Illustration by Suneesh K. | Moneycontrol
For well over a hundred years the city has been the epicentre of our universe, the place where creativity and industry jostle with wealth and its many manifestations.
It wasn’t always so. Time was when rural life was the ideal. The romantic poets of the 1850s extolled the virtues of nature. “Let nature be your teacher,” advised William Wordsworth. Fifty years later, Walt Whitman declared: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” It wasn’t just the embrace of nature but the superiority of life in the village over the evils of cities that formed their leitmotif.
With the industrial revolution, cities grew in importance and vibrancy. Vienna, Paris, London, Calcutta, Shanghai and later New York became the magnets for artists, entrepreneurs and charlatans. These cities became the source springs of ideas and innovations. In places like India, even as poets and writers celebrated the simpler village life, they couldn’t be blind to such evils as the destructive caste divide and the lack of opportunities. The much-reviled cities provided an antidote against these evils. With their in-built anonymity, they became a melting-pot for humanity where the only distinction that mattered was the one created by wealth.
Sure there were artists and writers who used their work to draw attention to the alienating nature of city life with its impersonal relationships and carefully choreographed interactions. But theirs’ were feeble voices drowned by the raucous revelry that emerged from the pubs and the parties. Not all of it was debauchery. There was much to recommend the city. Tagore created Santiniketan as an abode of learning from nature, but the creative impulses it released found their full fruition in the coffee houses of Kolkata and Mumbai.
Fast forward to the closing decades of the 20th century when advancements in technology and communications led to the emergence of newer cities. Thus, sleepy Bengaluru went from being a retirement haven to a bustling metropolis nurturing the silicon dreams of millions. Lured by the promise of jobs and growth, millions of people across the world have left the hinterlands to head to these urban agglomerations.
Then came those fateful months of late 2019 when an unknown virus prepared to lay siege to the world. Covid-19 struck at the very heart of city life. The numbers clearly show how big cities with high population densities have been hit much more badly than rural districts. Consider the mayhem in New York, Madrid, London and now Mumbai and Delhi. Along with that came the loneliness of being physically isolated in concrete structures that were built to provide exclusivity but now turned into prisons.
So, are we going to see a reversal of the migration process as people seek a less complicated life, sans the constant adrenaline-pumping highs of corporate life followed by binge evenings? Already we have seen the obscene rush by the rich and the better off to places like Goa or the hills of North India. But while this may just be a form of escapism masquerading as an attempt at communion with nature, a more lasting and deep-rooted move could also begin soon.
The sight of clear skies in places like Delhi with pollution levels at unimaginably low levels reminded people of an alternate life. But none of that would have made sense without the game changing impact of the work-from-home movement. Suddenly, it seemed eminently possible to achieve corporate goals without enduring those interminable and purposeless meetings.
What we were seeing even before the pandemic struck was the strange spectacle of cities seeking to incorporate many of the features of rural life, replacing motorways with cycling tracks and flyovers with mini forests. At the same time, smaller towns strived to imitate the bigger cities setting up malls and multiplexes.
Maybe it is too far fetched to imagine a wholesale move back to the villages and small towns and truthfully that wouldn’t be such an ideal scenario. The industries and the jobs along with the paraphernalia for growth is in the big cities and younger people from small centres must not be denied their right to these advantages. But if better infrastructure can be put in place at least for those whose priorities are different, maybe we could see the big declutter that our groaning metropolises desperately need.