I wrote this article below in 2011, after I had been living in Chennai, India for a few months. At the time, I was still acclimating to the city, which was a major transition from NYC, where I had just finished my Masters at Columbia. But this was the beginning of an incredibly important realization and way of living that I still carry with me today: the luxury of less.
I’ve always considered myself an enemy of routine. For the last 6 years, I haven’t lived in the same place for more than 18 months at one time. Even when I do ‘settle down’ for a little while, my city of choice has always been New York, where there is so much to do and so many decisions to make on a daily basis that the word ‘boredom’ is virtually eliminated from a Manhattanite’s vocabulary.
Naturally, then, after several months in Chennai, I was elated to find out that I’d have the opportunity to attend a conference in India’s capital, Delhi, known as a city of medieval mayhem. I couldn’t wait to explore yet another opulent metropolis, where the women go out at night, the cultural life is thriving, and the stimulation is tsunamic.
Sure enough, Delhi lived up to all my expectations. I spent 5 days bustling in bazaars, visiting cultural landmarks, and meeting fascinating people from all walks of life. I even took a day trip to the Taj Mahal, and stood hypnotized by the utter serenity of this marble masterpiece.
As if they knew about my insatiable appetite for new things, the people I met in Delhi asked me the same question over and over, “How do you live in Chennai?” I typically laughed it off with the response “Hey, I can do anything for a year.” But after several days and many questions, I suddenly blurted out a response that surprised me even more than it did my company:
“Hey, I like Chennai. I miss Chennai. I can’t wait to go home.”
I took a minute to think about what I had just said. In many ways, Chennai doesn’t have much to offer young women. The heat and imposed dress code leave me feeling less than beautiful, and many of the Chennai natives don’t understand my New York accent. The food, although tasty, is always the same, so different from the melting pot of menus that I found throughout Manhattan. And the social scene is limited to a few bars that are very expensive and far from where I stay. So what was it that I was missing?
In the past, when I have found a place or situation to be difficult or challenging, I would cope by finding 27 different things to do to distract myself. In many ways, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve come away with some great stories. But I was always such an anxious person, terrified of missing out on something or being judged if I didn’t do enough. At times I tossed and turned the nights away, but here in Chennai, sleep has become sounder and my waking hours are filled with a peace that eluded my Manhattan mornings. I realize that it is the particularities of Chennai that have helped that happen – and that have, against all odds, made me quite endeared to this city.
In Chennai, when I am anxious or unnerved, the distraction strategy is not really an option, as there is very little to do. I find comfort in routine, in yoga and meditation. I immerse myself in reading up on marketing and speech technologies so that I am fruitful and wise at work. I visit with the friends I have made, welcoming their thoughts and the simple pleasures of shared time.
Earlier in my life I found routine dull and motononous. But now I see it as an opportunity. Before I came to India, my goals fell into a neat little checklist: coordinate a conference, get a 4.0, score that job promotion. But now I long for something more, a true understanding of who I am and what my role is in co-creating a more just world. True self-awareness in not one of those goals that can play hide-and seek in my life, or that I will be able to cross off the list once I pass a test. Rather, genuine understanding of self and others grows slowly from seed to fruit when it’s given the proper time and attention. A lifestyle of constantly chasing after the expedient never really met those conditions. I was too exhausted from outside diversion to dedicate the time and effort to really looking inward. But here in Chennai, where life is devoid of distractions, I have ample time to devote to self-discovery.
This week, I finished reading a book on Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian musician and author who became the first non-European Nobel laureate when he was awarded the prize for literature in 1913. When speaking about the different conceptions of progress in the East and West, he said: “For if the office cannot wait, or the buying and selling, or the craving for excitement; love waits, and beauty, and the wisdom of suffering and the fruits of patient devotion and reverent meekness of simple faith.”
Though Tagore was talking about the identity of a nation, so too is this applicable to the identity of individuals. It’s difficult to develop a stable sense of who we are when we’re multitasking to the point of mayhem, when interruptions become the norm and our sense of self is swept away by constant change around us. Maybe my peers and I have always needed fewer short-term thrills and less emphasis on overscheduling our youth with some productive, resume-building task. Perhaps, instead, we’ve needed more ‘patient devotion’ to self-realization, thoughtfulness, and autonomy.
Living in a city with fewer choices and distractions has helped me to take some long steps on the inward journey of self-discovery and move more deeply into the mystery of our humanity. So too, working in a small startup business with fewer resources has forced me to be more creative. We need to be innovative in designing new ways to affordably enable businesses to work with the poor using our technologies if we are to stay afloat. With a limited marketing budget, but a huge need for outreach, I’m constantly brainstorming about how we can do more with less. Indeed, this experience is a common one in India. The word Jugaad in Hindi loosely translates as “the gutsy art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources.” The social enterprise startup is challenging, and sometimes scary, but it brings an amazing sense of adventure and imagination to my life.
Overall, both in my lifestyle and work in this city, the gift of Chennai is learning that less can be a luxury.
So I’m home now, in Chennai, and just in time for the holidays. Of course, I miss the magic of Manhattan’s Christmas season, but I find a quiet joy in embracing the simple and satisfying routine that I have carved out for myself here in southern India. I suspect that this is a joy that will endure long after the few Christmas lights here have dimmed.