“The novel opens up uncomfortable questions about the biological and social, lack and love and reform and rebellion–to which there are no easy answers. Dance O' Peacock is a truly engaging account of a woman's search for love, meaning and calling a search for herself.”
– Dr. Sharmila Rege, Director, KSP Women's Studies Centre, University of Poona, Pune
“Dance O’ Peacock is the story of Neelam, an intelligent and independent woman. She struggles hard to get rid of the oppressing tradition of taboos. To find solace and to build up inner strength, she puts relationships at stake and rigorously strives for emotional and intellectual freedom; where she can have every right to nurture the weltanschauung of her own. Neelam's voice against the tradition and history, that have thrown her into such a predicament, could be termed feminist.”
– Dr. Khursheed Alam, Urdu writer
Aruna Jethwani is an award winning author, writer and an educationist. She has to her credit two novels, self-help books, books of poetry, a biography, and has edited a collection of short stories. Her short stories are translated in regional languages. Her debut novel Another Love, Another Sky received AGI award in 2005. She has widely written for the national press. She has translated invaluable writing from Sindhi to English.
Aruna Jethwani is the former Principal of St. Mira's College for girls, Pune. Currently she is involved in creative writing and community work.
I escaped from the Pretty Palace on a Tuesday night. Wearing a ‘burqa’ I travelled with Mrs. Gill to Jaipur, where she had organised my stay at a college hostel. I became a student in search of a vocational degree. The college and the hostel campus were interesting. There was a fountain in the centre, fringed by ferns, palms and wild flowers. The pale light from the lamp lit the fine specks of cascading water, spreading a shimmer of sparkles. Beyond the fountain was a thick grove of ‘acacia’ trees, where the magnificent peacocks danced at Sunrise and Sunset. Their feathers spreading brilliant peacock blue and green, glistening, moving magical patterns; true epitome of joy and movement. This was the place, where every evening after dinner, we went for a stroll. “Do you love nature Neelam?” Arti asked me one day. “Yes, I do. I was brought up in the midst of nature. There was a whole forest in front of our Haveli, nick named Pretty Palace. We loved it. My sister and my cousin, together we watched the trees every morning,” I breathed heavily, recollecting our childish ogling at the Jain monk. “Arti, I miss all that, even the desert around Kothi. The sand dunes and the stunted palms, the camel farm, my maid Mukta.” “In Bombay, we live in matchbox like flats. Yes, we do have a bit of scenery around. Large garbage dunes. Every time I had to travel from Andheri to Victoria Terminus, I had to close my eyes and cover my nose to keep the stench away.” “Really? I have never been to Bombay.” “You haven’t missed anything.” “I am told, you get to see the film stars there.” “Ah, Neelam. They are dime a dozen. Nobody cares about them. You see them everywhere. At metro shoes, at Oaters club; at St. Xaviers.” “Have you seen any film star?” Arti gave a loud laugh. “My dear Neelam, my husband was connected with the industry as they say. And a few starlets lived in our building. On the first floor, we had this beautiful lady with a matron. And everyone said, she was a mistress of a rich Marwari in Calcutta. Others said, she belonged to that famous film star Raja. And Raja used to come to her every night at eleven and leave at two in the morning. Film stars, mistresses, whores, part-timers, well they are there in all the buildings, in Colaba, Bandra, Andheri.” “Really?” I was shocked. “You stay with that class of people?” ‘They are called the upper class, Neelam dear, oh, it’s fun, Bombay is fun,” and then she added seriously, “No one bothers about them. Really no one. Every one lives one’s own life, on one’s own terms. Right now, I feel like having a strong neat whisky. Do you drink?” “Of course not. I don’t.” I replied recollecting the incident, where drunken cousins would chase us with a glass of Black Label and force it down our throat. And we would run for our life. Once Pami got drunk and my drunken cousin from Sirhoi would not leave her. I had to push him out of my room and lock it up from inside. There was no point in reporting the incident to either mother or Meeta Aunty. These Rajput bumps were spoilt to the core. They would get away with everything, even murder. I narrated the incident to Arti. She rolled with laughter. “Hey Neelam, why did you spoil the fun. That fellow would have just kissed Pami and then fallen dead like a log of wood. Ah, so in that prison of yours, you do have chances of fun! I am sure there must be much more than that!” I sighed, we had reached our hostel block, and I was glad to sleep it all. After a week of sharing the room, one night Arti laughed, “We are two of the same kind.” “No, I don’t think so, I come from a backward town of Rajasthan. I am a ‘Budhu’ - inexperienced naive, silly. I have this inferiority complex. You come from Bombay, a big city with big people. You must be used to moving alone in trains, in buses. I am not. You must be having male friends too. In the college, you are known as a very smart fast girl.” I sounded as if grapes