The allure of big cities has drawn people towards them for centuries. After all, the promise of lucrative opportunities, a spot on higher rungs of the social ladder, and faster WiFi is difficult to resist. And so, people have flocked towards them like moths to a flame.
But the pandemic might have changed that.
As lockdowns around the world forced jobs and schools online, city dwellers started trickling away in search of isolation, or to escape it. For many of them though, leaving these cities became the only way to stay afloat through the job losses and salary cuts that accompanied the pandemic. Rent and living costs have always been exorbitantly high when it comes to metropolises, and the fact that you could either work from anywhere or didn’t have to work anymore made leaving the only plausible choice.
One of the worst hit was New York City (NYC), where an estimated five per cent of the population, especially the wealthy, headed out at least for some time. While the ones who moved largely meant the rich, as suggested by cell phone location data and trash location patterns, furloughs and pay cuts made the move mandatory for many who didn’t have the same resources.
Originally from Britain, Kerry Bannigan lived in the U.S. for 17 years, 14 of which were spent in NYC. In 2019, she was visiting her family in England for Christmas as per usual, when due to her husband’s sudden illness, their stay was extended. The 38-year-old social entrepreneur rented a temporary location in the Midlands, U.K., to wait until the fears of COVID-19 transmission through travel were allayed.
“Weeks turned into months and trying to make future plans while so much was unknown became difficult. We decided in September 2020 to rent a house in a lovely countryside town in Rutland, U.K. and start to build a bit more stability for our four-year-old son,” she tells VICE.
As a globetrotting entrepreneur working in fashion, she wouldn’t ever have imagined swapping her heels for gumboots, and her cocktail hours for long walks in the forest. But she’s actually feeling happy about the life change.
Closer to home in India, one can see similar trends, with as many as ten to 20 per cent of migrant residents in big cities expected to move back home due to the pandemic. Here, big cities like Mumbai see many give in to the charm of living a fulfilling life, both financially and creatively. But even for those who come looking to realise dreams and seize opportunities they wouldn’t virtually find anywhere else, the pandemic has proved fatal. Not looking forward to entering the “historically terrible labour market”, young graduates from the batch of 2020 have chosen to pack up their bags and their dreams of making it in the big cities, and head home.
22-year-old Gitesh Sahni moved from Mumbai to his hometown Sitapur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in July 2020. Initially, having received his bachelor’s degree in banking and insurance, he wanted to work in Mumbai for a year or so, but chose the ease of living with family over “a life of hassles”.
“The only thing that sets big cities apart from small towns is the sheer number of ways in which you can spend your time. After a long day, you can always go for a drink or a smoke with friends, but that culture doesn’t even exist in tier 2 cities like Lucknow, let alone in Sitapur,” he says.
These pleasures coupled with more dating, work and entertainment opportunities also play a major role in pulling young people away from their homes with the promise of a chill, carefree life, where although you might overwork yourself, you can always choose to drown the toil of everyday life at a neighbourhood bar. But you get over it soon enough, Gitesh insists.
“Initially, it was frustrating to not be able to do that anymore. But then I accepted that this is how life is here. Over the past few months, I’ve found other distractions. I’ve been learning how to play the ukulele, and I’m also thinking of taking up golf.”
But while you may not be able to buy the kind of leisure big cities offer, there are other activities in smaller cities that can make life equally enjoyable. Because of the traffic and congestion that several big cities are known for, people spend most of their time shuffling from home to work and back, and in this rush to be in the right indoors setting, get distanced from the outdoors.
For Sanidhya Bindal, pandemic-induced uncertainty was enough to make him move back home in March itself. He was working as the head of operations of an NGO running cafes in the offices of large corporates in India’s tech-capital Bengaluru. While offices moved online, the cafes couldn’t follow suit and thus had to be shut, making the 23-year-old redundant. But he has put this time off to good use.
