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Moving to a Quieter Life

IT'S going to be difficult for you in Allahabad," said Roshan. We were sitting around - friends all - enjoying our Sunday afternoon in a newly opened ice cream parlor in New Delhi's downtown.I had accepted a curatorial post in a museum at Allahabad, a quiet small-sized city in the north Indian plains, 404 miles east of crowded, bustling Delhi. Roshan, aware of my metropolitan upbringing, was expressing his concern about difficulties of adjusting to what he thought would be "a slower pace of life." Though I felt a rush of apprehension at Roshan's words, I didn't budge. There were things out there I wanted to see and experience, to know the raw reality of the land firsthand, not just by way of television and news magazines. Of course, arriving at the decision had not been easy. Fierce arguments wracked me as I initiated change. There were long reflective walks. I finally persuaded myself, putting the big-city lights behind me, turning my enthusiasms to new expectations, exploring for buried cities, trekking along the Ganges River... . I remember it was raining in Allahabad when my train arrived. Coming out of the railway station I saw scores of bicycle-rickshaws huddled close in the drizzle, patiently waiting for the ferry. Their stretched canvas awnings gleamed wet in the pale light. I had taken one of them to the museum. Though the rickshaw was being pedaled vigorously along, it seemed that so many long minutes were squandered before a distant traffic circle neared. Used to being propelled by the internal com- bustion engine, I had chafed with impatience on top of the muscle-driven contraption. Later I was to be grateful to the rickshaw's subdued pace, getting all the time in the world to see, as I passed it by, the details of a lovely sandstone cathedral with its ornate balustrades, Gothic turrets, and windowpanes stained red and gold. Work in the museum was interesting. I would be busy one day in the library, immersed in long solitary hours of studying architectural features and ground plans of old temples. The next morning might be spent with the carpenter discussing the framing of a new set of paintings, or I could be seen taking schoolchildren around the galleries. Yet, in the reflective quiet between assignments, in lunch hours and during lonely evening meanderings along the riverside, I would think of friends and home. Then I met Phoolchand. He was teaching Russian at the local university. The Soviets were putting up an exhibition on Tolstoy in the museum and Phoolchand was on a month-long contract with us as an interpreter. We were introduced to each other on a particularly busy afternoon. In the tremulous air of a fast-approaching deadline, there was just enough time for quick handshakes, apologetic smiles. Later in the evening, with the team packing up for the day, Phoolchand came around. I was surprised to see him. I thought he had gone. "Would you like to join me for a cup of coffee," he said. WE headed for the center of town, me riding pillion on his scooter. As we zipped through pleasant tree-lined lanes flanked by dignified colonial-style bungalows, Phoolchand chatted over his shoulder, pointing out landmarks, telling me about the flea market behind the big medieval fort. Our conversation continued in the municipal Coffee House, a cavernous hall within a Georgian mansion where many fans whirled. I quite enjoyed Phoolchand's company and his puckish humor. I sensed the beginnings of a friend ship. Somewhere along the way I sloughed off old skin. Fresh concerns drew me. I taught kids to care for vulnerable monuments and participated in mass planting of eucalyptus saplings on the mud embankments along the Ganges. There were hitherto unseen curiosities to enjoy. On early mornings I often cycled up to the white concrete bridge over the Ganges to watch the camels coming in with stately strides, carrying their cargoes of green watermelons. In the orchards around Allahabad it was fascinating to see mango trees almost bereft of trunks, their low, leafy branches seeming to erupt straight from the earth. I had thought guavas were yellow until I saw the special Allahabad variety - red as apples. Change was silent, subterranean. Once, on a visit to Delhi, I lay awake one night, unable to sleep. Then, with abrupt clarity, I knew the reason for my insomnia. It was the dull roar of night traffic from the distant highway. I had got used to the long quiets of Allahabad's nocturnal hours. Far from the growl and rumble of metropolitan intensity my ears had now attuned to different rhythms, new harmonies - river pebbles crunching under foot, the million splatters of monsoon rains, the rustle of wind thro ugh sugarcane fields. I got engaged. When Charu - my fiancee - and I began to contemplate matrimony, I decided to move out of my small rented flat into a more spacious habitat. Phoolchand told me about a first-floor accommodation being let out. I took Charu along to have a look. It turned out to be the upper story of an elegant bungalow in an old, settled area and we fell in love with it. A solitary date palm waved green against the pale yellow limewash. The veranda, shaped like an exotic proscenium, projected deep into the l awn. The whole scene was as if a black and white photograph from an old family album had come alive in color. Here we started our home. We shifted in after the nuptials, settling in three high-ceilinged rooms adjoining the roof. It was a large roof with a squat defunct chimney in the middle covered with a concrete slab. The chimney cover made an ideal makeshift table on which we would sometimes have our evening tea or dinner, sitting under the stars. I created a study in one of the rooms, spreading out my collection of ancient pottery and fixing the field maps on the walls. Charu, a botanist by training, make it her home laboratory, growing exotic plants in small pots. Together, we worked out our new beginning. It's been three years since I moved out of Delhi. On occasional sojourns to my parent's home there, we savor the delights of big-city life: tasting delectable offerings in a Hungarian Food Week organized by an international hotel chain, watching Marlowe's "Tamerlane" staged in Hindi by the National School of Drama repertory, soaking in good jazz provided by a visiting Royal Canadian Mounted Police band. ... We meet old friends. Roshan wonders why I still haven't come back. Delhi does tempt, I admit, but when I think of my museum where so much has to be done, of Charu's plants growing and those peaceful hours of reflection, I feel I have stumbled upon something precious out there, something to do with living life as one desires it and feeling good deep inside.

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