were sour. But it was a fact, somewhere I envied the freedom she enjoyed. I envied her boundless energy. I envied her no-hold-bars attitude. I was tempted to imitate her. Thump around as a very smart girl. The hostel had all kinds of inmates; most of them were daughters of Govt. officers or feudal landlords. “All this is superficial. Inside, we are both the same. We are lonely. We both love the simple things of life,” Arti paused. “And we both have been married and separated. When are you getting your divorce, Neelam?” She hit the nail on head. “I am not getting any divorce. I told you, I just walked out of the house.” I was surprised at the ease with which I said those words. The whole event of escaping from Haveli was so heart wrenching that I had vomited the whole night! Today, it appeared as simple as going to the market. ‘I walked out.’ How simple. It couldn’t be simpler than that! “You won’t apply for a divorce?” “How can I? I am a Rajput woman. I have to guard the honour of my husband’s family. ‘Divorce’ is a word unheard of in our clan. My husband can take in another wife without anyone’s permission.” “And you will not protest? You sound very ancient. You are so obsessed with the Sati-Savitri image, of making a martyr of yourself!” “You will not understand. Only a woman, who has lived behind the stone walls of forts, bound by tradition, fed on the legends of ‘Sati’ can feel the sin of divorce. In your society, it may be the in thing. In Bombay, the women have the freedom to divorce. But with us it is different.” Arti was separated from her husband for over two years. She feared his mighty claws. Her divorce was still pending. For Arti, divorce was her immediate goal. An achievement. A major step taken in the direction of attaining equality between man and woman. She wanted the same kind of equality for me too. I too yearned deeply to be out of the gender discriminating society. Perhaps, two of us together could erase boundaries, break walls, and bask in the boundless thing called freedom. In the night, we would talk of our dreams. We would push our beds together and talk and talk. Arti talks about her desire to start a fashion boutique but I had nothing specific in mind, except worry about the future, worry about entering into the wide world; worry about finding a job and earning my own livelihood. These thoughts often paralysed me to the point of losing courage. I, who had lived inside the cubicle of barbed wires, for me to go out into the world alone, and live by Mrs. Gill’s remote control was not at all comfortable. And then I would remember Rani Padmini and Mira, the saint, and cuddle up courage from the two women of history. As per the hostel rules, lights used to go off at eleven o’clock. The shafts of light from the back garden fell across the window and vanished into the darkness opposite. Often, I would open my locker, take out a candle and light it. Then, I would place it in a saucer on the table. “Shall we join our beds? That way we can talk without being heard and admonished by the warden,” Arti had suggested on the very first night, in the hostel. Arti wanted to talk and talk. “Why should the warden admonish us?” I had asked innocently. “One never knows,” Arti threw up her hands in disgust. “You see, she knows we are both married and sort of starved. So, she may not like that we are joining our beds. In the morning, we have to put the cots back to where they are.” “Starved? Why? The dinner was quite filling,” I had said on that first night. “How naive you are! Forget it.” Arti found me too straight, too innocent. Arti knew all about the vices in a ladies hostel. There was a lot of vicious talk about the warden and her friend. The two had lived together for fifteen years. They were best of friends. The warden was north Indian and her companion was south Indian. They lived like sisters, but people jibbed at them. Arti did not want to discuss such matters with me. I was married, and yet how was that I had no idea of four lettered words or the ‘meaty’ jokes? How is that I did not talk about my nuptial night and its delights? Once Arti had expressed surprise, when I told her nothing had happened on the first night, except a stranger who came upstairs and stood by my door. Arti had laughed and laughed. “My husband, he fucked me three times that night. He tried all the postures in a single night.” And, she had lit up a cigarette and blew out smoke like a chimney. “Yaar, Neelam, it is good to be fucked. But you won’t understand, you have lived in purdah.” Then I disclosed to her, about the plan at Kothi. That a man had gone searching for a virgin prostitute. She was to be kept on trial basis in the outer house. Her job was to give an heir to the estate. If she did not get pregnant, another one would be brought to cohabit with my husband. That Hari had actually started going to her. Arti was aghast; how could a virgin prostitute be brought to the house? That had been the tradition of the family. It was then that I confided in her that I could not conceive perhaps, would never be able to conceive. A reason enough to escape, and find shelter in the hostel. “Did you ever see a fertility doctor? I know a good one in Delhi. She promises not only a child but a male child.” “I do not know about a fertility doctor. All I know that my periods are scanty and I cannot bear a child.”