DESIRE AND DEATH IN ANITA DESAIS

CRY, THE PEACOCK”

 

DR. K.C. BARAL

AND

MRS. C. K. NAIK

 

The essence of art is to reveal truth; the truth about the complexities of life, about the founding and nurturing of individual character. Every creative artist attempts to chart out human life through ramifications of thought, action, and conflict, what is according to Geoffrey Hartman: “An interme­diate middle between over-specified poles always threatening to collapse it. The poles may be birth and death, father and mother, heaven and earth, first things and last things”.1 Evidently, creative art masquerades the complex human nature as the simulacrum of revealed or natural truth. As one of the leading contemporary Indo-Anglian novelists, Anita Desai’s claim to explore such truth is pertinent. She says: “If art has any purpose, then it is to show one, bravely and uncompro­misingly, the plain face of truth...Once you have told the truth, you have broken free of society, of its prisons. You have entered the realm of freedom”.2 The basic aesthetic concern of Desai is goaded by the said contention in all her works. She is careful in exploring the inner reality of her fictional characters, always ill at ease with the outside reality. Between the poles of “life” and “death”, she probes into the complex inter-personal relationships vis-a-vis the self’s exclusive yearnings. Desai’s highly acclaimed novel, Cry, The Peacock, (1968) is a work in that direction. As a complex psychological work, the novel “gives expression to the long smothered wail of a lacerated psyche, the harrowing tale of blunted human relationship being told by the chief protagonist herself”.3 As a very sensitive soul Maya, the protagonist, is caught in a crisis of irreconcilable realities.

 

Cry, The Peacock as a novel is both poetic and intensely evocative. It is the story of a woman in which her sufferings are very often wrought upon our feelings. The narrative attempts to unfold Maya’s personality and character through her encounter with realities both “within” and “without”. She counters reality with reality: a pattern in which the past mingles in the present and desire into death. While justifying the title of the novel, the allusion to the mating of the peacocks in the wild signifies the conceptual dimensions of both “desire” and “death”, and thus sets the tone and the texture of the work:

 

Do you not hear the peacocks’ call in the wild? Are they not blood-chilling, their shrieks of pain? Pia Pia”, they cry. “Lover, lover, Mio, mio. I die, I die ...” Have you seen peacocks make love, child? Before they mate, they fight. They will rip each other’s breasts to strips and fall bleeding with their beaks open and panting. When they have exhausted themselves in battle, they will mate. Peacocks are wise. The hundred eyes upon their tails have seen the truth of life and death, and know them to be one. Living, they are aware of death. Dying they are in love with life. (Page 95) *

 

With extraordinary sensitiveness, Desai underlines the truth about life and death. What is true in case of the peacocks is also true in case of the human beings. We are aware of death while living and are in love with life while dying. Between life and death, it is love, grounded in the physical and moving beyond, that makes life meaningful.

 

“Death” as an inevitable fact of life is Maya’s truth; her painful reality. She is obsessed with it. The Albine priest’s prediction of death during the fourth year of her marriage has become an unconscious fixation threatening her with an unexplained terror. Gautam’s understanding of death is scriptural and in his actions and relations with Maya, he projects a counterpoint of view. Having an indulgent and somewhat over-protective childhood, Maya is an introvert woman. Like the embryo in the womb she looks forward for a warm and secured habitation after her marriage. Unfortunately, she enters into a reality that shatters her dream of a comfortable life; instead plunges her into neglect and tension. Her husband ignores Maya’s needs and considers her emotions as that of a spoilt child.

 

The first two unequal chapters of the novel deal with actual death of the pet dog Toto and of Maya’s husband Gautam. The novel opens at the death of the pet, the very death that has made Maya inconsolable as she felt that her last straw of attachment is snatched away: “Childless women develop fanatic attachment to their pets....” (P 10) Maya’s childlessness haunts her for which the death of the pet immensely anguished her. She does not feel the same on the death of her husband, Gautam who was indifferent to life. There is no real bond between them. Finally, it is her own disappearance into silence and darkness that puts the lid on all her physical and mental agonies, thus allowing her to enter into the world of freedom. Maya identifies herself with the peacocks and experiences life and death meaning to be the same:

 

It was I, I who screamed with the peacocks,

screamed at the sight of the rain clouds,

screamed at their disappearance, screamed in

mute horror. (P. 98)

 

Maya’s scream is not reciprocated nor heard by her lover. In the absence of love, she becomes intensely lonely and alienated. Her philosophically detached husband totally ignores her physical needs.

