“You have such a dream life”, I hear this all the time.
I want to tell them I agree, but what exactly is the 'dream life'? I put off replying. Excuse me, I have a pile of dishes to get back to before the power goes out again.
I live in a quaint village called Dharamkot, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Until last year, we did not have a road up to the village. Tourists are common in summer, and visit for peace and quiet. I share the same sentiment and have given up on a huge deal to live here. I am cognisant of the privilege I have, over people in the village, who have grown up amidst hardships and over those in the cities who do not have the option of leaving everything behind. But to this day, after six years of moving, I have had second thoughts on my choice of making the mountains my home. Living in a city with the cushion of certainty seems easy. I do believe the grass is greener here and every time I open the tap to fresh spring water, I am reminded of why I am still here.
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Last summer, someone mentions how wonderful the winter chill is. I stand there thinking, what a misfortune it is that June reeks of crisp cold November mornings. This person won't spend more than a few days here, I have the whole year and then the next. The climate is changing. I think about the summer before and all the crops that failed; about winter this year and my heart sinks. We barely had snow and are now paying for it with severe water shortage from the glaciers running dry. Crops are going to fail this year too; my landlady laments to me one day. It's been a tough year, a couple actually, if I count the last ones too.
Does this mean I am discouraging one from having this 'dream life'? I don't think I am in a position to. But having spent half a decade here, I am encouraging one to be more mindful. Mountains aren’t simply out there to take selfies with.
Allow me to put people in boxes to make my point and I can tell you my observations: there are two kinds of people who strive to live this life. I use the measure of how they would summit a tough mountain, to illustrate these boxes.
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There's one kind that reach the summit and feel proud. This has been their one opportunity to prove themselves and as they stand tall upon the peak, they feel like they have conquered this mighty mountain. And then there's the kind that climb up to the summit and submit themselves in gratitude. They are thankful that the mountain has allowed them upon it, safe and sound. Being on the top of everything makes them feel humble.
People do not have to climb a mountain to exhibit either of these behaviours. Living up in the mountains is a gargantuan task, far from the glorified ideas planted upon people by social media. The mountains constantly remind us of how small we are. We think we are capable and a loose rock brings the ground beneath our feet crumbling down. We think we can conquer a mighty mountain and the mountain leaves no stone unturned to tell us how foolish we are.
I don't mean to discourage but there's no 'pride' in living like this. I simply refrain from romanticising a life that is a struggle for many. I do not intend to sound conclusive when I say this but I know this for sure because I used to be the first kind of person when I came to live here—foolish enough to think this was the answer to all my problems.
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Living here has been a dream which happened inadvertently. I didn't plan on moving here and had I another chance, I would be more mindful from the beginning. The mountains have taught me a number of important lessons. I remember getting flustered, when I first moved to Arunachal Pradesh to teach in a remote community. I would have all these plans and it would rain down on me. Things were slow, and those who had done it before me were patient enough to say—'it will happen when it has to'. It took me a while to realise how inconsequential my plans were in front of the dynamism of the mountains. They constantly remind you to be patient.
There are times I miss the convenience of the city. But living here makes me realise what an unaware consumer I have been all my life. It's different there - you buy more than you need, put most of it in a garbage bin, and someone comes and takes it. Here, we know exactly where the garbage goes, most of which we have to figure out ourselves how to dispose of. This has largely helped me reduce my consumption. As much as I would like to grab a packet of potato chips, I know I have no idea what to do with the plastic once I'm done eating it. I know it's the reason we haven't had a proper summer this year.
Climate change hits you harder when you live closer to nature. I prefer second-hand clothes now that I have realised how indispensable resources really are. No textbook has taught me this virtue like the mountains have. Regardless of the cost, it is not an option to live with the same conveniences here. The mountains are bare and the impact we have on them, stares us starkly on our face, consequences looming large upon our head with every passing day of absurd weather changes and failing crops.
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I know how alluring this life seems but this greener grass is not the answer to all our problems. By all means, move to the mountains if you want to, fully acknowledging the cost it comes at and the struggles it brings along. Be cognisant, you are walking into someone else's home to call it your own, whether it be the villagers who settled here ages ago or the wildlife this space actually belongs to. Be mindful it takes time for them to accept you. Be thoughtful about your body, it needs time to adjust to a different climate. The snow looks beautiful on Instagram but will literally knock the breath out of you. Be conscious of how vulnerable you feel when you're close to nature—how easy it is to want to hide behind convenient distractions. Be aware of how ethically you are consuming and disposing of what you use. It stares you back in your face out here. Be grateful of the clean air and water you have access to and preserve it. Be humble.
I used to talk about how impossible it is for me to head back to the pandemonium of city life, how I know I won't survive there, and how I am willing to do anything to make this work. Today, I live with full acceptance: I am here because the mountains have let me.
Nidhi Iyer is a baker and illustrator based in Dharamkot