SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part Two

(I)

The peacock was now an intermittent visitor to the garden at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui, just as Sumaira’s heartiness had become more and more an occasional companion. She couldn’t help drawing a comparison between the bird seeking out her garden and her wellbeing seeking out the door. She was not a woman who wavered in the face of unexplained apprehensions but lately she had begun to feel the chills of superstition in her heart. This house… its walls… everything reeked of secrets and forebodings lately. When she felt especially dispirited, she would get into the car and drive around the city, seeking out quiet green glades where she would stop and breathe in. Her own beautiful garden awaited in magnificent repose and yet she sought serenity elsewhere. The irony didn’t escape her and yet, the ghosts of something …someone now pursued her there, making her anxious and guarded.

Sumaira however dug her heels in. She was the queen of her new home now and the occasional rush of doomful thoughts was not going to deter her from living the life of her dreams. She had in fact, managed to organise a grand reception at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui and had invited all her friends and relatives from Lahore. The haveli had, unsparingly and graciously housed twenty five of her guests. The rest were put up at the Sultan Grand Hotel. For three days the guests enjoyed the largesse of the house and its hostess. Zahid made it back on the last day; he had been away in Lahore to attend to Kulsoom who had refused any sustenance for the last three days. She had looked at her husband of fifteen years almost questioningly when he had come into her room – was there a celebration at their home she had asked gazing at him with clear, bright eyes. He had mumbled something unintelligible and then cajoled her to eat something. She had acquiesced quietly. He was used to Kulsoom’s strange connection with the universe; with her uncanny instinct to pick up on people and their vibes in ways that appeared confounding and bizarre. He had stayed on that night and the next day in Lahore to ensure Kulsoom had abandoned any ideas of fasting indefinitely, and had returned to Shiekupura the day after.

(II)

Sumaira was sitting in the veranda while a cool crisp breeze blew around her. It was the tail end of February and the morning still came upon the world with a fortifying vigour. She closed her eyes and let the wind sweep her up on its bracing wings. She suddenly felt an odd discomfiture and opened her eyes. There in the garden, right in front of her was the peacock. She hadn’t seen it in a couple of months and now it stood there almost like it was watching her. She shivered slightly feeling again, the hairs stand on the back of her neck. The peacock suddenly fanned out its tail, turned around and began to walk with graceful, rhythmic steps. It was dancing. Even as it unfurled its lustiness onto the world, Sumaira felt something squeezed inside her as a sense of foreboding joined hands with the tightness in her chest. She swallowed hard and looked away from the scene of exaggerated, excessive beauty and perfection. It was like nature was enjoying a farcical interlude in her garden.

“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched Sumaia looking at the mesmeric scene in front of her with a long thoughtful look of her own. She had muttered a little prayer and had then made her presence known.

“It has been many years since I last saw a peacock coming to the garden so frequently”, she said as she rolled out the trolley with its solitary cup of tea.

“It was when Zohaib baba left us. He was only 8 years old you know. The amalthas* was blooming just like this and the peacock had danced then too. Tauba Tauba! Allah khair karay”(2)

Sumaira stared at the old woman uncomprehendingly at first and then with a sudden burst of rage that was visceral and raw. Her hammering heart had found the vent it so urgently needed to not come right out of her chest and spill onto the floor. She launched at the old woman – for voicing the kind of calamitous, hideous thoughts that were already lancing at her insides, for always seeming to know more than she would ever know.

“Don’t talk rubbish!”

“Keep your sordid superstitions to yourself”

She felt her breath coming in ragged gasps as she turned around, away from the shadowy face of the old retainer.

“Now leave me alone!”

An hour later, Sumaira still sat outside. Why had she felt like the old woman had jabbed her finger right into her ventricle? Like they had both seen her world ending and the ancient one had been the one to announce it. She had tried to calm herself, to grasp at logic and reality; both qualities had become like feeble wraiths in the face of all the foreboding phantasms conjured up by the two creatures, the feathered and the weathered. The gusting February wind seemed to have further given the phantoms temerity and substance, and had carried them to every corner of the garden.

Sumaira breathed in deeply. With each measured breath, she felt her perspective gradually shift from the occult to the real, from the spirit world to the spring-laden one around her. Where the peacock was just a bird that found solace in her garden much as she did, and where nature’s extravagances were pleasurable blessings rather than premonitions of doom.