 

As Maya demures:

 

How little he knew of my suffering, or how to comfort me ... Telling me to go to sleep while he worked at his papers, he did not give another thought to me, to either the soft, willing body or the lonely, wanting mind that waited near his bed. (p. 9)

 

For gratification of body’s needs, Maya, within the permissible limits of the society, can look forward to her husband. Gautam’s lack of understanding and viewing love “with its accompanying horror of copulation” as disgusting, left Maya wanting and unfulfilled. Both Maya and Gautam are ranged against each other on the issue of physical sex. When Maya wanted to involve him in her world, she is rebuffed being considered as childish, boring and distasteful. Maya’s childlessness is obvious as physical consummation with her husband eludes her. She is not strong enough to rebel against physical and emotional deprivations. She suffers her fate and naturally gives expression to the ungrati­fied emotions as hysteric feats what Gautam considers as the symptoms of madness natural to a spoilt child. There is no real bond between them as Maya confesses: “Had there been a bond between us, we would have felt its pull...But, of course, there was none….there was no bond, no love – hardly any love.” (p. 108). Desai, in fact puts the theme of attachment and detachment both from earthly and spiritual angles into focus in the novel placing Maya and Gautam in contrapuntal positions. For Maya, her love is something that Gautam not only distastes but fears. She says: “I love you. I want you. Because I insist being with you, being allowed to touch you. You can’t bear it, can you? No. You are afraid. You might perish”. (p. 113) Like the peacock, Maya wants to bleed and fulfil her desire in physical union.

 

Gautam addresses Maya as “Neurotic”. “Neurotic, that’s what you are” (p. 115) and considers her understanding of life as fairy tale illusion. It is Gautam who is squarely responsible for driving Maya mad. However, the novel goes beyond. Desai attempts to bring into focus what Herman Hesse did in his novel Siddharth, delineating the physical and the spiritual modes of life’s aspirations. In a subdued manner, Desai wants to say what had been said by Hesse that the physical aspect cannot be totally ignored, instead it is the means and the medium for the spiritual. Gautam who indulgently quotes from Gita and explains the theory of Karma blissfully ignores his marital responsibility towards his wife: an unquestionable command of the theory of Karma.

 

Most critics deal with the theme of Cry, The Peacock from existential alienation to the philosophical concepts concerning death and detachment as advocated by Bhagavad Gita. However, most of them ignore the fact of “desire” and its necessary fulfil­ment as a process of life leading to meaningful death. The symbols, images and frequent allusions to the body and to the needs of the body make compulsive insistence to consider desire as an important factor. It is “desire” in its physical sense evidently becomes pertinent and crucial to the overall development of the plot. Maya’s happy childhood, her marriage with its changed reality and relations are significant for her suffering and for its resultant effects. The concept of “desire”, therefore, is inter­linked with the concept of “death” in the novel. Because endless repetitions of desire suppressed by guilt and frustration ultimately lead to the fantasy of death as absolute pleasure.

 

“Desire” according to Malcolm Bowie, is our Natura naturans. 4 Conceptually “desire” has wider implications; describ­ed as the cosmological principle of our secular age. Normally, it is interpreted at two levels: high moving towards “subli­mation” and low representing the purely physical aspects. However, the physical is essentially important for generating the possibility of moving towards sublimation. Philosophers such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Foucault and psychologists like Freud, Havelock Ellis, Kraft-Ebing have variously dealt with the concept. It is only in the writings of Freud that the subject-­matter of “desire” has received serious attention, particularly in his Three Essays on Sexuality and in Meta-psychological Essays.

