America, you can walk your dogs in a forest in the morning and have a lunch meeting in a posh downtown restaurant later in the day.


If you live in an Indian village, that is unlikely. Here, lives of people who live in villages are starkly different from those who live in cities, and the gap is widening. many urban residents in India have roots in the village, might have come to the city in their lifetime, but except for migrant workers, nobody returns to the village. The flow of the population is one way towards the city. Likewise, nobody wants to return to the village. People consider it a degenerate step, as backward as turning your back on progress.


There are schools that train you–as a vet, or agriculture scientist, or teacher–but they only get you a job which may or may not get you a life in the country. There was no course that showed me how to find a way, so I could live and work in a village. I met farmer folk, agriculture scientists, sociologists and distant relatives with contacts in villages to find the best way to do this, and was subjected to a wide variety of responses–from shocked disbelief, to mirth, to well-meaning but useless advice. In the end, I decided I would take the plunge on my own as soon as I was ready.



After driving a hundred kilometres over some good and some bad roads, we get off the tar and take the gravel track north, heading for the banks of Ghaghra, ten kilometers away. I am driving and Verma-my man-friday, village guide and agricultural consultant, all rolled in one-sits next and gives directions. The gravel gives way to dirt, which gives way to sandy-loamy ground, as I coax my groaning car over deep grooves cut by bullock carts–so deep that if my wheels go into them, the car will be grounded on its belly, with the tires spinning free.


It is approaching dusk as we enter the hamlet. I did not know it then, but this was to be my home for the next two years. There are only 25 huts in Chulha, all made of mud and wattle. The people are all 'Kahars'–a low caste that traditionally carried people in palanquins, or 'palki' in Hindi–and a few Muslim families. With the advent of modern transport, nobody uses 'palkis' anymore. Now these people live as marginal farmers, subsisting from crop to crop. This is the poorest of India, the most downtrodden, forgotten people, living on the edges of society.


Cots are pulled out of huts into the central open area of the village and I sprawl on one of them as dinner arrangements are made and drinks ordered. This comprises catching a chicken for the curry and sending a boy with a jerry can to a cluster of 3 huts 500 meters away, where a family of 'Pasis' - the lowest castes of all–brew local liquor from jaggery. The stuff arrives warm from the still.


Verma and I are out scouting for farmland and we got information that there is plenty of land here for the taking. This is land's end, next to the Ghaghra, a fast flowing giant of a river with lush, fertile floodplains. As the drink warms the gathering, I turn the talk to land hunting. The reports become more and more detailed as the jerry can level drops and by the time chicken curry and rice is served, we have zeroed down our options. Tomorrow morning, a few of our new friends will take Verma and I to a village Pradhan (chief)–a Brahmin-on the other side of the river as that village has extensive untilled expanses of land, owned by the village Panchayat.


I keep referring to the caste of people to drive a point. To the villager in India, caste is extremely important. It is your social security blanket and your tribe, something you can never change or grow out of as long as you live in the village. So one has to be sensitive to these things to navigate social hierarchies. It is not a pleasant thought, but that is the way it is.


The next morning a glorious spring sun wakes us up where we had slept on the cots, and we wash and breakfast on fresh chapatis dunked in hot buffalo milk, with generous amounts of liquid jaggery mixed in. Have you ever tried this breakfast? Rich, creamy and delicious, and will sustain you for the long day ahead. Better than Chocos, any day.


Our party comprises Verma and I, and an assorted crew. Kanhai is a 25-year-old dehydrated, short young man with a ready smile and easy manner. He loves bidis, the Indian tobacco leaf rolled into a mini cigarillo, and all kind of food. His uncle, about 45ish, is a scruffy character who is an avid user of liquor and ganja, sings when high, is the soul of every party, and is endearingly called 'Bhoore Mama' by one and sundry. We walk out of the village, ready for the hot day ahead. There are two minor characters–young boys in late teens-who also attach themselves to our travelling group. I guess they just had nothing better to do that day.


By this time in my life, I had been on many land prospecting trips. From the mountains to plains, I had walked 3-4 states to find land. 5 years and hundreds of kilometres of travel by train, bus, foot and every means of transport imaginable had brought me to the banks of this great river.