Sumaira looked behind her at the darkened doorway. She was now washed over with a sense of remorse that was almost comforting in its safe, unthreatening feel. She sat for a while longer, bolstering her confidence in the rational, sensible, phantom-free universe around her. She then got up to look for Khala*, intending to repair the damage done by momentarily frayed nerves.

The old woman had seen her fair share of ups and downs and had over the decades, negotiated through the myriad tempers of the ladies of the house (the begums and their offsprings included). She chuckled and grinned toothlessly at Sumaira when she was proffered an apology, “Koi baat nahin guria. Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham”(3)

Sumaira came away not entirely sure of the old woman’s state of mind but glad that the state of their hearts was again restored.

(III)

The next few months passed in quiet harmony as Zahid remained mostly in Sheikhupura with only a fortnightly visit to Lahore.

It was going to be their anniversary soon Sumaira thought – May 16th. She marveled at the briskness with which a year had passed; a whole year since she had become Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui and the … the Lady of Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui. She still couldn’t see herself as the Matriarch because there were older things and beings in the haveli* that somehow impaired her absolute dominion of the great house: She still felt hesitant when she walked into certain rooms in the house, and was assailed more than a few times by a strange uncertainty in the almost vapory presence of the feeble old retainer. The latter seemed to be almost on standby, to be waiting for something … someone.

Sumaira had begun to counter the assaults of the uninvited, unfriendly thoughts inside her head with strident changes of scene that she wrought on the outside. She had redone the master bedroom very soon after she had come to the house. That was followed by the lounge and the dining room and recently, the room which had always made her shudder with foreboding: the space that had been Kulsoom’s sanctuary where she was said to escape for hours at a time to get far from the madding crowd. That crowd, Sumaira mused, would have included not only people but the freakish cacophony of Kulsoom’s own thoughts too. Sumaira had seen the look on Peeno Khala’s face as she had the ancient teak furniture removed piece by piece. The deep lines on the old retainer’s brow and around her mouth were shadowed with omens and premononitions of a gloom that were almost palpable. Sumaira ignored them, as she did the unsettled feeling in the pit of her own stomach.

On the eve of their anniversary, Zahid was called away to Lahore again. Kulsoom had been hospitalised after a series of seizures. They were in the process of doing some tests but they thought that she had suffered a stroke.

When Sumaira got the news, she felt like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, her heart. It had been a camouflage of her own making which she had doggedly pulled around her face, refusing to see what the universe was telling her. The peacock, the constant unsettled feeling, the premonitions of doom – they had all meant something! Kulsoom was … she was going to die. That was what the haveli had been telling her as it held her in its almost sentient embrace this past year. It was telling her to wait, to be patient; it was telling her that she would finally get what she had worked for, what she truly deserved.

She suddenly felt a strange elation and a magnanimity of spirit that made her breathless. She would go to Lahore. She would stand by her husband’s side even as he stood by the side of his dying ex-wife. She would show him and the world that she had a heart so big that she had graciously, lovingly fitted everyone into it including “the other woman”. The woman who had made constant demands on her husband’s heart and mind. The woman who until now, had always wrung from her a strange mixture of animosity and misgiving.

Yes, she would go to Lahore. She would go to the hospital and look down at the depleting woman, and she would forgive Kulsoom for all her transgressions into her marriage and into her life. She got into the car and started on her journey.

(IV)

“It was so untimely. So strange….”

“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”

“May her soul rest in peace”

“Allah knows best….”

Zahid Siddiqui sat in the great drawing room at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui surrounded by friends and family pouring forth their condolences. It was now a month after the burial and the house was flooded with well wishers.

“I have arranged for fresh flowers for the grave. Come, have something to eat”, said Kulsoom as she led Zahid and the guests into the dining room that shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.

(1) “Little one, tea is served”. In Urdu “Guria” literally means a doll and is sometimes used as a term of endearment for a young girl.  

* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree

(2) “May God keep us from harm”

* Khala: “Aunt”/ mother’s sister in Urdu.

