Book excerpt

Where the Peacocks Sing

A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home

Alison Singh Gee

St. Martin's Press


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, deep-fried 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.

Copyright © 2013 by Alison Singh Gee
ALISON SINGH GEE is an award-winning international journalist whose work has been translated into eight languages and has appeared in People, Vanity Fair, In Style, Marie Claire, International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. For eight years, she was a staff features writer/correspondent for People magazine. She won the 1997 Amnesty International Award for Feature Writing for her Asiaweek cover story about child prostitution in Southeast Asia. Alison lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.