And Ghaghra is a great river. It emerges on the Tibetan Plateau near Lake Mansarovar and cuts through the Himalayas in Nepal to join the Sharda River at Brahma ghat. Chulha is a few kilometres away from this confluence. It is the largest tributary of the Ganges by volume and the second longest tributary of the Ganges by length after Yamuna. The majesty and wild beauty of this river must be seen to be believed.


We walk for perhaps a kilometre to enter a scrub forest, walk through it for about 300 meters and emerge on THE most beautiful beach I have ever seen. White sand stretches for 300 metres to the river's edge, and till the eye can see along its length in both directions. Just soft, deep, white sand, untouched and unmarked by any feet. The river here is wide, really wide even in March, as Sharda and Ghaghra meet here. There is an island at least two square kilometres in size in the middle of the river, and I can see cliffs and big, old trees on it. It must be higher ground, which has escaped floods over the years.


Two old, patched together yet fragile boats are waiting for us at the edge where the river pulls at them. We send one of the boys with us to fetch the boatman from a nearby hut, and I take off my shoes and dip my feet into the flowing water. It is cold and fast, and in about 5 minutes, scores of tiny fish gather to eat the dead skin from my toes and give me a pedicure.



You might wonder what took me to this remote place in search of land, when there is plenty available for sale much nearer if I looked. The problem was, I had very little money, so buying land of the size I wanted was out of the question. Also, even if I had the money, I did not want to commit myself to such an investment as I wasn't sure if this was the life I wanted. At least I had this much sense at 27.


This is a very important precaution. Before you make life-changing decisions and start speaking to your family about such a major move, make sure you are sure about this. It is one thing to go on a holiday for a few days, or a few weeks at most, and quite another to move and live in a rural environment.


You have been thinking about it for a long time. Is life in rural India really for you?


To determine whether this life is really for you, take your time. Think about it carefully. Why do you want to give up the known for an unknown?


I discovered this in the most unexpected ways. Early in my career, I had a colleague who I formed a lifelong friendship with. We used to hang out in his tiny rooftop apartment in Lucknow on weekends and make plans for the future. He like I wanted to live somewhere in the mountains and we agreed we would do it together.


One day, he asked me, “Why do you want to live in the country?”

“To read and write to my heart's content,” I answered.


That was and still is my aim. Sure, I like nature, enjoy being financially independent, love the quiet, the fresh air and water, having no proximate neighbours, no traffic, no sewage or garbage (a huge problem in Indian cities) spewing in my face. It is just a better way to live, out here in the country.


But most of all, I like to be time rich to do the things that give me purpose, the reason we get out of bed every morning. Everybody needs to find and pursue their calling to lead a truly fulfilling life. For me, it is to know and learn that which I like. That might be too vague for some people, but it works for me.


Find your reason before you go in search for a new life. Why does this urge drive you? Apart from the apparent benefits of living in the country, which are considerable, what is it that which will give you deep satisfaction and contentment? Maybe you want to educate village children. Or grow orchids. Or make pottery. Or bake. Discover that which pushes YOUR buttons, ticks YOUR boxes, lights YOU up. This is YOUR life. You deserve to live your destiny as you see fit.


Ok, so you are convinced this is for you. What do your spouse / children have to say about this?


When I met my wife 20 years ago, and we decided to spend our life together, we were in Dubai. Both of us were at nascent stages of our careers in a strange land. Living in the country may have been my dream even then, but Arati's life had been on a very different trajectory. So I had to work at that. On one of our first dates, we were each sharing everything there was to know about us, as people in love usually do. I must have been telling her about my adventures and misadventures in rural hinterlands when the subject came up unexpectedly:


“Dad has six acres of land outside Bangalore,” she said.

“Ok, then let's get married and go live there,” I replied.


This has been a joke for us with friends and family for the longest time–that I married her for the land. No one shall ever know the real truth, except I.


For the next 5 years, we discussed this. Our travels took us to some utterly remote places where we found people living in splendid isolation, and we saw how they did it. Arati is a pure city-bred girl, and the mere thought of living in a village had never occurred to her. But being the realist she is, she soon realised that benefits of living in the country far outweigh the cons. And being the planner she is, she started planning. She is the perfect example of a person with a temperament perfectly suited to live in the country, who doesn't yet know it.


When you discuss your desire to move to rural India–obviously, with your family–come equipped with facts. How and where will you buy land? If you already have land, half the battle is won–show your family how you plan to do the transition from urban to rural, and how you think each person's life will improve. I said SHOW them, not just talk, because there is nothing like serving pudding as proof.


