Yet, the 36-year-old recently swapped the thrum of Mumbai for the more bucolic vibe of Kalap, a remote mountainous village in Uttarakhand, where she is in the process of setting up home. It’s a drastic relocation that has involved giving up on a host of things she took for granted, from ordering a meal or groceries with a few taps on her phone to shopping whenever she felt like to having sushi. “There are so many things you get used to in city life, like someone coming every day to collect your garbage or to deliver milk. Here, people have cows and, hence, their own milk!” says Chatterji, breaking into an infectious laugh on a video call from her new cottage.
It is an uprooting that she says would not have happened so soon were it not for the pandemic, which she spent away from the city. “I used to be very attached to the idea of being in Mumbai. But over the last few months, I realised I can be just as happy and fine away from it,” says Chatterji, whose husband runs a trust in Kalap and an experiential travel company in the region but who, like her, had never actually lived there. With work meetings now virtual, she says she just has to wrap her head around the fact that travelling for shoots will now mean a seven-hour ride to the airport instead of 45 minutes. There are, naturally, no malls or restaurants in the vicinity and the nearest market is about 14 kilometres away. But, she says, “We have learnt how to live with far less.”
When lockdowns and restrictions began across the world about a year ago in a bid to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, there was no dearth of predictions about the impact this slamming of the brakes would have on the way we work, live and love. It was an unprecedented time when we were forced to make do without our laundry list of things. For those with the privilege of a steady income and adequate space to live in, it was held out as a unique opportunity to pause and rethink choices, too.
But with those initial months of the pandemic already a memory in many parts of the world, several of the habits we were supposed to have shed for good have returned — at times with a vengeance. For some, though, those months of living with less have nudged them into making more permanent changes, whether it’s cutting back on shopping for clothes, reducing the use of plastic or deciding to relinquish city life altogether.
The simpler life
For Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Siddharth Mangharam, the pandemic and social distancing meant pulling the plug on his nearly nine-year-old venture, FLOH, whose business model depended on people meeting physically and socialising. The ensuing weeks turned out to be a rare occasion to contemplate. “It gave me time to reflect on what I want. I’ve been in the startup ecosystem for well over a decade and I know people who have succeeded and made a boatload of money but their happiness didn’t get advanced. To me, the question was who are we doing it for and why.” The lockdown, which laid bare the stark contrast between those who could afford to stay where they were and those who had to trudge hundreds of kilometres to safety, was another trigger.
With these thoughts and inspiration from The Minimalists, a Netflix documentary about two friends in the US who gave up their six-figure salaries and now evangelise living with less, Mangharam gave away his multiple suits, ties and winter jackets (swapping them for plain white shirts for work), his B-school books and other things he had stopped using but were still around — like shot glasses. He is keen to emphasise that the goal is not to save money but to not buy things he would end up throwing away. “The bar is now much higher for what I will acquire,” says the 46-year-old, who has also begun journaling every morning at 4 and has all but stopped drinking, which helps him wake up early and go for his daily runs. Giving up their home in the city for one at the foot of Nandi Hills is also on the cards.
In Gurgaon, Anu Prasad, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Indian Leaders for Social Sector, too, has resolved to drastically curb her shopping and be more mindful about what she buys. She has bought virtually no new clothes over the last nine months. “Who’s looking at what I’m wearing on a Zoom call?” she says. For the last few months, instead of buying more, she has been giving away clothes and some food to a nonprofit, a habit that she says helps her feel more in control of her life.
Similarly, Sucharita Bhattacharjee, a researcher in Kolkata, spent the last nine months without buying a single sari, even during Durga Puja, and has resolved that she will be buying plants and books instead of clothes. “When you buy something new, you tend to forget what you already have,” she says.
In Mumbai, meanwhile, Chandra Chawla, executive vice-president of a pharmaceutical firm, used the last few months to pare down his family’s use of plastic. “It’s not that we weren’t aware of the destructive nature of plastic but the lockdown accelerated that change,” says Chawla, who now goes shopping for pulses with containers, to avoid using plastic bags. He has also switched to buying only what is necessary, that too, in smaller quantities.
