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The Peacock Garden
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The Peacock Garden

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In 1947 India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. That long, hot summer was a time of terror for the Muslims in the Punjab, and many fled to Pakistan. This book tells the story of a Muslim family who decided to stay.
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The Peacock Garden von Anita Desai

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(This review duplicates what I posted to Livejournal (and, consequently, to the Goodreads blog) on 3 April 2013.)


This Reading Wednesday I've just finished Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden. I read it in two different temporal mindframes--my childhood mind of about eight or ten, and my current mind, which contains several decades more of stuff. I loved the story in both.

I’ve wanted to read it ever since Rachel Brown reviewed it, describing it as a “secret garden” book. About secret-garden books, she writes,

Some of my favorite books and shows and movies are in this genre, stories about people and places and the way things and jobs and ecologies work, with conventional plot either dispensed with or appearing as an afterthought.
She cites My Neighbor Totoro as another example (and it’s a film I love), and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book.

The outer circumstances of The Peacock Garden are terrible: Zuni, a young Muslim girl, is forced to flee with her family in the middle of the night to escape mob violence at the time of Partition (of India and Pakistan, at independence--when many Muslims were driven from India into Pakistan and many Hindus were forced in the other direction).

But this is a child’s eye view of the happenings, and what Zuni notices and thinks about aren’t those large political issues, but the bonfires as they flee (“immense ones with hungry blue and orange and scarlet flames reaching out into the hot, parched air”), her missing doll, when they take shelter with other refugees in the local mosque, and the sights and sounds within the mosque compound:

A thin yellow dog nosed amongst them. As they clattered across the tiles, a flock of parrots, as bright as leaves of young paddy, as bright as new mangoes or as gems, shot out of the old hairy grey banyan tree and fled, shrieking, into the hot white sky.

They stopped beside the well from which all the refugees had drunk--a well as big as a small fort, with deep, dark sides and down at the very bottom, if you were bold enough to hang over the edge and look, a silent green pool of cool water in which frogs floated and plopped.

I loved the book from the very first description, of everyone in the village trying to catch a little cool air at night on the rooftops of their homes. So vivid! And Zuni’s behavior, words, thoughts--just right.

Child-me would have wanted to play this story right away--going around gathering peacock feathers to put on the ceiling, like Zuni did, going in to market and buying peanuts that have been roasted in clay pots of hot sand, inviting my friends to my new home and seeing the peacocks and peahens parading like kings and queens around the garden. (Child-me would also want to **draw** all these things--actually, grown-up me rather wants to, too.)

Grown-up me was in love with how sensory all the descriptions were--a floor is as cool and white as iced milk, the smell of the hot roasted peanuts tickles Zuni’s nose, the thatch on their roof whispers, water is flavored with sugar and rose scented. (Hmmm, three out of four of those descriptions relate in some way to food. Maybe I’m hungry.) Grown-up me also marveled at how the precariousness of Zuni’s family’s situation is never forgotten--it’s a problem that needs to be solved by the end of the book--and yet it never intrudes into Zuni’s child’s-eye view of the world. There’s no heavy-handed lesson-giving in the story, or handwringing, because that’s not the focus of the story: the focus is on Zuni getting used to her new life, coming to know her new home, and then reemerging into the world and welcoming friends to her home.

For people like me who’ve never lived in South Asia, it’s a wonderful snapshot of what life was like some sixty-plus years ago on the Indian subcontinent. For people who live there now, I bet it must be a lovely nostalgia trip.

If you can ever find this book--which I was very, very lucky to receive a copy of (**thank you**, Rachel!), I heartily recommend you borrow or buy it, and read it.

( )
  FrancescaForrest | May 12, 2014 |
(This review duplicates what I posted to Livejournal (and, consequently, to the Goodreads blog) on 3 April 2013.)


This Reading Wednesday I've just finished Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden. I read it in two different temporal mindframes--my childhood mind of about eight or ten, and my current mind, which contains several decades more of stuff. I loved the story in both.

I’ve wanted to read it ever since Rachel Brown reviewed it, describing it as a “secret garden” book. About secret-garden books, she writes,

Some of my favorite books and shows and movies are in this genre, stories about people and places and the way things and jobs and ecologies work, with conventional plot either dispensed with or appearing as an afterthought.
She cites My Neighbor Totoro as another example (and it’s a film I love), and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book.

The outer circumstances of The Peacock Garden are terrible: Zuni, a young Muslim girl, is forced to flee with her family in the middle of the night to escape mob violence at the time of Partition (of India and Pakistan, at independence--when many Muslims were driven from India into Pakistan and many Hindus were forced in the other direction).

But this is a child’s eye view of the happenings, and what Zuni notices and thinks about aren’t those large political issues, but the bonfires as they flee (“immense ones with hungry blue and orange and scarlet flames reaching out into the hot, parched air”), her missing doll, when they take shelter with other refugees in the local mosque, and the sights and sounds within the mosque compound:

A thin yellow dog nosed amongst them. As they clattered across the tiles, a flock of parrots, as bright as leaves of young paddy, as bright as new mangoes or as gems, shot out of the old hairy grey banyan tree and fled, shrieking, into the hot white sky.

They stopped beside the well from which all the refugees had drunk--a well as big as a small fort, with deep, dark sides and down at the very bottom, if you were bold enough to hang over the edge and look, a silent green pool of cool water in which frogs floated and plopped.

I loved the book from the very first description, of everyone in the village trying to catch a little cool air at night on the rooftops of their homes. So vivid! And Zuni’s behavior, words, thoughts--just right.

Child-me would have wanted to play this story right away--going around gathering peacock feathers to put on the ceiling, like Zuni did, going in to market and buying peanuts that have been roasted in clay pots of hot sand, inviting my friends to my new home and seeing the peacocks and peahens parading like kings and queens around the garden. (Child-me would also want to **draw** all these things--actually, grown-up me rather wants to, too.)

Grown-up me was in love with how sensory all the descriptions were--a floor is as cool and white as iced milk, the smell of the hot roasted peanuts tickles Zuni’s nose, the thatch on their roof whispers, water is flavored with sugar and rose scented. (Hmmm, three out of four of those descriptions relate in some way to food. Maybe I’m hungry.) Grown-up me also marveled at how the precariousness of Zuni’s family’s situation is never forgotten--it’s a problem that needs to be solved by the end of the book--and yet it never intrudes into Zuni’s child’s-eye view of the world. There’s no heavy-handed lesson-giving in the story, or handwringing, because that’s not the focus of the story: the focus is on Zuni getting used to her new life, coming to know her new home, and then reemerging into the world and welcoming friends to her home.

For people like me who’ve never lived in South Asia, it’s a wonderful snapshot of what life was like some sixty-plus years ago on the Indian subcontinent. For people who live there now, I bet it must be a lovely nostalgia trip.

If you can ever find this book--which I was very, very lucky to receive a copy of (**thank you**, Rachel!), I heartily recommend you borrow or buy it, and read it.

( )
  FrancescaForrest | May 12, 2014 |
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In 1947 India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. That long, hot summer was a time of terror for the Muslims in the Punjab, and many fled to Pakistan. This book tells the story of a Muslim family who decided to stay.

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