 

Human action, Freud believed, is conducted by sexuality. 5 He identified that the manifest mental phenomenon is to be the expression of a wish or impulse which is unconscious or repressed. This repressed impulse is identified with the sexual impulse. “Desire” as manifest sexual impulse and its gratifica­tion is the most important organismic need. Any disruption of the normal course of gratification results in neurotic mani­festations. In the course of the narrative of the novel, it is clear that Maya undergoes a situation of sexual deprivation and emotional insecurity. Gautam’s accusation that she is a neurotic has substance, ironically himself failing to understand the possi­ble sources of the syndrome. As the rational antithesis of Maya, Gautam considers her childhood to be a delusion what on the contrary she considers to be her happiest years. For Maya, her marriage has displaced her from a world of security and happiness. Further, it has been a perpetuation of a shatter­ed world where wish fulfilment is denied to her. Husband’s love and sexual gratification in a normal course would have been the compensation to overcome the loss of childhood world. On the contrary, Maya’s new surrounding does not help compen­sate the loss, instead allows her to drift. The childhood prophecy of a disaster becomes an obvious point of fixation in Maya’s unconscious: “It was so clear now, so magically clear, the disturbing memory, half-remembered, had turned to a vision of albino eyes, of dyed finger nails pointing at my forehead, at the stars, and its reality was as unmistakable as that of the white moon”. (p. 32)

 

Allusions from astrology and scriptures have strengthened the narrative and have enlarged the understanding of life and death. Maya’s preoccupation with death is not for death’s sake, it is understood to be a means to freedom and escape from suffering. Much as painful, Maya’s neglect has perpetually threatened her mental stability:

 

It was Gautam who found many more things to teach that heart, new, strange and painful things. He taught it pain, for there are countless nights when I have had been tortured by a humiliating sense of neglect, of loneliness of desperation that would not have existed had I not loved him so, had he not meant so much. (p. 201)

 

Maya has tried her best to love Gautam but her love never has been reciprocated. Maya’s agony has got internalised without ensuring a possible means of release. In her agony Maya can only visualise the shadow of death: “In the shadows I saw peacocks dancing, the thousand eyes upon their shimmering feathers gazing steadfastly, unwinkingly upon the final truth–­Death. I heard their cry and echoed it. I felt their thirst as they gazed at the rain clouds, their passion as they hunted for their mates. With them I trembled and panted and paced the burning rocks. Agony, agony, the mortal agony of their cry for lover and for death.” (p. 96) Maya’s emotional and physical frustrations are deep, leading her to a state of nervous breakdown.

 

Neurosis as an outcome of ungratified desire highlights the relation between belief (or amnesia) and desire. Conceptu­ally, “desire” defines psychic mobility as well as transformation. According to psycho-analysis, ordinary belief may be related to desire either in one or two ways. The first is pre-suppositional relation in which the belief gives rise to or conditions the object of desire. The second is instrumental relation, where the belief determines how the desire may be satisfied. Belief, desire and action are ordinarily related so that given the belief and the desire the action is determined, or conversely, a given action can be explained by reference to the concommitant belief and desire. The psychoanalytic explanations are very much relevant in the context of Cry, The Peacock. The Albino priest’s predic­tion of death in the fourth year of Maya’s marriage is belief continued in the state of amnesia in her mind till she feels totally disillusioned in her marriage with Gautam. The death consciousness therefore is an outcome of her failure in terms of physical gratification. Apart from the sexual gratification, it is indeed true that Maya unconsciously attempts to get rid of her death obsession by reproduction. However, reproduction as a means of overcoming the death wish is also hindered. The actions of both Maya and Gautam in their understanding of issues such as life, death, love and above all the interpersonal relationship opposite determinants without ever having the possibility of a meeting point. Therefore, the so-called instru­mental relation facilitating gratification of desire could not be concretised in case of Maya.