Behavioural scientists are not surprised that the pandemic has inspired or catalysed these shifts, even if they are, admittedly, not widespread. “Generally, behavioural change has triggers — these can be personal, cultural, motivated from within the psyche or the environment. The pandemic was like a tsunami — it pushed people into changing how they live and how they think,” says Deenaz Damania, a psychotherapist and specialist in consumer behaviour and research. Anirudh Tagat, a researcher studying behavioural economics, says literature and research reveal that social norms also change in a collective event like a pandemic. “It’s not just our behaviour but the behaviour of those around us that changes, altering what is acceptable behaviour.” The lockdown, for instance, made working from home the norm across many offices, which would have been unthinkable a year ago, says Hansika Kapoor, a psychologist and Tagat’s colleague at Monk Prayogshala, a nonprofit research organisation.
Permanently cutting down the number of days one has to be present in office is a shift some intend to carry forward, if they have that option. Prasad, for one, wants to reduce the days she and her team will have to spend in office and is rethinking her office space requirement. She says that the team has been as productive, if not more, now than when they were meeting physically. “Asking someone to commute two hours to work is not something I’m comfortable with.”
Nitya Sharma, cofounder of fintech startup Simpl, is thinking along the same lines and plans to reduce the number of days he and his team will spend in office, once it reopens. He also intends to cut down on hopping on a flight for meetings without thinking twice. “Obviously, to build a rapport with my team and understand each other better, we will have to have meals together, have a drink together. But the question is, do all my meetings have to be in person?” asks Sharma. The lockdown, he says, also helped him realise how much he and his wife prefer having meals at home — whether it is something they cooked or ordered in — as opposed to driving through the infuriating Bengaluru traffic to get to a restaurant. They have resolved to pare down visits to restaurants and bars with friends, even when the fear of the virus has disappeared, preferring to have them over for a meal at home instead.
With the disclaimer that she does not intend to be morbid, Kapoor says an exogenous threat or a shock puts things in perspective, which pushes you to reassess priorities. Prasad, for instance, lost two people close to her over the last few months, which has made her re-evaluate what she would rather spend her time on. “There is no way I’m going back to spending any significant time in a mall,” she says.
Whether these changes are permanent and if more people will be similarly inspired remain to be seen. Rituparna Banerjee, an entrepreneur who, along with her husband, sold off much of their possessions in 2017, packed the rest into four suitcases and took off for a sabbatical. She says friends who heard about their decision admired them for it but not enough to make a switch. “Most friends say, ‘Wow, how did you guys do it?’ but don’t take any action,” chuckles Banerjee. An exception is her sisterin-law Sucharita, quoted earlier, who had been watching their journey and was pushed to do something by the lockdown.
Travel writer and sustainable living advocate Shivya Nath, who has been living with as few possessions as possible for years, agrees that the pandemic has made many realise they need to own very little to feel content and has inspired them to move to smaller towns and villages to be closer to nature. At the same time, it has not automatically resulted in sustainable choices. “Here in Goa, for instance, many people have left the big city behind, but they carry their big city mentality. They still want to live in gated societies and navigate Goa’s bylanes in air-conditioned SUVs, instead of adopting a more local way of life.”
It eventually boils down to the individual, says Kapoor. “Some behaviour change will be brought about by how we perceive risk. In behavioural sciences, one way to nudge someone into doing something for their own good, such as quitting smoking, is through repeated interventions,” says Tagat. “But we can’t keep having lockdowns,” he laughs.
As the world tentatively returns to a semblance of normalcy, the pendulum is swinging to the other end in some cases, with “revenge shopping” and “revenge travel” on the rise, as people try to over-compensate for the opportunities they lost over the last year. A few others, though, want to stay the course. Chatterji might just have cleared her first litmus test on a recent trip to meet family in Bengaluru. “I had my fill of sushi and hanging out in cafes. But by the end of the fortnight, I was dying to get back. I was missing the mountains.