In her first novel, Cry the Peacock (1963), Anita Desai portrays the psychic tumult of a young and sensitive married girl Maya who is haunted by a childhood prophecy of a fatal disaster. She is the daughter of a rich advocate in Lucknow. Being alone in the family, her mother being dead and brother having gone to America to carve his own independent destiny, she gets the most of her father’s affection and attention and in her moments of affliction exclaims to herself: “No one, no one else, loves me as my father does”. The excessive love Maya gets from her father makes her have a lop-sided view of life. She feels the world to be a toy made especially for her, painted in her favorite colors and set moving according to her tunes.
Having lived a carefree life under the indulgent attentions of her loving father, Maya desires to have similar attentions from her husband Gautama, a father surrogate. When Gautama, a busy, prosperous lawyer, too much engrossed in his own vocational affairs, fails to meet her demands, she feels neglected and miserable. Seeing her morbidity, her husband warns her of her turning neurotic and blames her father for spoiling her.
Although the reason for Maya’s neurosis is, however, not her father fixation though it aids to hasten her tragedy, but persistent obsession of the prediction by the albino astrologer of death either for her or her husband within four years of their marriage. The terrifying words of the prediction, like the drumbeats of the mad demon of Kathakali ballets, ring in her ears and unnerve her. She knows that she is haunted by “a black and evil shadow”- her fate and the time has come: And four years it was now. It was now to be either Gautama or she.
The loving attention of her father makes Maya oblivious of the deadly shadow; but as her husband Gautama fails to satisfy her intense longing for love and life, she is left to the solitude and silence of the house which prey upon her. She muses over her husband’s lack of love for her and once, in a fit of intense despair and agony, tells him straight to his face: “Oh, you know nothing of me and of how can I love. How I want to love. How it is important to me. But you, you’ve never loved. And you don’t love me. . . .” Temperamentally there is no compatibility between Maya and Gautama. Maya has romantic love for the beautiful, the colorful and the sensuous; Gautama is not romantic and has no use for flowers. Maya is creature of instincts or a wayward and high stung child. As symbolized by her name she stands for the world of sensations. Gautama’s name on the other hand, symbolizes asceticism, detachment from life. He is realistic and rational. He has philosophical detachment towards life as preached in the Bhagwad Gita. Such irreconcilably different temperaments are bound to have marital disharmony.
Had Gautama shown an understanding towards and been attentive to Maya, he would have saved her from the haunting fears of “shadows and drums and drums and shadows.” The gap of communication between them leaves her lonely to brood over the morbid thoughts of the albino astrologer’s prophecy. Her attempts to divert herself by visits to her friend Leila and Pom or Mrs. Lal’s party or the restaurant and the cabaret, prove powerless to dispel the creeping terror. The visit of Gautama’s mother and sister Nila brings a brief respite to her and she enjoys her busy life in their company. But once they are gone, she finds the house empty and herself alone with her horrors and nightmares.
Maya is so much possessed by the vision of albino astrologer that she recalls his talk about the myth surrounding the peacock’s cry. Listening to the cries of peacock in the rainy season, she realizes that she should never sleep in peace. She is caught in the net of inescapable. Being intensely in love with life she turns hysteric over the creeping fear of death, “Am I gone insane? Father! Brother! Husband! Who is my savior? I am in a need of one. I am dying, and I am in love with living. I am in Love and I am dying. God let me sleep, forget rest. But no, I’ll never sleep again. There is no rest anymore- only death and waiting.”
Maya suffers from headaches and experiences rages of rebellion and terror. As she moves towards insanity, she sees the visions of rats, snakes, lizards and iguanas creeping over her, slipping their club-like tongues in and out. Her dark house appears to her like her tomb and she contemplates in it over the horror of all that is to come. Then suddenly, during her interval of sanity, an idea hopefully dawns in her mind that since the albino had predicted death to either of them, it may be Gautama and not she whose life is threatened. She thus transfers her death wish to Gautama and thinks that as he is detached and indifferent to life, it will not matter for him if he misses life. In her perversity she is even haunted by the word ‘murder’. Gautama remains so much lost in his work that Maya finds him even oblivious of the dust storm that has raged earlier in the afternoon. When she asks him to accompany her to the roof of the house to enjoy cool air, he accompanies her, lost in his own thoughts. Passing out of the room, Maya catches sight of bronze Shiva dancing and prays to the Lord of Dance to protect them. Climbing the stairs she finds her cat suddenly speeding past them in a state of great alarm. They walk towards the terraced end, Maya looking enraptured at the pale hushed glow of the rising moon. As Gautama move in front of her, hiding the moon from her view, she in a fit of frenzy pushes him over the parapet to “pass through an immensity of air, down to the very bottom”. It remains in the end for Gautama’s mother and sister to take away completely insane Maya from the scene of tragedy of the house of her father.