From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Greengage Summer: Two English sisters’ lives are transformed when their father brings them to India.
At fifteen and twelve, the daughters of Sir Edward Gwithiam of the diplomatic service have already seen more of the world than most children their age. But when Una and her younger sister, Halcyon, are summoned from their English boarding school to join their father in New Delhi, they encounter a reality unlike anything they have ever experienced.
For Hal, India is a glorious adventure, filled with exotic sights and sounds, and a host of interesting new people. But Una feels like an outsider in this world of ingrained racial prejudice and cultural elitism left over from the days of the British Raj. Though no longer a child, she is expected to submit to the will of a Eurasian governess, the calculating and beautiful Alix Lamont, whose relationship with the girls’ father appears more intimate and troubling than merely employee–employer.
Then Ravi, a young Indian gardener, brings a welcome light into Una’s life, relieving her sadness and loneliness with poetry and compassion. But what begins as a simple friendship soon blossoms into a love forbidden by society, threatening to end in scandal and disaster.
Based in part on Rumer Godden’s personal experiences and informed by her love of the Indian continent, where she spent the better part of her early life, The Peacock Spring is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel of loss of innocence and coming-of-age from the acclaimed author of Black Narcissus and The River.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of the author including rare images from the Rumer Godden Literary Estate.
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About the Author
Rumer Godden (1907–1998) was the author of more than sixty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature, and is considered by many to be one of the foremost English language writers of the twentieth century. Born in Sussex, England, she moved with her family to Narayanganj, colonial India, now Bangladesh, when she was six months old. Godden began her writing career with Chinese Puzzle in 1936 and achieved international fame three years later with her third book, Black Narcissus. A number of her novels were inspired by her nearly four decades of life in India, including The River, Kingfishers Catch Fire, Breakfast with the Nikolides, and her final work, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva, published in 1997. She returned to the United Kingdom for good at the end of World War II and continued her prolific literary career with the acclaimed novels The Greengage Summer, In This House of Brede, and numerous others. Godden won the Whitbread Award for children’s literature in 1972, and in 1993 she was named an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Nine of her novels have been made into motion pictures. She died at the age of ninety in Dumfriesshire, UK.
Read an Excerpt
The Peacock Spring
By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Rumer Godden
All rights reserved.
Ganesh, the old gardener at Shiraz Road, was showing Ravi, the young gardener, how to sow the summer seeds.
'What, more flowers!' Ravi's expression had said. This Delhi garden was already full of them: turrets of roses, long beds of more roses, all now in their second flush: borders of delphiniums and lupins, snapdragons, petunias, dianthus, stocks; English flowers, most of them unfamiliar to Ravi, though he knew pansies and, of course, knew the creepers that flowered over walls, summer house and pavilion – scarlet bunches of clerodendron, blue trumpets of morning glory and, everywhere, bougainvillaea cream, pink, magenta and crimson. Bowls of narcissi, growing in pebbles, were carried into the house for which, each morning, Ganesh arranged a score of flower vases. Pots of carnations were ranged on the steps and along the paths and, in the cut-flower garden, shielded by jasmine hedges from what Ganesh called the 'show-garden', were cornflowers, poppies, sweet sultan, sweet peas.
Ganesh always gave these a double 's' like a hiss – 'Ssweet ssultan,' 'ssweet pea'; Ravi, who could pronounce them perfectly, did not name them at all; he worked mostly in silence. Now he was dribbling the seeds two or three at a time into the drills he had made in shallow earthenware pans. The seeds were nicotiana and portulaca to bloom in the hot weather. Ravi had not seen their flowers either but when they were sown he would lift the pans on to the slatted shelves of the seed house he and Ganesh had built last October, a small bamboo house on stilts; every evening its roof of mats would be rolled back so that the seedlings could have the cool air and morning dew; by day they would be shaded from the sun. Ravi had learnt how to water the minuscule plants by dipping a leaf in water and shaking it over them – the finest watering-can nozzle, Ganesh had told him, would give jets too strong.
It was oddly delicate work for such a big young man and Ravi's hands were not deft; Ganesh often frowned as he watched him at work. 'Beta – son,' he said. 'You could do anything,' meaning Ravi should do something else, but Ravi had paid fifty rupees to Ganesh – 'tea money' – to get this post, and so he only smiled his absent smile, absent because his thoughts were far away. 'You are educated.' Ganesh said it almost as an accusation. 'You are much educated.'