(3) “Don’t worry little one. Life is sometimes joyous and sometimes sorrowful”

* Haveli: “Mansion” in Urdu

* Jannat-al-Firdaus: the highest place in Heaven

SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part One

Sumaira came out into the veranda to the shrill scream of a peacock. The bird sat resplendent and angry in the garden looking at the house as if at a particularly baneful beast. She was gripped in a flux of emotions as she caught her breath at the iridescence of its plumage in the morning sun, while also feeling a rush of anxiety that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She stood for a while looking at the bird which quieted down almost instantly upon seeing her. After a few minutes, it flew up into the branches of the Indian laburnum tree; it’s blue green hues cavorting with the yellow of the flowers that seemed to bedeck its entire body. It was one of those rare, serendipitous displays of nature that arouse awe and melancholia. The early morning, newly-wed euphoria slowly drained from her body as Sumaira looked at the bird and the tree a last time before turning back into the house.

She blinked brightly trying to catch at the disappearing threads of quiet joy she had woken up with. But something had tramped along that path in the last fifteen minutes and she now felt strangely deflated and watchful. How had a peacock, that beautiful creature created so much disquiet in her heart she wondered irritably. For that was the only vision that had intercepted the flow of good cheer that had of late become her regular day time companion; that made her smile a lot and even skip like a giddy school girl when she was alone. Everything was so perfect! Yes, everything WAS so perfect repeated a quiet voice in her head, relegating in an instant, all that defined her wonderful life right now, into the past.

“Khala! Chai le aain(1)”, she said louder than she had intended to. Loud enough to drown out the ominous thoughts whirling around in her head; loud enough also for the great old retainer to have heard her the first time round.

She came into the lounge shuffling behind a tea trolley which carried a single cup of tea. All tasks that were beyond the enterprise of wheels that also doubled as support for her frail frame, had long ago become obsolete calls to duty for Peeno khala. Still, she persevered in her service to the haveli* and its occupants with the same tenacity of spirit as when she had first come to the great house as a seventeen year old widow. That was almost seventy years ago. She was now as much a part of the house as it was a part of her. Sumaira often wondered if in fact the bricks and mortar of the haveli were somehow entwined with the sinew and soul of its ancient caretaker.

Sumaira had married the love of her life. It had been a tortuous path – one wrought with moral dilemmas and all-consuming desires. He had been married; he loved his wife – his ex-wife now – but he loved Sumaira too. He had wanted to make her his second wife. It had taken five long years of persuasion and infinite wiles and guiles to make him see sense. He could only have one – she had passed the ultimatum with strategic precision of opportunity and dexterity. That was almost six months ago. Since then, she had been ensconced as Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui in Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui*, the ancestral family haveli in the heart of Sheikhupura. Her nemesis, Zahid’s ex-wife Kulsoom, had since been settled into an apartment in Lahore.

Despite the euphoria of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez sweeping her off her feet, and other such romantic dreams come true, Sumaira sometimes felt a pang of conscience, a momentary qualm. She had broken a home to build her own; the detritus washing back to her in waves as she regularly heard driblets of disturbing news about Kulsoom. The tight knit community of the city she now called home, ensured that she was made aware, one way or another. Kulsoom was not doing well and Zahid was often called to Lahore to attend to her ailments, which were seeming more and more psychological than physical. Sumaira tried to be magnanimous, to not feel overpowering resentment at this monopoly of her husband by his ex-wife. She was still basking in the newness of her beautiful home and the privileges of being Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui, and so she was able to display appropriate concern and compassion everytime Zahid bade her farewell for a Kulsoom-related trip to Lahore.

Kulsoom had always been sensitive, a “seer” some claimed. She was an ethereal child, mostly in a world of her own, stepping out only occasionally for festivals and funerals. She and Zahid had had one son who had died when he was eight years old. Kulsoom had never quite recovered from that incident and had withdrawn into a shell of her own making where only Zahid and a handful of other people were allowed access.

For Sumaira, the spookiness that surrounded Kulsoom had over time somehow made her less human, less prone to feeling any great tragedy or joy. And so, she had persevered in her enterprise of taking the Zahid Siddiqui marital crown for herself. Kulsoom with her faraway looks and her spaced out existence would get over it, she always told herself. But sometimes – once in a while, another voice from the deepest recesses of her being would rise up stridently to provoke and condemn.

Today was one of those days.

(1): “Aunty, bring the tea

* Haveli: Mansion, in Urdu

* Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui: The Siddiqui Abode, in Urdu

Story inspiration from Hector Munro’s short story titled “The Cobweb”

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