Creation and Criticism
a literary e-journal
Creation and Criticism
(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Tragic Pattern in Anita Desai’s Cry, the Peacock
S K Garg
The novel portrays the story of its heroine Maya, who suffers a tragic end due to temperamental incompatibility in married life. Being very sensitive by nature, she remains disgruntled in the company of her husband Gautama, who is utterly practical in his approach to the affairs of life. She feels suffocated in the intellectually-charged environment of her in-laws’ house because ‘she nourishes an inner world which is idyllic, romantic and easily vulnerable.’ As a result of the diametrically opposed temperaments, she becomes abnormal in her behavior and actions. In a fit of rage, rather madness, she first kills her husband by throwing him from the parapet and then commits suicide herself.
Key Words: Marital discord, tragic pattern, imprisoned self, temperamental incompatibility, lacerated psyche.
Anita Desai’s first novel Cry, the Peacock (1963) is woven round the story of its heroine Maya who meets tragic end due to unhappy married life. She is a highly sensitive woman caught up in a discordant marital relationship with her highly practical natured and effluent advocate husband, Gautama. The story is narrated by Maya herself who is disgruntled as a wife throughout her life in the company of her husband. The novelist has portrayed her as a childishly innocent and foolishly mature woman having a lacerated psyche “who is obsessed with a childhood prophecy of disaster and whose sensitivity is rendered in terms of immeasurable loneliness” (Pathak 20).
Maya and Gautama form an incompatible couple, not because of any material reason but because of the diametrically opposed attitudes that they hold towards life. Much of the fault lies with the highly protected upbringing of Maya at her father’s house as a child and as a grown up girl. Then her confrontation with an utterly practical and not-very-sensitive husband turns out to be a disaster for her. As a child, she has remained untouched by harsh realities of life. When she enters into a matrimonial tie with Gautama, she discovers that life is not a bed of roses, and freedom and satisfaction in conjugal love were not so easy to secure. Since she fails to grow out of her self-willed and mirth-loving nature, she remains in constant conflict with harsh realities of life. Being unable to bear the onslaughts of her tragic existence at her husband’s house, she becomes alienated from her environment, and slowly, becomes a victim of her own imprisoned self. She grumbles over her pitiable condition blaming her husband of total indifference and loveless attitude towards her.
The novel begins with the brief account of the death of Maya’s pet dog Toto. She loved the pet from her heart. The incident of its death stirs her sensitive mind badly. She brings to her mind the memories of the incident when she helplessly sat with the corpse lying under the tree and experienced a strange sense of horror at this. She also remembers the highly indifferent and insensitive attitude of her husband to the incident and how he ignored the whole affair by just saying, “you need a cup of tea” (Cry, the Peacock 08) Maya wonders how he so easily tried to brush aside the incident which mattered so much to her. She is deeply hurt by the attitude of her husband who maintained the calm posture of a yogi unaffected by any sense of sorrow. She feels utterly lonely even in the company of her husband. The novelist remarks:
Yes…yes, it is his hardness-no, no not hardness, but the distance he coldly keeps from me. His coldness, his coldness, and incessant talk of cups of tea and philosophy in order to hear my talk and, talking reveal myself. It is that-my loneliness in the house (Cry, the Peacock 09)
The death of Toto is, perhaps, one of the series of happenings that digs a gulf between the two characters. From Maya’s highly emotional and hysterical response to the incident it becomes clear that she possesses a very subjective approach vis-à-vis the affairs of life.”We are persuaded to regard her as being gifted with highly poetic and slightly neurotic sensibility which translates the objects of the outside world into a poetic idiom” (Rao 11). Another reason of her alienation from her environment is that even after four years of her marriage, she is childless. She refers to this fact on the death of Toto when she thinks of “the fanatic attachments that childless women often develop for their pets…It is no less a relationship than that of a woman and her child” (Cry, the Peacock 10) This shows that the tragic situation of Maya’s life emerges not only from the detached and highly pragmatic attitude of Gautama but also from his loveless and unromantic approach to life. For him, his work is worship and money the only basic of life whereas; Maya is a creature of passion and creativity. Gautama is impatient of Maya’s emotion charged responses to trivial events and incidents like the death of a dog. Maya, on the other hand, feels disgusted with highly materialistic attitude of Gautama:
And why must it always be money? It is always money, or property- never a case of passion and revenge, murder and exciting things like that-basic things. Why? Don’t they ever happen (Cry, the Peacock 20)?
Another dimension of Maya’s tragic situation is related to her childhood nostalgia. Though she is a grown up and married woman but, she has not come out of the childhood world. Her father, Rai Sahib, an aristocratic and rich lawyer of Lucknow, unconsciously kept her away from the harsh realities of life and encouraged her to lead a life of illusions, song and dance. Having led an over-protected life, she fails to develop a practical approach in matters of human relationship. Unlike her brother Arjun, she is unaware of the dangers of over protected life. And it is because this reason that whenever she is upset in married life, she always wishes to fall back upon her father for reassurance. Gautama warns her of the dangers of this complex of father-fixation in the following words: “You have a very obvious father obsession, which is also the reason. Why you married me, a man much older than yourself. It is a complex. That, unless you mature rapidly, you will not be able to deal with, to destroy (Cry, the Peacock 146).