'Am I?' Ravi did not contradict; nor did he say that the attraction of gardening was that he could be a gardener with his hands, his back and strong legs, keeping his mind for his own. Ravi was the 'chota mali' – 'chota', in his case, meaning not 'little' but 'lesser'; if he had been the 'burra mali' or head gardener like Ganesh, he would have had to think, plan, decide, take responsibility; as it was, he could dig and weed unworried, squatting on his heels with the sun on his back – if he were alone in the garden he worked only in a loincloth – carry water, flail the dew from the lawns with bamboo rods so that the sun would not scald the precious grass. He would sow seeds that would grow, minding their own business, into their own beauty; a few would never quicken or would have their first shootings overcome; some would wither. 'If they must, they must,' said Ravi.
'But you must sow them as carefully as you can,' said Hemango Sharma who was Ravi's best – perhaps now his only – friend.
Hem was always anxious. 'Should you not,' he had asked, 'change your name?' but Ravi had only laughed. 'I am Ravi Bhattacharya, good or bad. Let them do as they like.'
'You do not know what it is they do,' Hem had said roughly.
'I don't want to know,' said Ravi.
'And I don't want to talk about it, but remember young Injit and Prasad are both still in prison,' and Hem had walked away to the lower garden among the baskets and hoses and humble earthenware pots which somehow calmed him.
Shiraz Road was one of the wide tree-shaded roads of New Delhi with spacious houses and flowered, fountained roundabouts; an oasis in the India of struggle and striving with which Hem was concerned; misery, privation, slums, disease – 'Particularly disease,' said Ravi – but in this protected world of No. 40 Shiraz Road and its like, if there were a drought the fountains still played, 'Though only for a time,' said Hem. 'There will be an electricity strike.' Though there was famine in the country, the Delhi ladies still went to Connaught Place to buy cherry cake and canapés for their parties, 'Again, not for long,' said Hem. 'There will be riots.' 'It has always been like this,' said Ravi. 'That's what makes it so peaceful here.'
'Once you, too, wanted it broken.'
'I know better now.'
'Or worse.' Hem gave a sigh. Then he said, 'At least nothing – and no one – can interrupt you here,' and, Presently, when it is dark, thought Hem, you, Ravi, will stand and stretch your six-foot strength and go to your hut at the end of the garden – Hem always seemed able to see Ravi's every movement. You will wash at the courtyard tap, pouring water over yourself from your lota, then put on a clean loincloth, a singlet or muslin shirt, eat with your fingers those chapattis – soft wheat biscuit-bread – and the vegetables and lentil sauce I insist you buy, then you can light your lamp and, if the writing comes to you, write. 'If it does not come, never mind; it will come tomorrow,' Ravi would have said. Hem often thought Ravi did not fret or despair enough to be what Hem thought of as a true poet, but there are poets and poets and Ravi would sit on the floor at his table, which was an old school desk with the legs sawn off, until he was tired, then sleep on his charpoy, the cheapest native string bed. 'You need not be quite so simple,' said Hem, but simplicity was the present fetish. 'You make a romance of everything,' complained Hem.
'Of course,' said Ravi. Perhaps his poem would wake him in the night, perhaps not, but presently, in time, a poem whole and new would come. Even now, as his fingers pressed the seeds into their pit of earth – 'Too deep,' Ganesh would have groaned – words were beginning to form themselves in Ravi's head. Like a seed, a poem had a miraculous power of growth, 'Except flowers are more certain,' said Hem.
Ravi knew Hem gave him these pricks only to spur him on – and would not be spurred. 'Sust – lazy,' Hem would fling at him.
'Chalta purza – busybody,' Ravi would fling back, then put his arm round the shoulders of his friend. I am so plain, thought Hem, so dark-skinned against your height and fairness – 'Complexion of bright wheat,' the admiring girls who had known him said of Ravi, said it usually to Hem. Ravi, though, had no use for girls. 'I have never seen one that I liked. When I do ...'
'Some idealized model of a damn Rajput princess, I suppose,' said Hem.
'Come, make peace,' said Ravi, who could be irresistibly winning. 'Cease teasing me and I won't tease you. What is there to worry about?'
'You may yet be dismissed,' said Hem.
