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Why the romance of small towns scares me

A city is where you feel like a heroine and a small town is where you feel like a heroine out of place

A still from the Korean drama 'Summer Strike'.
A still from the Korean drama 'Summer Strike'. (IMDB)

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I was reading The Great Gatsby for the very first time in my life and at one point, a young woman, Jordan Baker, says: “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” As millions of readers have since the 1920s, I giggled. If ever there was a merch-friendly quote, there it was. T-shirts and mugs available in many sizes and colours. While acknowledging its airy superciliousness, I have to say that quote also gave me what my friend likes to call “kaleje mein thandak”, a gel pack for my heart.

I rarely feel personally victimised but one area in which my feelings are cruelly underrepresented is this one. Culture gives aesthetic preference to intimate dinner parties and small towns, as opposed to sweaty mob scenes and big cities. Not that there aren’t novels and movies, and music, about the metropolis. But where does the heroine go to heal? Back home to the charming small town, the seaside village, the hill station where nothing happens. My current drug of choice, Korean drama, is obsessively sending its protagonists to small towns to hook up with the local cop, the local jack of all trades, the local librarian. As Wikipedia puts it, “Yoon Hye-jin, an accomplished dentist from Seoul, goes to the idyllic seaside village of Gongjin on her late mother’s birthday after her life goes awry.” “Summer Strike is about people who start finding themselves after leaving their lifestyles in a complicated city, and moving to an unfamiliar place to do nothing.” “A romantic comedy depicting Seoul veterinarian Han Ji-yul unexpectedly being thrown into a rural village and meeting local police officer Ahn Ja-young.”

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Romance novels have been doing it forever too. As have Hallmark movies, which would have to shut shop and cancel Christmas if there weren’t small towns for the protagonists to find suitable boys/girls and their own true selves.

I am surrounded by friends who want to move to proto small towns on the border of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, to a cloudy slope in Himachal Pradesh, to islands in the Indian Ocean and icy-blue Norwegian towns north of the Arctic Circle. Being open-minded, I get that people are allowed to have preferences wildly different from mine. But I would like to say that I find small towns and villages utterly terrifying.

When Hindi cinema began its long streak of marking the small city as a place of violence, corruption and much swearing, I had mixed feelings. The noir-ish possibilities of the small town make for nice suspense, of course. But it is not the possibility that the small town is home to murderous gangsters or hypocritical psychopaths, or characters who cannot finish a sentence without a particularly juicy misogynist curse, that terrifies me. It is, as Jordan Baker noted, the simultaneous lack of intimacy and lack of privacy. Everyone knows everything about your comings and goings and exactly what you paid for everything but no one knows you. At a small party, I once met a man who said he and I had been neighbours at one time. “I remember you. You were the girl who never dried her hair after having a bath. I used to see you running down the street every morning.” At first, I found this worrying. Imagine all the people who had opinions about my hair and I never even knew they existed! But soon after, I found it relaxing. Imagine all the people who had opinions about my hair and I never even knew they existed, aah! Lovely.

For once, I would like to see a K-drama or read a romance novel where the protagonist abandons her village or small town, feeling suffocated, and finds her true and quirky self in the big city. A big city where she finds her particular friends, where she finds her talent for glass painting, where she finds faith in long walks with headphones on and her eye on the broken footpath. Where she tells the electricity board guy that she has, in fact, paid the bill and until he restores her connection, she is going to live in the electricity board office.

A few weeks ago, I “taught” a workshop about becoming a heroine. And the thing I didn’t say in the workshop is that a city is where you feel like a heroine and a small town is where you feel like a heroine out of place. Please note that my observations are coming from the depth of my prejudices, so feel free to disregard them.

Last weekend, as I was huffing up Bengaluru’s Brigade Road with a heavy bag, a man on a motorcycle smiled warmly at me. I looked over my shoulder and no, it was at me that he was smiling. If you live long enough and if you have many strange jobs in different towns, then you have to accept the epoch in which you can’t remember names. I stopped to ask, “Sorry, do I know you?” He continued to smile and said, “No, you just looked nice coming up the street.”

Here is the thing. This is not the kind of thing that ever happens to me. Now here is what happened next. I said “oh”, huffed and continued carrying my heavy bag, energetically flagged down an auto and went home. A few hours later, I remembered and thought to myself: Woah, cities. So dangerously attractive.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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