People always talk about it, as though it were a trendy idea. About getting away from it all - the city lights, the madding crowds, the stress ... But few have the courage to do it. Nilima Pathak speaks to one man who did have the courage and of how it changed his life forever.
At 40, Mohit Satyanand was a successful management consultant. He had everything going for him - a satisfying career, an elegant house, a smart car, a busy social calendar and regular holidays to luxurious destinations.
He was living the kind of life most people crave for.
And the more life became satisfying for him, the more Satyanand began to sense something was amiss. He was 40, poised at the edge of the springboard, the pool below cool, inviting, refreshing.
Should he forget about taking the plunge, turn back and rerun on the old treadmill of success? It was a good life indeed but it seemed to be a means to something more. What was that 'more'?
Born and brought up in Delhi, India, Mohit attended St Columba's High School until 1971. He then went to St Stephen's College, graduating with a BA (Honours) in Economics in 1975.
In 1977, he was awarded an MA from the Delhi School of Economics. After this classic education, his full-blown career was a given. His first job was with the Delhi-based corporate giant, Hindustan Lever, in 1977.
Four years later, he joined Delhi Flour Mills and helped set up its processed foods division in Delhi. By mid-1990s, he was a management consultant for the company.
An elegant house, a nice car, non-stop socialising ... it was all going swimmingly well. That's when he found himself at the edge of the springboard. "It wasn't like I was ... thinking whether to jump into the pool or not," says Satyanand of those times. "The pool and the board were always there. I was only biding my time on the plunge."
What was Satyanand's dilemma? Simple. Should he continue to allow the means to take up more space in his life or go looking for the ends? And then he took the decision. "Once the decision was taken, everything else just fell in place," he says.
Taking the plunge was a logical extension of a desire he had nurtured since childhood - to be able to live in the lap of nature, away from the city lights and in natural rhythm with the cycle of life. His love of nature, he says, was born of the many holidays he went on with his family to the mountains.
It seemed like a perfect plan. With a hitch. At 40, with iron determination to get away from it all, when he did set up the mountain home fires, would he have to abandon not just the city life (a happy thought) but also all hopes of finding a life partner (not such a happy thought).
Up in the hills, with wilderness as his philosophical hunting ground, the likelihood of meeting a lifemate seemed pretty dim."It was time for some more introspection," he says.
"And I certainly am not the kind who could see myself staring into sunsets with a village belle by my side. My life partner would have to be a woman with intellect."
Nevertheless, on July 10, 1996, Mohit decided that the prospect of eternal bachelorhoood was no reason to abandon the desire of his lifetime. He had to move on and leave the rest to fate.
Yet four days later, he found himself proposing to Premila Nazareth. Premila had left her job at the United Nations five months earlier and was working in Delhi with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
Mohit and Premila had met on and off at the capital's theatre scene, The day Mohit proposed to Premila, they had known each other for two months and had met about six to seven times.
Premila, who hails from Mangalore, considered Mohit's request and acquiesced. But she had a counter proposal. Could they get away from the city for a year after marriage?
For Mohit Satyanand, this was a dream that seemed to be doing double duty as it came true.
"At the age of 40, (I realised) one would have developed a typical mindset and acquired specific habits and since I had been living with my mother, Krishna, and father, Satya Nand, all along, Premila felt it would be good for both of us to move to a place that would help us get to know each other better."
Mohit suggested that they visit his mountain house in Satoli, in the Kumaon Hills in the state of Uttaranchal. If Premila approved of it, the two could settle down there. (Mohit had purchased a plot of land and built the house in Satoli in the early 1990s with the help of two friends.)
He and his friends had often gone there, when the city crush felt too heavy for comfort.
The next day, the couple drove to Satoli and Premila immediately fell in love with the raw, wild mountainside and its deep tranquillity. "If you could think of living here alone, then I can certainly think of living here with you," she told him.
They returned to Delhi and got married in October that year. Premila resigned from her job and the couple moved to the hills on April 1, 1997.
"From the moment we entered our home in the hills and unpacked our bags, we felt we had been living there forever. Within a few months, we knew there was absolutely no need to go back to the city. We were supremely happy and there were no financial compulsions either. In the village, everything was extremely cheap. There was nothing one could spend money on anyway."
The land Mohit and his friends had purchased was about three acres. Since Mohit now wished to construct a pucca house, he requested his friends to divide the land and choose the portion they wanted.
But neither of them was interested in owning the property in the long run. So, quite happily, Mohit settled the dues with his friends and acquired the land fully for his own use.
A bush baby arrives
Life in the Satoli hills was a dream loop of quietude, serenity, conversation, long walks and listening to the sounds of the hills in the night.
Eighteen months later, a new beautiful sound arrived in the Satyanand household - the cries of Kedar, their newborn. The city turned into a faded memory. With the birth of his son, Mohit wanted to indulge in his long-held fantasy - of educating his child himself.
Meanwhile, the minutiae of living had also to be taken care of - the fortnightly grocery runs to the nearest village. Which was a good, long walk even for the sturdy.
So while Premila stayed home with baby Kedar, Mohit hit the twisting, winding roads to Almora, the nearest populated town. It was not easy, he admits. The trek was long and hard, the bags sometimes heavy and at other times, very heavy.
The idea, as Mohit puts it, was to make allowance for only one person to be grumpy on that day so the other person would have the cheer to spread around. (Hauling groceries amidst the most scenic surroundings can make you grumpy!)
The experience of living together in splendid isolation strengthened their relationship. The years rolled by but there was never a question about whether it was the right place to be.
Life was simple but fulfilling.