Six months ago, he jumped on the pandemic podcast bandwagon and started his own podcast called Say Something Sanidhya, where he interviews people with inspiring stories. He has been able to produce it entirely in his hometown Neemuch, in Madhya Pradesh. He has also found ways to reconnect with his love for the outdoors, which was something he missed in his fast-paced metropolis life.
“There are such beautiful places only about 15 kilometers away, which even the locals don’t know much about. Just yesterday, I biked to one of these, which is a mining site that most people don’t venture to often. Back in Bangalore, or even in other big cities like Hyderabad, you’d have to drive at least a couple hours to get to some place even remotely scenic,” he says.
The internal brain drain in India has led to many small cities losing out on future generations as they move away in search of “jobs commensurate with their education”. But the pandemic has taken the ease of access to such opportunities away from the big cities and made it available remotely.
According to 28-year-old Rahul Mohan, “it just doesn’t make much sense anymore. I left my town of Calicut (in the southern state of Kerala) to study and then work in construction in Mumbai because there weren’t any options to find relevant jobs here. But that gap is only narrowing with time, and the pandemic has broadened the possibilities.” While better tech means the migration was always happening to smaller places, the pandemic has led to the rise of “Zoom towns” which have seen a flurry of city people moving in and “commuting” to work electronically.
While many have jumped at the opportunity to make the most of the collectivistic lives that wait for them at home, for some the pandemic has posed an opportunity to live their best lives. Many who can afford it are now flocking to scenic locations nestled in the mountains or beaches for long stays to achieve the eternal fantasy of sipping on a cocktail while working remotely.
For some, the time in lockdown brought along a realisation about the urgency with which the causes they’re passionate about need attention.
Sarita Fernandes, 25, is a marine and coastal policy researcher. When the lockdown was announced in March, she was living in the village of Siolim in North Goa for a project, and ended up staying there to ensure her own safety and that of her parents back home in Mumbai, where she was born and raised. Because of the pandemic, she took the call to make Goa her forever home.
“Because of there being less people in Goa, the government was able to test everyone and embrace the new normal at a faster pace than in Mumbai. Things opened up here in June, which happened in other places only in September,” she tells VICE.
In this time, she also decided to start her own organisation with her former colleagues and friends called the Morjim Sea Turtle Trust that conducts sea-turtle research, documentation and conservation based on the community-conservation principle and scientific data.
Even as some like Fernandes have found enough reasons to embrace their new homes for good, some others are already looking to move back, as things begin to go slowly back to normal, pandemic or not.
Come January 2021, Shaurya Shukla, 22, will move back from Sitapur to Delhi to join civil services coaching. “I don’t necessarily like the materialistic lifestyle that big cities like Delhi offer, but it’s a hub for this kind of coaching, so I might as well do it from the best place possible. There’s no options for it here at home.”
But Shukla says when it comes to it, he will choose to settle down in a small town. This begs the question: Did the big cities lose their allure during the pandemic, or has the big city life always been overrated? The jury is divided.
“Never!” exclaims Bannigan, “I cannot wait for the days it is safe to enjoy city life again and absorb the culture and the pace of opportunity. I feel that now I will know how to balance the best of both – city experiences professionally and personally, but return to the countryside sanctuary with the family.”
But while living in a city can be rewarding in many ways, some may be done with it forever.
“Mumbai taught me how to respect other people’s time, and mine as well. I remember once during the monsoon, I thought I’d get a day off my internship, but my grandmother, who I was living with then, pushed me out saying people were relying on me and that I must show up. Now when I’ve joined the family business, I know how to inculcate these values here. But I’ve realised that that might be all the cities can give you, and that’s okay”, says Sahni.
For Fernandes, it is this binary life offered by cities that’s the problem. The money you make, and spend, guarantees you a cushioned life, but it also prevents you from living a real life.
“In a rural setting, you are more aware of everything around you, and thankful for even basic amenities like proper roads,” she says. “You pay more attention to the pace of the wind, and use your human skills to a maximum. I think humans need to experience that in their lifetime.”
Follow Snigdha on Twitter.