Take them to rural locations to holiday and show them how well executed infrastructure can provide the same–or even better creature comforts–than the city. The quality of life my wife and I lead today is far superior to our time in Dubai, although we were easily making 10 times of what we earn today. This is because we did not compromise on our private infrastructure when we made the move.


Anyone who has lived in India will tell you that public services and utilities are very poor here because they are mostly managed by the government. Water, electricity, sewage and waste management are a huge challenge for cities that have already burst at the seams in terms of capacity, their guts have spilled out and are slowly dying. No political will exists to reform city and town municipalities and corporations. The people too have given up.


Although it has its own set of challenges, a high quality of life is achievable in rural India at comparatively low cost, as compared to buying property in the cities. 20-30 million rupees in India will get you a modest apartment in India's metros, a nicer one in Tier 2 cities. If you invest this money 30-50 kms away from a metro, in a quiet, rural setting, you can have a much higher quality of life. Once you show this to your family, it will not take long for them to see the logic and decide.





The boatman arrives, and our party climbs in the flimsy craft. 2 of our companions push the boat into the fast flowing current, and like a kite in high wind, the boat takes off. The only steering implement the guy has is a slim, 15 foot bamboo pole. With expert ease, he steers the boat, using the speed of the current to aim for where he needs to go in the shortest, fastest trajectory.


The point we are aiming for seems to be the lee side of the island in the middle of the river, almost 600 metres downriver. As we close in towards the island, faint outlines become clear and the forested cliffs rise above us, 20 feet high. I am intrigued by this wonderful place. How fantastic would it be to live on this island, in the middle of the river where no one can reach you, except these villagers? Just a daydream, since getting supplies–or anything else–would be a nightmare.


But such concerns do not take away anything from the wild, ethereal beauty of the landscape. The beach where we boarded the boat is an undulating, golden brushstroke, blending into the green of the forest that meets the blue of the sky. On every side, there is fast-flowing river, twisting away in coiled currents, whirlpools and white waters, through which we are gliding in our boat, like a knife through butter. Rising in the middle of the river, like a piece of cake, with sandy cliff sides frosted with foliage, is the island. Far away in the distance to the east, about 5 kilometres away, is the sangam of Sharada and Ghaghra rivers, a great expanse of water blurred by distance. Above all, is the sound of water and wind, the bright sun and the movement of the boat.


All this, and not one other soul or sign of habitation in sight, in any direction.


It is moments like these, when you are so close to nature that you can feel her breath on your face, that have always pulled me away from civilisation and towards wilderness. Which human creation can match the grandeur and utter majesty of the untouched expanses of our earth? This, for me, is the real draw of the country, an urge to be in a place where I can see and feel the natural world. It really doesn't matter where it is, as long as there are a lot more trees and a lot fewer people.


It is critical that you find your draw. If you truly understand what pushes your buttons, you can prioritise what YOU want. This is key to achieving that deep satisfaction and enjoyment your move to rural India should deliver for you. So what's your passion that drives you away from urban scapes and into these beautiful sanctuaries, where your soul can rest and rejoice?


Once we come around the end of the island, the boatman uses the speed of the boat to curve it upriver, still being pushed by the current, but heading for the far shore. The river is calmer here and soon we are in shallower depths. The water is so clear that I can see 30 ft to the bottom of the river, and the great shoals of fish that live here. There is one other place–the lake at Naukuchiatal–where the water is so clear with so many large fish, some of them almost 4 feet.


As soon as we reach the right depth, Kanhai takes over and wields the pole. He is an even better boatman than our boatman and propels the boat upriver through the shallows, using the pole to dig into the sandy bottom and pushing away. This is a much more serene face of the river and we pass a few hamlets on the bank where shouted conversations exchange hellos and news. Every person from our party takes turns with the pole, and over the next hour, we drift through a picturesque, ever changing scenery.


Around 11am, we reach a cluster of boats moored to an apology of a jetty made of lashed together bamboo. We tie up our boat and come ashore on another beach, this one so large that it looks like we are in a desert, with small dunes that stretch to the tree line almost a kilometre away. There is a rough path that brings us to the trees, and what I can make out, a homestead where the beach ends and cultivated land begins. All the buildings here are made with bamboo and thatch, like Chulha, but they are a lot more extensive and there are several of them.


