Where the Peacocks Sing
A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home
Alison Singh Gee
Anjana Basu, Kolkata
Alison Singh Gee had the perfect life. A California born Chinese, she reinvented herself among HongKong’s LDB set as a journalist covering glamorous events and mingling with expats. She even found herself an expat boyfriend called Nigel who let her live in his swish apartment and skateboard around the huge living room, pampered by his Filipino maid. However, despite this idyllic existence that was shared by her girlfriends, all of whom were out to improve their lifestyles from the reading of it, Alison found something lacking in this surfeit of fashion.
She then met Ajay, a handsome journalist from the Delhi branch of her office and everything changed. Despite knowing nothing about Ajay’s roots, she was drawn to him – possibly because as a child she had flipped through Indian coffee table books on the lives of Maharajahs and their palaces – and that entailed giving up her trophy girlfriend existence and returning to the small flat that she owned in Chinese Hong Kong. Then she realised that her karma had drawn her to someone who was actually an Indian prince with a ruined haveli in Mokimpur and she could flaunt Ajay’s regal status in front of her friends who failed to understand why Singh Gee had abandoned her plush life for hardship and Hong Kong minibus queues.
The style makes for entertaining reading, though Indian readers may come across a few glitches. However, they will enjoy Singh Gee’s clashes with her mother and sister in law and the issues of cooking Indian food in a house where the women are accomplished chefs and where Hoti Lal the decades old retainer rules the tandoor. Where the Peacocks Sing is rich in detailing and matters that Americans will sympathise with like not wearing LBDs in a haveli or discovering that domestic sleep on tattered mats in a dirty garage no matter how old and trusted they are. Something that Ajay explains as being part of the relationships that are traditional in India and something that Singh Gee finally comes to accept when she realises how much Ajay means to her.
On the face of it, Where the Peacocks Sing sounds like Eat, Pray, Love, a search for meaning and spiritual depth. However, Singh Gee does not go so deeply into her quest for spirituality, rooting it in the haveli and her own family rootlessness in America. Her father was a man fascinated by big houses but somehow never had the money and so fretted at his marriage and disciplined his children harshly. Despite Singh Gee’s instinctive attraction to Indian ways, she and Ajay settle in the US and not in Mokimpur, though she sells her paintings to help give the building a makeover. The reader looks forward to Singh Gee settling down with her prince and triumphantly running a heritage haveli for American guests but the reality is what actually happens, even though Singh Gee glosses over the years in America. However, she highlights her sense of belonging with the birth of her daughter and points out that the child, for whom a tree has been planted at Mokimpur, seems to automatically relate to the place on her first visit, much in the same way that she did.