Where the Peacocks Sing
A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home
By Alison Singh Gee
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Alison Singh Gee
All rights reserved.
Fear of Flying
I never knew peacocks could fly.
I never knew they could do much of anything. As a child growing up in Northeast Los Angeles, I only ever saw them at the botanical gardens in Pasadena or roaming the zoo. They were stunning birds, with their built-in tiaras and show-off coloring. But let's face it: They seemed pretty useless. Waddling across manicured lawns, admiring flowers, plopping their fat stomachs onto grassy patches in the shade, these pampered birds only broke a sweat when the garden groundskeeper rang the dinner bell. Peacocks were charming but relatively pointless, flashing their plumage like a socialite working her best fur and jewels, and that's all.
Or so I thought.
My understanding of peacocks was about to take a quantum leap.
I was sitting on the terrace of a palace in India. This was not some trussed-up five-star hotel in a commercialized Indian city, lousy with Patagonia-clad tourists. This was the ancestral home that had belonged to my fiancé Ajay's family for the past century, and it was the kind of regal spread you'd find in a Merchant Ivory film — huge, awe-inspiring, and vibrating with legacy. The house stood like a porcelain deity in the middle of a lush and flowering village called Mokimpur, which is also the name the Singh family gave the house. Ajay had spent much of his childhood at this magnificent residence, playing hide-and-seek in its hundred rooms, racing his village friends along the river, and jumping into the deep, cool reservoir when the summer heat became unbearable.
With its fragrant mango groves, silent skies, and choruses of songbirds and screeching parrots, Mokimpur was about as different from my hometown as the moon. Later, when I looked at a globe and placed my finger on Northern India, I realized that Ajay's tiny village sat almost literally on the opposite side of the sphere from where I grew up. But it's not like I needed a map to tell me what I already knew in my heart.
As an American journalist based in Hong Kong, my life was anything but placid, predictable, or comforting. My cell phone buzzed every two minutes; I had a half-dozen deadlines to meet every day, and a whirling social world that included lots of good friends (most of whose last names I somehow never quite learned). Hong Kong, the futuristic gateway to the East, had skyscrapers instead of trees, subway platforms instead of terraces, daredevil taxis instead of slow-moving yaks. Lunch was often a bowl of noodles eaten standing up; dinner, cocktail party hors d'oeuvres and a lethal gin and tonic. (Breakfast wasn't actually in my vocabulary — I usually jumped out of bed at the blast of the alarm clock, wriggled into a dress, strapped on some heels, and dashed out the door.) In this insanely built-up, inhumanly crowded place, where apartment towers seemingly sprang up overnight like bamboo, the locals liked to say that the national bird was the jackhammer.
Not so in Mokimpur.
It was my first week in India. Ajay and I were idling over steaming cups of chai and plates heaped with mouthwatering veg pakora, deepfried cauliflower, onions, potatoes, and carrots with a spiced, crispy coating. Three servants dressed in kurtas and loose cotton pants ferried about filling teacups and delivering fresh chutney and hot samosas. As Ajay and I lounged on the veranda, I watched dozens of wild peacocks, shrieking with glee as they glided from mango tree to neem tree, streaking the sky with their over-the-top rainbow colors.
Peacocks, not jackhammers, are the national bird of India. Here they were almost unrecognizable to me, not at all like their L.A. cousins. Indian peacocks were tenacious and fierce, agile and vocal. Roaming wild in the villages, these birds were just like the people — warriors in the primordial battle for survival. I watched them in the middle distance and shook my head. "All this time I thought they were ground dwellers," I said to Ajay. "Who knew these humongous things could jet through the trees like that?"
"This is India," Ajay said. "We do whatever we need to do to survive — if that means flying, we fly." He took a sip of his chai and tilted his head. "An Indian peacock can kill a baby cobra in thirty seconds flat. Their beaks are laser sharp. Before the snake knows what's happened, it's been sliced into a pile of sashimi." He looked dashing in his white kurta pajama suit, and worlds apart from any man I'd ever dated.
Suddenly, we heard a great flapping of wings and a thud so loud it caused us to turn in our chairs. Two peahens and a peacock had landed on the veranda ledge, a few feet from where we sat. They jumped down and, like plump gymnasts, bounded over and pranced around us. Their giant bodies wobbled on sinewy legs that looked like they'd done their share of kicking other pheasant ass. The birds turned their faces to the sky and let out a series of shrieks. I covered my ears and winced.
"What in God's name are they doing?" I asked.
"They're dancing in the sun to keep themselves warm," Ajay explained, wrapping a shatoosh around his neck. "They move around all day in packs foraging for seeds in the fields, searching for rain."
"But why are they crying like that?" I asked.
"They're not crying," Ajay said. "They're singing. They're excited because they think they hear thunder, and thunder means rain. You should hear them go at it when a jet flies overhead. They scream as if an apocalypse has come to the village."
I couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor birds, because the modern world had confused their primal instincts so much. It wasn't rain that was coming whenever they heard a boom in the sky; it was just another planeload of tourists, hoping to find cheap handicrafts and an unspoiled stretch of beach on the Subcontinent. I also felt a little disheartened at my own warped intuition: What sounded to me like cries of sadness were actually shrieks of glee. Maybe modern life in the big city had confused me, too. In Hong Kong, some nights I lay awake wondering if there was any escape in the world from flashing neon signs and construction rubble.
Just as quickly as they had landed, the peacocks took off into the sky, rising swiftly above the trees, over the palace wall and into the farmland beyond. I sprang up to watch them as they flapped out of sight. Indian peacocks did not just fly. They soared.
* * *
All my life, I had been a bona fide city girl, a creature of the first world at its commercial finest. After college in California, I had gone to graduate school in London, and now I lived in Hong Kong, the Orient's Manhattan, only four times as fast. I worked as a journalist for Time Inc., jetting throughout Asia on assignment. My days began with The New York Times and a latte from the Pacific Coffee Company in Wanchai, and often ended at a crowded cocktail party in the city or at a catered dinner fete on a Chinese junk, cruising Victoria Harbour.
India was never part of my life plan. After all, it sat on the other side of the world, some nine thousand miles from Los Angeles — the chaotic, dusty, and painfully poor side, I was sure. But since I'd met Ajay, everything in my life had changed. He not only loved his native land, he belonged to it. He had an almost primal attachment to his home village and the family palace that rose from the wheat fields.
"No matter where I go, where I live, or what I become, when I come back to Mokimpur, it's home like no other place," he explained to me. "I get an inexplicable feeling of peace here. If I ever reached a breaking point in our life in Hong Kong or America I know I could return to Mokimpur and recover. I wouldn't need to do anything or talk to anyone. I would just need to stay here and reestablish my connection with the land."
I had never felt that way about any place before. Home for me was always a backdrop for chaos and pain. A place to run from, not to. Part of me admired, or maybe I should say envied, Ajay's unshakable attachment to his village. Another part of me lusted after the palace's hundred rooms and the fabulous makeover I knew I could give it. And the deepest part of me wondered if this could be my home, too.
In the days to come, I would learn that life here was about hours of silence, sipping chai and contemplating the clouds. The main events of the day were family meals, three-hour lunches that broke up only when it was time for tea. We would take afternoon ambles along the village river and eat our dinners by kerosene lamp. While the servants tidied up the kitchen, we were free to sit around talking with the family for hours or read stacks of books by candlelight, stretched out in the big four-poster wooden bed that once belonged to Ajay's great-grandfather.
While all this might sound idyllic, I truly did not know if this was what I wanted, if this could ever be what I wanted. Life here was just so drastically different from the overscheduled, underexamined existence I had gotten accustomed to living. In Mokimpur, my motor shifted to idle. In my normal life my brain threatened to explode with ideas and details and the more-than-occasional anxiety attack; here it seemed to go on strike. Now on my fourth cup of chai, I took in the scene in the fields — a row of villagers sheathed in saffron- and ruby-colored saris plucking mangoes from a shady grove. Then I turned and suddenly caught sight of my image in one of the haveli windows. Mokimpur's all-day dress code was homespun cotton kurta pajamas, but I had put on a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, suede platforms, and Kate Spade sunglasses. I laughed at my reflection. I looked like a wannabe starlet cast in the wrong destiny. My mind knew me as corporate girl, first-world chick, habitué of Philippe Starck–designed bars.
But my soul seemed to be opening itself up to some other identity. "Holy cow," I whispered to myself. My heart raced. I took off my shades and ran my hands through my shoulder-length hair.
If I were Alice falling through the looking glass, Mokimpur is where I would land. A frisson of panic coursed through me. "What exactly am I doing in this Indian village?" I muttered to Ajay.
He laughed and reached for my hand. "You're here to learn to milk cows and collect eggs from underneath hens in the coop. To wake to the chatter of wild parrots, not CNN. To taste a mango plucked straight from the tree. To learn that real meals take hours to make, not thirty seconds in the microwave." He was on a roll and he knew it. "You're here to forget about your cell phone and your Mac laptop," he continued. "Maybe you're here to learn the real rhythm of the earth. It's not staying out dancing until five in the morning, you know. That's actually when most of the villagers get up." Right on cue, a peacock landed on the terrace, shook his feathers, lifted his head, and shrieked, as if echoing Ajay's soliloquy.
I looked at Ajay quizzically, but he hadn't even registered the bird. His face was as calm and content as I'd ever seen it. So I allowed myself to wonder what Mokimpur could mean to me.
My heart told me I had arrived here for a reason. Maybe I could bring new life to the palace. And I had the feeling that Mokimpur could offer me something essential and precious in exchange. An escape from the twenty-first century? A place to call home? Or maybe the palace could send earthbound me into flight.