Suddenly I have a flashback. I have been here before. In cowboy movies, a lone rider reaches a deserted homestead, with paddocks, sheds and small shacks, nestled in a stand of old trees. It is devoid of human presence, and the cowboy slowly rides up to the largest building, with a wooden verandah and a big creaky door, and knocks. You would expect a middle-aged white woman in a dress and apron to open the door.

Instead, we meet a wizened old man in a white vest and spotless dhoti, who looks at us suspiciously, till he recognises Bhoore Mama.


“Ka ho Bhoore?” he says in greeting, loosely translating into “how's stuff?”

“Sab badhiya Pandit,” Bhoore replies. Everything is fine.


The room we enter is large and airy, but devoid of any furnishings, except wooden benches and cots. The wooden boards that form the walls are badly fitted and the sun streams in through the slats, drawing bright strips of light over the mud floor. An assortment of men of various ages, all clad in crisp white vests and dhotis, take in the strange party arrived at their doorstep. Usually, word is sent if you want to meet a person of importance, but we had come unannounced. I did not want to send word and wait for a reply and also wanted to see the countryside, so it was better to just land up.


The innate hospitality of the villager overcomes the surprise, and they welcome us. Note that they did this knowing that the men that came with me were from one of the lowest castes and these gentlemen here were all highly pedigreed Brahmins. But this building was the drawing room of the house and equipped to handle such complex gatherings. The back of the room, facing the entrance, had a row of chairs, reserved for senior, high caste persons. A few cots were arranged in front of the chairs for people of middle level castes and the benches along the sides, towards the entrance, were reserved for low caste persons.


Luckily for us, Munne Pradhan–the headman–is home. He is tall, fair and slim, with a mild manner and a soft voice, and we make introductions. They invite Verma and me to sit on chairs and Kanhai, Bhoore Mama and the two boys with us take to the benches. We exchange news.


Villagers will often find it hard to understand why you who have a home and a job in the city want to move to a rural area. Villages in North India were still pools of financial stagnation in the 90s, with very limited economic opportunities. So why would a young, 'educated', well-off person want to move to a village? It is beyond their understanding. And they are not likely to offer you any help if they don’t understand your motives.


As they serve tea, I explain to everyone gathered why I want to move. I start with the business plan–what am I going to farm? Munne Pradhan and his team cross question Verma and I. We explain the economics and logistics. Much nodding follows, but I can see they are not entirely convinced. Yes, you can earn by farming, but if it is wealth you are after, there are so many more opportunities to make money in the city. Why here?


Indian government and every economic system created by its policies squeezes wealth out of villages and into urban concentrations. People living in villages want all the stuff they see in advertising–smartphones, motorbikes, nice clothes, richer food–and to buy these, they take out small loans. Pretty much everything today is available in the villages on easy EMI's (Estimated Monthly Instalments) and everyone is in deep debt. They pawn most of the family golds as a practice to fuel consumption and land sell land to pay off large borrowings. The only two businesses that make money in rural India are money lending and agricultural warehousing. Both take advantage of the gullible and needy population.


The real wealth creators of any society–education, healthcare and skill development–are severely lacking in rural India. I have spent the last decade living in the village and have found that every electrician, plumber, mechanic and mason in rural India is self trained, so the quality of their work and work ethics are highly variable. Time and financial management, the very basis of any professional life, just does not exist.


So I steer the conversation towards other more abstract reasons for my desire to live in the village. I think this is important because it removes money as the sole motivator for migration to the village. This helps in negotiating prices for land and services as financial gain is not the real reason why you are there. Villagers get that.


The Indian mind loves the idea of human endeavours that are motivated by pursuits nobler than money. A simpler life, away from the buzz of urban living, has been a feature of Indian culture for millennia. Van ashram, the fourth stage of life, is enshrined as part of an ideal existence in the scriptures. Stories of people such as Buddha and Mahavir, kings who gave up everything to live as mendicants away from civilisation, are embedded in the India psyche. Just a few right words and you can evoke it.


But this is secondary. When you go looking for land, be reasonably clear about what you want to do there. Sure, your plans will evolve and you might change them, but to begin with, you must not only be crystal clear about your expectations from this life but must also know Plan A, B, C...right up to Z. India is a vast sub-continent with every conceivable geographic and climatic condition you can inhabit and make your own. To pick your piece of paradise from this diverse selection, you must know what you are looking for. Otherwise you will be confused beyond your wits.

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