 

Normally, in the course of psychic mobility the incompati­bility of reality with our desiring imagination makes the negation of desire inevitable. But to deny desire is not to eliminate it; in fact, such denials multiply the appearances of each desire in the self’s history. In denying a desire we condemn ourselves in finding it everywhere. As Maya says, “But I cannot, I cannot remember. I place my face in my hands and try to force my memory. I repeat half-forgotten, nemonic words from my childhood – ‘It cannot be altered: you must accept’. Those are the only words I can recall from that period and they pursue me closer to the end of the long tunnel that I must traverse.” (p. 177) Maya is unable to have her happy childhood recreated in a house where everything is determined by others for her. She is caught between two worlds; one lost permanently and the other unbearable, both physically and emotionally. She is aware of her failing health and pities herself: “My blouses hang on me, my rings slip off my fingers. Those are no longer my eyes, nor this is my mouth.” (p. 179) Along with physical deterioration, all order has gone out of Maya’s life. There is no plan, no peace, nothing to keep her within the pattern of day-to-day living and doing. Maya has entered into another world, the world of insanity as she claims.

 

Repressed desire is repeated, disguised and sublimated. It’s appearance in various forms at different levels of mental life create the intelligible structures of psychic continuities. Either in disguised or in manifested form, desire affects an individual personality or character. Psychological consequence of sublimated desire may be transformed into suicidal melancholy. In our sublimations, our desires never die; therefore death is not only an escape from the present but also is a form of sublimated desire. Thus endless repetition of desires ultimately lead to the fantasy of death and to the realm of absolute pleasure.

 

Both Gautam and Maya talk about death. Maya refuses to ignore this world where Gautam advocates a detached view. For him the real man of wisdom is “he who is free from all attachment neither rejoices in receiving the good nor is vexed on receiving evil, his wisdom is well established.” Gautam defends his indifference to feeling and to attachment on the line of the Gita. On the other hand, Maya belongs to this world and she wants to live her full life. Desperately therefore, she needs either the father, the brother or the husband for support. Her desperate call is not listened by anyone of them: “Father! Brother! Husband! Who is my saviour? I am in need of one. I am dying. God, let me sleep, forget rest. But no, I will not rest again. There is no rest any more – only death and waiting.” (p. 98) Because the frustration of her married life is so disturbing that she feels to have been imprisoned in a veritable hell: “It was mine that was hell. Torture, guilt, dread, imprisonment – these were the four walls of my private hell, one that no one could survive in long. Death was certain.”

 

For Maya, death would possibly provide the freedom from her desiring that is associated with Gautam. She longs the life that would permit her to “touch him, feel his flesh and hair, hold and tighten her hold on him” (p. 102) This desiring of Maya is hindered and she is left to an existence where she is thoroughly tired in the shuttle back and forth of events, thoughts, incidents. Past, future and present lose their significance for her. The only intention of continuing her life is to wait for the climax–­death. Time for her, like murder, is an arrow-head embedded in her flesh, rusted, corroding, searing.

 

The reference to death wish gradually has changed from a pathological expression to a sublimated desire. Maya wants to sleep permanently not to be disturbed or to be waken up again. Whether there is after life or not, has not enthused her at all because for her this life has been intensely unbearable. After Gautam’s death when she is removed to her parental house she ultimately returns to her childhood world. Perhaps there is restoration of the happy world to Maya at a time when all meaning has gone out of her life. Still there is the patter of the child’s “laughter cascading up and down the scales of some new delight – brilliant peacock’s feather perhaps.” (pp. 217-18) She is totally unconcerned about the world around her. Now, perhaps she does not want to call upon God, as she did once, to give her another heart to bear all her sorrow. She waits only for grace:

 

I might, after all, have achieved the way to grace,

Had you but granted me a few years more, 0 Lord. (p. 177)

 

The two worlds – one of grace and the other of madness–closed in finally. Desire got sublimated and Maya entered into the realm of freedom. And the rest is silence.

 

NOTES

 

1 Quoted from Contemporary Literary Critics by Elmer Berkland. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. p. 247.

2 Anita Desai, “A Secret Connivance” in TLS, p. 976

3 R. S. Pathak “The Alienated Self in the Novels of Anita Dasai” p. 18

4 Malcolm Bowie, Freud. Boust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction, London: Cambridge University Press. 1987. p. 323

5 Richard Wollheim. Freud. Glasgow: Fonfana, 1975. p. 135

 

 

* All quotations are taken from Anita Desai’s Cry, The Peacock, Delhi: Orient Paperback. 1980.

 

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