Maya’s childhood has a dreamlike quality. She associates her sensations and pleasant emotions with birds, plants flowers, fruits and poetry. She nourishes an inner world which is idyllic, romantic and easily vulnerable. The highly sensuous description of springs, pouring out Maya’s ecstatic rapture overt every sound, sight, smell, movement and color in nature reveal her intensely romantic temperament. ‘Fantastic, ‘marvelous’, ‘exciting’, ‘fastidious’ and ‘bizarre’ are the words that seem to be deeply associated with her personality. Having lived a life away from the harsh realities, she becomes a highly emotional child of her father which ultimately proves disastrous for her in coping with the jerks and jolts of the practical life. Her tastes are sensuous and aesthetic in nature and that is why she is less interested in the practical family affairs. She seems to be more interested in things like watching dance and playing with pets. Once she expresses her wish to go to South to see Kathakali dance but her husband does not give any importance to her wish and ignores it by saying, “wait till a troupe came to Delhi. It will be less expensive” (Cry, the Peacock 07). Maya’s highly sentimental temperament is hurt by this attitude of her husband and it sends her back to her childhood world for reassurance. But her withdrawal also does not give her any peace or happiness. It rather adds to the volcanic material inside her, which would turn into an explosion one day. All such incidents make her feel oppressed and alienated. A sense of futility and meaninglessness of life starts to grip her mind.
Maya finds herself as playing the role of a wife and daughter-in-law in Gautama’s family where everyone was busy in his or her own world without caring a fig for the new member of the family. The brothers and sisters were all people with intellectual leanings where as the mother was a social worker. Maya fails to connect herself with their strange world. She lives like an alien in heavily charged atmosphere of her in-laws house where discussions on intellectual, political and social matters went on all the time. Her alienation leads her to live a life an outsider in the family as no one took her seriously.
‘Lack of love’ and ‘lack of understanding’ are the two major factors for the tragic situation of Maya. In fact, love and mutual understanding are the two pillars on which the edifice of married life is erected. But both these things were missing in Maya-Gautama relationship. ‘Love’ is word which is absent from Gautama’s life and ‘understanding’ he refuses to have. As a result, Maya remains a love starved woman in her conjugal relationship. She feels intensely lonely in the company of Gautama.
And all the while I thought of Gautama…..Had there been a bond between us he would have felt its pull, I thought of him so deeply. But, of course, there was none…There was no bond, no love…. (Cry, the Peacock 108).
Being his other half, Maya has a right to access even the most secret parts of her husband’s life but, Gautama does not allow her this right. His vocation, his hunger for money, name and fame has drawn him away from her reach. He seems to have built a ring of detachment around him. Matters pertaining to heart and senses hardly receive any value from him. Maya is highly disturbed at this unwanted aversion to pleasures of senses in Gautama and reacts sharply to his philosophy of detachment. She craves for a relation that goes deeper than the flesh. She echoes the cries of the peacocks “Lover, I die” but Gautama does not respond to her willing body. She feels frustrated and pines for fulfillment of genuine desires as a woman. She feels uneasy when she happens to look at a pregnant lady because she does see any chance of becoming a mother in the sterile relationship with her husband. All this contributes to intensification of her tragic situation.
The agony of the unfulfilled aspirations in consonance with her peculiar traits of being, make Maya a mental wreck and a neurotic. In her weak moments, the childhood prophecy of the albino astrologer tightens its grip over her mind. She, unconsciously, begins to realize that this world is not a suitable place for her. A strong feeling of being entrapped in a hostile world prepares her for getting released from the bondage of physical existence. ‘Death’ is now the word that rules over her psyche. She remembers how some years ago the astrologer had made a prophecy that in the fourth year of her married life, one of the two, husband or wife would die. This being the fateful year, the fear of the prophecy coming true captures her imagination. She becomes obsessed with the idea of death: “It was mine that was hell. Torture, quiet dread, imprisonment-that were the four walls of my private hell, one that no one could survive long. Death was certain” (Cry, the Peacock 102).
Being completely alienated from her environment, Maya looks upon her relationship with Gautama as a relationship with death. Her consciousness moves rapidly towards complete breakdown. She starts behaving in an abnormal way. Her hysterical repetitions of the words and phrases, appearance of hallucinations and her weird actions are indicative of her psychotic condition. The irrational, that was earlier looming large on the border of the memory, was now her absolute master. Under the stress of the hidden fear she loses her senses and in a fit of madness she kills Gautama. Having killed him, she becomes incurably insane and ultimately commits suicide.
The trouble with Maya is that she can neither submit herself to her fate, nor can she rebel. She feels trapped and lives intermittently between the polarities of attachment and detachment, conformity and revolt, and finally life and death. The tragedy occurs by and large due to the temperamental incompatibility of the husband and wife. Gautama fails to realize that Maya is a woman of delicate sensibility and needs to be handled with love and care. Maya, on the other hand, remains imprisoned in her own private vision of life. She fails to measure up as a practical and full grown woman. Being highly sensitive by nature, she tries to assert her individual will and finally the couple ends up in a disaster. Had they followed the usual procedure of an ordinary marriage that turns the partners into weary strangers in course of time, there would have been nothing amiss.
Desai, Anita. Cry, the Peacock. Delhi: Orient Books, 1983. Print.
Pathak, R. S. “The Alienated Self in the Novels of Anita Desai.” Language Forum, vol. 14, No.1, Jan-June 1988. Print.
Rao, B. R. The Novels of Anita Desai- A Study. New Delhi: Kalyani Publishers, 1977. Print.
About the Author:
Dr S K Garg, who is Professor and Head of the Department of English in S R M University, Delhi-NCR, Sonepat, Haryana, has vast teaching and research experiences. He has participated in several seminars and conferences of national and international repute. He is also the recipient of state level award for his contribution to higher education. He can be contacted through his email: email@example.com.