D. Phani Kumari


Generally it is said that qualitative writing is distinguished by a commanding use of images. Among Indian women writers in English, Anita Desai is a class by herself for her intensely individual and rich lyrical style and the felicitous use of imagery. She uses imagery as a vehicle to probe the innermost self of her characters.


The protagonist in this novel is Maya, an intense young girl married to Gautama. His academic and detached nature is totally opposite to her temperament. The interplay of emotions between the opposing temperaments becomes a major theme of the novel. An albino astrologer foretells the death of one of the partners four years after her marriage. This memory haunts Maya and affects all her perceptions and responses. Death becomes an obsession and it turns her into a brooding introvert. Eventually she pushes her husband from the parapet of the roof of their house bringing about his death. Subsequently she herself commits suicide, at the same time dragging her mother-in-law down with her from the roof to the ground below, and killing her also.


Anita Desai explores the tormented consciousness of an introvert, Maya. She peeps into the mind of Maya, who is in a state of constant flux. Maya defines the opposing temperaments of herself and her husband through images. Darshan Singh Maini rightly observes that “Through simile, metaphor and symbol, the two spouses are evoked for us as opposed archetypes…” Maya feels neglected by her husband and his family members. She says, “I had been tortured by a humiliating sense of neglect, of loneliness, of desperation that would not have existed had I not loved him…”


Maya associates her happy sensations and pleasant emotions with birds, plants, flowers, fruits and poetry. Animal imagery acts as a significant outlet to express her latent fears and hatred. The colour symbolism, dance symbolism, the symbolic function of stars and moon provide much needed density to the thin texture of the novel.


Maya recollects her dream-like childhood. She recalls fondly her father’s hair, “he is like a silver oak himself, with his fine, silver-white hair brushed smoothly across his bronzed scalp.” (p.37) Her adoration for him is reflected in comparison of her childhood life to a  “Moghul Garden”. She says, “as a child, I enjoyed princess-like, a sumptuous fare of the fantasies of the Arabian-Nights…”(p.41) Maya thinks about her brother, Arjuna. She compares her brother to a ‘wild bird’ because he constantly tries to escape from the stifling rich world of his father. Arjuna’s attitude is brought through reference of kites, “Mine were awkward kites that never lost their earth-bound inclination. Arjuna’s were birds –hawks, eagles, and swallows in the wind….Which sailed high, high, together…” (p.114) These images suggest their inner needs. Maya is a creature of the earth but Arjuna wants to fly away into distant realms and attain some meaning in life.


Childless Maya yearned for children. She developed a motherly love towards her pet dog, Toto. She says, “Childless women do develop fanatic attachments to their pets, they say, it is no less a relationship than that of a woman and her child…”(p.15). Hence the death of her pet dog, Toto, fills Maya with a sense of foreboding and fear of death. This feeling of fear crystallizes in the shape of an albino astrologer who prophesied death. She says, “his eyes I do: they were pale, opaque and gave him an appearance of morbidity, as though he had lived, like a sluggish white worm, indoors always, in his dark room….”(p.29) The entire scene of astrologer’s reference is filled with insect images, which suggest Maya’s obsession with sensuality and death. In sheer desperation to protect her from the onslaught of an evil prophesy, Maya becomes alert like “a cobra spreading its hood at the first faint sound of approaching danger.”(p.104) It is interesting to note the reversal of roles of Maya, the trapped prey. She becomes the predator now, identifying herself with the erstwhile enemy. “I wondered why, from the very beginning, it had never occurred to me that it might be Gautama’s life that was threatened.”(p.137) This image is functional as it warns the reader of the inherent cruelty in the seemingly fragile and lovable Maya and foretells the future crime.


In Anita Desai’s fictional universe even actual events connected with animals and animal-like behaviour of people become extended images because they hold symbolic import beyond the level of actuality. The Cabaret dance Maya witnesses with Gautama and his friends is a frightening experience to her. The exploitation of Cabaret women brings to her memory the bear dance, which she witnessed as a child.


Colour symbolism is equated with isolation, madness, desperation and death. The positive and negative attitude of bird, plant and animal imagery are reinforced by a colour symbolism of white and dark.  Black incorporated into animal imagery depicting negative emotion, and the white colour is incorporated into bird and flower imagery. There are references of various flower images like Bougainvillea, Night Queen etc. These blooming flowers instead of attracting her through their beauty seem to portend only their impending end by the evening.


Ungratified desires of Maya are brought out through the sexual images like frenzied dance of peacock, mating calls of pigeons, heavy silk cotton trees, male papaya trees, etc. Her inability to capture the external world of rubies and butterflies is juxtaposed with her unattained closeness with her husband.


The various dance images that are depicted, fuse the experience at fantasy level with the one at the realistic level and become very powerful, haunting symbols. The cabaret and bear dances are experiences at the realistic level, whereas the dance of the peacocks, the Kathakali and Lord Shiva are at the fantasy level as they are perceived purely through Maya’s imagination. “I caught sight of the bronze Shiva, dancing just a shade outside the ring of lamplight…(p.169) Apart from these images, there is a thematic image i.e.; the dance of the peacock that defines the tragic predicament of Maya. “Are they not blood-chilling, their shrieks of pain? ‘Pia, pia’ they cry. ‘Lover, lover. Mio, mio, - I die, I die.”(p.82). Significantly the symbol of dance of peacock’s merge with the symbol Shiva’s dance which is used at the end of the novel before the final catastrophe. Maya views the peacock dance as the dance of death, which symbolizes death and also liberation and freedom from her tortured psyche. Maya identifies herself with the peacock. The constant juxtaposition of life and death in every symbol emphasizes essential contrast on which the principle of life itself is based: that life itself implies a certainty of death. This is the idea that is reinforced through all the images.


Maya’s tragedy is that she is a victim of two egoistic strong-minded men. They toy with her and try to mould her according to their fancies and in the process crush the delicate, sensitive young girl, Maya. “…for I was their toy of their indulgence, not to be taken seriously, and the world I came from was less than that – it was a luxury they considered it a crime to suffer, and so damned it with dismissal.” (p.45) She suffers both from the excesses of love showered on her by her father and the total lack of it from her husband who is devoid of emotions. Unable to come in terms with these extremes, Maya goes lifeless.


“Through the use of interior monologue and imagery, Anita Desai is able to effectively bring out the consequences of the ‘Caged Childhood’ of Maya,” remarks a critic. The novelist interweaves the key images of imprisonment and insanity in presenting the predicament of the protagonist. It is this imagery that lends richness and beauty to the narrative of Cry, The Peacock through the story line.