I didn't even know I was searching for anyone or anything when I found Ajay. Or at least I never admitted that much to myself. During my first few years in Hong Kong, I didn't have a lot to complain about. I had a great job, an eccentric, well-heeled boyfriend, and an East-West mien that got me into every club in town. "Live it up" was practically my personal mantra. I socialized with other privileged expatriates, held court over scones and jasmine tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and could count on one hand the number of times I had cooked myself a meal at my little flat. I was out almost every night, tottering about town on four-inch heels, fabulizing until I had to hail a cab home and flop into bed.
As a popular columnist and features writer for the Sunday magazine of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's big English-language newspaper, I juggled a full roster of sometimes adventurous, sometimes worthy, often shamelessly glamorous stories. One day I might be interviewing Gong Li on the set of her latest Beijing film or hanging out with Jackie Chan at the Peninsula Hotel. On another day, I might be following a prominent politician back to her Sichuan family village.
More relevantly, I was dating Nigel, a British fund manager who lived in a rambling flat with a view of the South China Sea. Nigel was perfect on paper: dashing, Oxford educated, and a finance whiz on his way up. He lavished me with Hermès scarves and weekends in Bali. In other words, I was set. Or so I thought.
Once the six o'clock bell rang at work, Nigel and I moved through Hong Kong as if we were living on a cruise ship, supping nightly at Felix or the China Club, or sailing on a moonlit Victoria Harbour on his firm's boat. When we met at his home after work, his Thai amah whipped up pad thai and crab curry. If it was too humid to play outside, I rollerbladed around the flat's expansive living room instead.
My closet was jam-packed with little black dresses and beaded purses. My bathroom drawers overflowed with NARS lipstick, Vamp nail polish, and hangover cures. Indeed, practically every cent I made as a journalist fueled my wardrobe and personal maintenance fund. I'm embarrassed to admit this now, but I left it to Nigel to pick up the tab for the rest of our life.
And yet I just wasn't happy.
On the rare occasion when I sat still for longer than a minute, my heart would tell me something was truly not right. Something was missing from my all too spectacular life. Something profound.
Something I could not figure out. All my life I had gotten the message that "making it" meant being rich, pampered, and beautiful — wasn't that what the pages of Vogue were all about? Oh sure, there were other images between the glossy covers, but the photographs of the enchanting, chic, and materially blessed were the ones that spoke to me. So many of the young women I knew in Hong Kong and Los Angeles basically followed the same credo, so how far wrong could I have gotten it? And yes, nights out with Nigel in this exotic city were dazzling, and I took it as an affirmation of just how successful I had become that le tout Hong Kong wanted us over for dinner or out on their Sunday junk trip.
We were rarely alone, and that was by design — both of ours, I now see. I realized that Nigel often clung to me most when his old school friends salivated over my latest Armani minidress or my Phuket Yacht Club tan. And no matter how grand a time we had had at the latest expat fete, we couldn't often share a party postmortem on the way home in the cab. By the end of the night, Nigel was often in a fog, having had his fill of the expat revelry that followed his twelve-hour workdays. We never woke before 11 A.M. on Sunday, unless, of course, there was another party to go to. Once, the "orgasm parrots" — wild cockatiels whose screams were so loud they could be heard a mile away — dared to begin their chant in the early hours. Nigel often joked that he'd send the amah outside to throw rocks at them in the trees.
It wasn't just the noisy birds that Nigel loathed. If I ever turned up to an event or dinner party looking anything less than stunning, he thought little of shooting a verbal barb my way. "You've been looking rather shabby lately, my dear," he said one night as he gave my thrown-together outfit and last year's heels a once-over. I could feel the chilly disapproval emanating from his stare. "Look at Helen," he said, as his eyes glided over to a friend of mine, turned out beautifully in a Vivienne Tam sheath and Prada heels. "Now, that's a good woman."
"How dare you," I hissed as I pushed past him and ran off. I spent the next hour in the powder room — thirty minutes bawling and then another thirty trying to repair the damage to my eye makeup. That night, I went back to my own small flat in the Chinese part of town — alone.
What can I say? Nigel and I enjoyed gossiping about other expats in our circle — who had a mistress in Shenzhen, who got the unceremonious boot from the Deacons firm, who got a botched nose job in Seoul, who picked up syphilis in Bangkok — but we never once mused about the children we would have, the home we would build, how we would look when our hair had turned gray and our magnificence had faded. At least not together.
A lasting revelation came one day after I returned home from the HMV Megastore in Central, the business district. I had picked up a Chieftains CD and stuck it in the stereo. Nigel loved the Irish band — he said their Celtic tunes transported him to the U.K. The next day, he ran down to HMV and bought his own copy. After he had gone to bed, I thought about that small act of retail glee and realized something essential. Nigel needed his own copy because, clearly, our record collections were never going to join together in holy matrimony. And neither were we. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Where the Peacocks Sing by Alison Singh Gee. Copyright © 2013 Alison Singh Gee. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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