"Although simplicity is a very relative term, I believe being simple brings a lot of (inner) riches," says Mohit. "Depending on one's perspective, a dwelling can look like the house of a rich man or (that) of a man who's decided not to pursue more (material things in life)."
"I have friends who are at the peak of their careers, making several million dollars a year. For them, my lifestyle might (seem like) deprivation ? At the same time, to others who have even less, my lifestyle may seem like opulence."
Living in the mountains made Mohit realign his materialistic coordinates. He realised how little people really need to be happy. And how having an abundance of things could ultimately turn out to be irrelevant to happiness.
The mountains have taught him the same lesson they have been teaching others for centuries - the simpler your life, the less stressful it is. If you spend less time chasing 'things', says Mohit, it leaves you with more time for people and relationships - and these pursuits make a person more responsive and flexible to the vicissitudes of life.
Back to the big smoke
In early 2000, when their son was just over a year old, Premila first contemplated returning to Delhi. She had two reasons for doing so: first, for the sake of their son. He needed a more rigorous education. He also needed peer interaction that would be important for his all-round character development. Second, if she needed to retread the career path, she would have to do it now, not later.
But Mohit resisted the idea. The truth was, they were extremely happy in Satoli. But Premila was considering the practical aspects to her, and her son's future.Another three years went by and this time, Mohit agreed to Premila's request and the family moved back to Delhi in April 2003.
"A decision (was) taken to return and it was important for us to make the most of it," Mohit says.
"But we know that we have a home where it really matters. In fact, we return to Satoli at least three or four times a year. Last year, we bought some more land in the vicinity and built a rather conventional cottage. We see ourselves living there in the long run, once Kedar grows up and is on his own."
Life after the mountains
But the move to the bright lights has been purely a linear one in many ways. Deep down in the mind and heart, the tectonic emotion- and value-based plate shifts that took place in the hills have redefined forever their approach to life and living.
The giddy parties, the non-stop cocktail chatter, the sequins and sequences of material progress leave Mohit with a sense of disconnect. Today, the circle is complete for him. Before he set off to the hills, he found himself constantly questioning the white noise of society. Now he knows why he was questioning it in the first place.
Mohit has had a long association with Delhi Flour Mills and Inlingua (language centre) in Delhi. While living in Satoli, he still did a little advisory work, occasionally visiting their offices in Delhi. Since returning to the city, he carries out his consultancy work from home.
Premila, meanwhile, has taken up a job as a consultant for the World Bank in New Delhi. Kedar attends Mirambika School and Premila drops him to school on her way to work. She works half-day and picks up her son in the afternoon.
The transition, says Mohit, has been easy. "Everything happened so effortlessly. Plus, there was no anxiety or the stress of schedules that would make us run in three different directions."
Even today, their life follows a pattern set up when they were back in the hills. Every day, lunch is at home, as a family. Evenings are time for some swimming, or simply spending togetherness time.
"These days, I generally stay put at home. So anyone who wants me to work on a project contacts me. I have put together that kind of a scenario for myself consciously. There are more meetings conducted over the telephone than the formal, sit-down-everybody-and-let's-talk kind."
Aside from his consultancy, Mohit is an observer and an evaluator for the Delhi-based Sir Ratan Tata Trust, a foundation that supports non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Liberty Institute and Centre for Civil Liberties.
In 1987, Mohit and his younger sister, Kanika, started a programme called Nukkad, which organises plays for street children who dwell in and around the New Delhi Railway Station.
By 1989, it had grown significantly. Among those who supported them were theatre director Barry John and Sonjoy Roy, who looked after its administrative affairs. After a while, it came under the auspices of the Theatre Action Group which, in turn, took shape as the Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO. Over the years, Mohit has been a board member and adviser for these groups.
He is also chairman of Teamwork Films, a production company he and a friend founded in 1989 that today is an arts event management company.
Inspired by his love for the mountains, Mohit has also written a coffee-table book, Nepal (Roli Books).
Indeed, life is quite what he wanted to make of it. And he has no regrets. "It's been rewarding in many ways," says Mohit. "The real thing," according to him, "is happiness."
Thanks to the instinct he followed, today he has the choice to "just sit in front of the TV and watch stocks and news" if that's what he wants. On the other hand, "If I don't feel like doing anything, I can take it easy and not get worked up that whether I like it or not,
I have to go to office.
"Happiness cannot be described, it needs to be experienced," he says. "Today, if I am asked to take up a new assignment, my first question is: will I enjoy doing it? Only after that do I ask: are they going to pay me? With many people, it is the other way round."
Feeling content with oneself
Mohit admits his financial security enabled him to take the risk of heading off into the hills. Having said that however, he clarifies; "One man's financial goal may be R10 million. Another's R100 million. We have to decide for ourselves what our individual goals are.
"I know of people who have taken similar decisions in life with even less money. For a lot of people, money is not the bottom line. It is the resilience to accept change."
The other important aspect of life he understood more deeply was the relationship between self and society.
"Most of us tend to be preoccupied with how others see us, rather than how we see ourselves. And it becomes very important for us to know (what) they think about us. Whenever we meet someone, our second question to them is, 'What do you do?'
"When I am asked this question today, I say, 'Nothing.' Most people do not know how to deal with my reply. 'What do you mean?' they ask. People think I am trying to be facetious. It's difficult to make them understand that life is not all about doing, it's about living.
"All the time, you have to define yourself by what you do and not by whether you are happy with life or not. Your job designation becomes a part of your identity. So, what you are to the rest of the world, so you become to yourself too," he says.
He, for one, vows not to let that identity crisis rule his life again. And he is grateful to the mountains for having taught him that unforgettable lesson.