'Not very well.' Ravi was calm. 'This is an United Nations house. They might dismiss one of their own people, but not one of us.'
'Unless you are as usual unusually foolish.'
'Granny Hem,' teased Ravi, but Hem was right; Ravi himself never knew when he might become restless. 'To be at the beck and call of one man,' he grumbled.
'Not one man,' said Hem. 'Four years ago it was the French delegate who lived here; last year it was the great Mr Svend Ramussen; now it is this new Secretary for the First Asian Common Market Conference, Sir Edward Gwithiam. Next year, who knows? They cannot much interfere,' and it was true Ravi had only seen the English Sir Edward as a small colourless man in the distance in the upper garden or on the verandah of the house. 'The house is the United Nations,' Hem insisted.
'And there is no Mem,' Ganesh would have added with satisfaction. Ganesh knew that Memsahibs, Indian or Western, white, brown, black or yellow, could disrupt even a nation; at present, No. 40 Shiraz Road was blissfully at peace.
Then, one day in late January, news filtered from the house servants to the gardeners that soon there would be a Mem – 'A sort of Mem,' said Ganesh. Two Miss-babas, Sir Edward's children, were coming from England. 'They will play ball,' said Ganesh in dread. 'They will be noisy and ride their bicycles over our flowers' beds.'
'These are not our flowerbeds.' Another fetish was that Ravi did not wish to own anything.
'It is many years since we had babas here,' said Ram Chand, the old bearer, and the house was in a ferment of excitement. Ravi did not care either way; the children of Sir Edward were nothing to do with him. He was cleaning out the pavilion lily pool and, now the fountain had been turned off, could see his reflection among the goldfish. Ravi's hair was long to his neck and he had stuck a frangipani flower in it, just behind his ear. 'Are you a Santali maiden in the marriage market?' He could imagine Hem's caustic remark, but the effect of the deep-cream petals against the well-oiled black pleased Ravi mightily.
Bonfires! Nothing but bonfires! Hal Gwithiam wrote in her diary. Such a deal of wonder has broken out within this hour! The Winter's Tale was much in Hal's head; the school was doing it for the end-of-term play and Hal was playing Perdita – was to have played Perdita, she corrected herself, because nothing but bonfires! Crackers sent for Una and me. Crackers was their headmistress, Mrs Carrington. We have been back at school two days, only two days, she wrote, but he has written to say we are to leave at once and go out to him in Delhi – saved from this horrid old dump. 'He' was her father, Sir Edward Gwithiam; the 'dump' was Cerne, one of England's most distinguished schools – and one of the most expensive, as Great-Aunt Frederica continually reminded them. 'It costs Edward more than a thousand a year to keep each of you there.' Yet money alone could not get a girl in. 'There has to be some ability,' as dry Mrs Carrington said. Hal guessed she would not have qualified if it were not for Edward's name and the fact that he was abroad – 'And his high position,' said Great-Aunt Freddie. It was also because Una was there, 'And Una has brains.' Hal did not say it enviously – and, too, Hal had no mother; 'No mother at home,' said Hal. Una had had another mother, Kate, who had died when Una was born.
At Cerne, though, Hal had won her way as she always did. Had she not been chosen as Perdita – 'the prettiest low-born lass that ever ran on the green-sward'? She supposed she was low-born compared to Una and she was certainly pretty – 'too pretty for your own good,' said Great-Aunt Freddie. Hal did not see why; so far it had done her nothing but good. Hal's real name was Halcyon. 'Sir Edward must have his foolish moments,' said Mrs Carrington, 'to saddle a girl with a name like that!' Yet Hal was not saddled: she was her name, with a nature that was halcyon, a warm insouciance that made her popular and charmed the most cynical of teachers. Now she looked down at her copy of The Winter's Tale, marked for the part of Perdita:
When you speak, sweet,
I'ld have you do it ever; when you sing,
I'ld have you buy and sell so ...
When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that ...
and Hal knew that fitted her as perfectly as it fitted Perdita.
Do they have sward in Delhi? she wondered. The postcards Edward had sent – Why only postcards? There used to be long letters – showed carved red sandstone buildings, a blue-domed mosque – 'The famous Delhi blue,' Una had told her – or a frangipani tree – 'The flowers have a heady strong scent.' Una, as a baby, had been in India and could just remember it.
There was a postcard of a snake charmer; a cavalry soldier on a camel; another of a bullock cart on a dusty road and there was one of a peacock – they abound round Delhi, wrote Edward. After two years of Cerne, Hal ached to be abroad again. True, Edward had written they would have a governess; that was certainly the ignominious fly in the ointment but Hal hastened to reassure herself. Of course she will only be for lessons which I suppose we must have ... and, Nothing but bonfires! Then Hal stopped writing.
Under the elms and chestnuts of the park where Cerne's own sward, kempt and smooth, was criss-crossed by gravel paths, a figure was walking alone in the January cold; she was wrapped in the long green cloak all the girls wore in winter when they went between their houses and the main school; this figure, Hal's familiar from her earliest days, was not going anywhere, but pacing, withdrawn, and so solitary that, even in her tumultuous joy, Hal paused.
When they had come out of Crackers's study, Una had been so silent that Hal paused before she rushed away. 'To tell everyone,' as she said.
'Una, you are pleased?'
'I thought I had three years,' said Una.
'But ... you are pleased.'
'Oh Una! You must be. Think – Delhi and here!'
'I happen to like it here.'
'You can't. Not compared ...' Then Hal beseeched, 'Una – why?'
'Here it's ... orderly.' Una could explain no more than that.
'You needn't go back to your classes,' Mrs Carrington had said.
'No, it wouldn't be much use now, would it?' Una had agreed and, 'I'm going out,' she told Hal.
Watching the solitary, pacing figure, Hal knew there was no feeling of bonfires in her sister Una.
'Write to him,' suggested Mrs Carrington.
'I did, but I tore it up.'
It was not easy for a Cerne girl to see the headmistress; for most of them, Crackers was a figurehead, someone who, in her cap and gown, took assembly, sometimes gave lectures to the seniors and, on occasions, conducted the school orchestra, yet, mysteriously, Mrs Carrington knew her girls, all four hundred of them. She was often met with in unexpected places, did unexpected things, which perhaps had given Una the courage to go to her directly. Una had first, though, to pass the secretary whose desk was in an alcove outside the study door.
'Please may I see Mrs Carrington?'
The secretary had not been with Mrs Carrington for sixteen years – longer than Una had been alive – without learning something of her ways and, 'You are Una Gwithiam?' she asked.
'I think you may knock and go in.'
Now, 'You tore up your letter?' said Mrs Carrington. 'Why?'
Una's grey-green eyes did not baffle – did not deign to baffle, thought Mrs Carrington – as did the eyes of most young girls; they were honest, which was at variance with the half-mocking understatement, the shrug with which she usually hid her feelings. 'Surely that girl is uncommonly self-contained,' Mr Rattray who coached Una in mathematics had said.
'So would you be if you had spent most of your life in suitcases – metaphorically and actually,' said Mrs Carrington. In her time, the headmistress had known and assessed perhaps ten thousand girls, she thought a little wearily, and now she looked carefully at the one opposite her. Una's face was too long for beauty, but fine-boned, with a high forehead, a fine thoughtful forehead. This girl, given a chance, thought Mrs Carrington, might grow up to the nobility and integrity that, with a certain toughness, had made Sir Edward Gwithiam the notable diplomat he was; but perhaps, thought Mrs Carrington, there was only room in one family for one Sir Edward. Yet she had always thought of him as an attached, even a doting father; not six months ago he had been, proudly, she had thought, discussing Una's prospects of getting into university, though he obviously did not think as much of her quiet achievements as, for instance, he did of Hal's music. 'I want Hal to study with Signor Brazzi.'
'Such a little girl, Sir Edward?'
'Yes.' He had been firm but now had come this sudden veer of mind.
'Your father will have to pay a term's fees,' the other girls told Una and Hal. 'A whole term's fees for nothing.' Such an improvident impetuous parent was outside their comprehension, as was Una's reply.
'I don't suppose he knew that term had started.'
'Well, he has so much to think of, it's no wonder he had forgotten,' said Mrs Carrington.
But if he had forgotten, wasn't thinking of us, what made him suddenly decide to have us out? That was the puzzle Una would not put into words.
'Why did you tear up that letter?' Mrs Carrington asked again.
Excerpted from The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1979 Rumer Godden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Didn't even make sense. I read two chapters and gave up.