Neel’s marriage began unravelling like a spool of thread the day he brought home a peacock. It started like this: waiting to catch the bus home Neel saw a flash of turquoise. He looked up and down. It was the usual snarl of evening traffic on a hot, humid Delhi night, mopeds belched fumes, cars sounded their klaxons and harassed women hurried home, balancing babies and groceries. Lurking behind a large dusty hibiscus bush, he found a peacock pecking at a scattering of peanuts. In years to come when Neel had left Delhi and settled in his ancestral village by the sea, when his hair had turned silver and his back bent double with age, he still liked to tell who ever would stop to listen about the day he fell in love with a peacock.
The peacock lifted his eyes that were as blue as Lord Shiva’s neck and looked at him, unblinking, brave and trusting. Neel knew then that the bird would fill the heart- shaped hole in his life and be his companion in sickness and old age. God had not granted him children, but bestowed on him this gift instead as a consolation prize. How could he leave the bird alone in the thick smog of the Delhi night? It was bad enough in daytime, with rogue boys pulling at your pockets, their wheedling voices demanding food, shelter, money and even your life, if you had one to spare. Neel imagined the bird’s inert body with its exposed pink belly lying across the highway, each feather plucked by greedy hands that fashioned it into clumsy crescent shaped fans to sell to open-mouthed tourists salivating over the Taj Mahal.
‘I will look after you,’ Neel promised the bird. The peacock edged closer and pressed his stomach to his waist. Neel felt his insides clench like a fist. This is what love must feel like he thought running a tender hand across the peacock’s back, which felt scaly like the back of the pomfret his wife fried occasionally as a special treat. The thought of the pomfret deep-fried with mustard seeds and ginger made his stomach rumble. The peacock, as though reading his mind, flicked out its tongue and smacked its beak.
‘Let’s go home and eat,’ Neel told the bird. He carefully loosened his striped orange tie, untied the knot and pulled the polyester ends together carefully until he’d formed a kind of lasso, the type used by John Wayne in cowboy movies. Carefully, he edged forward, eyes intent on the shimmering silk of the peacock’s neck. One careful flick and the deed was done. The peacock was captive and was his. Kindly, but with a firm hand Neel guided the peacock home through the belch of evening traffic. Cars pulled up, excited children yelled and pointed stubby fingers at the bird. An old nun standing at the traffic lights crossed herself as she saw him walk past. Neel smiled at her. ‘My new love. The apple of my lonely eye.’ He threw this confession into the air like a bouquet, waiting to see who would catch it. But the city was busy and tired and didn’t care.
‘We have a new family member and he’s very hungry,’ Neel shouted to his wife, Geeta, pausing at the front door to remove his shoes.
‘Who has come? Is it your brother…’ his wife’s called out from the kitchen. ‘Tell him to sit. We’re having fish for dinner.’
‘Come and greet him,’ Neel shouted back. Bending down, so his mouth was next to the peacock’s head, he whispered.
‘Don’t worry. She is a kind woman. She will be like a mother to you.’ The peacock’s feathers quivered and he made a loud rasping sound, spitting out a small dead snake. Neel hastily pushed the snake with his foot under the sofa.
There they stood, Neel and the peacock in the front room, the bird clumsily wedged between the coffee table and the brown sofa. The bird kept making loud guttural sounds and began jabbing the crochet tablecloth.
Geeta came in and seeing the bird, screamed aloud.
‘What monster is this? Don’t you know it’s bad luck to keep a peacock? Have you gone mad! Get rid of him quick or he’ll end up in a ditch, ‘she said, one arm on her ample hip, the other swinging the Japanese knife she used to skin the pomfret gills. Her eyes bulged and blazed as she stared at the peacock.
‘He’s not leaving and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ Neel murmured. He thought of his life- the endless beige coloured days commuting to work and the nights, punctuated only by his wife’s bickering that fell steady like the monsoon rain.
‘I can compete with a woman, but I don’t hold a chance against this bloody bird,’ Geeta wailed, her heavy hipped frame leaning against the doorpost. ‘We have barely enough money to pay the bills or buy a car and there you are bringing home another belly to feed?’ She paused and spat in the peacock’s direction.
But Neel’s mind was made up. The peacock was here to stay.
‘Find a place in your heart for him please,’ he pleaded with his wife as they sat down to dinner. Neel tore little flakes of his fish and gave it to the peacock. The bird kept opening his beak and soon Neel’s pomfret was gone.
‘Our bird here has a healthy appetite,’ he grinned. ‘Make sure you feed him well.’ He told his wife.
An idea bubbled inside Geeta’s head as she slept. The next morning she beamed at her husband. ‘Don’t you worry, Neel. I will look after him,’ she said stroking the peacock’s crest.
She was going to feed the peacock until he became fat and slothful and lost the glint and gloss of his feathers. She would tempt him with sweets, cakes and sugary smiles. Neel would soon fall out of love with the bird just as he had with her.
The following day she pawned her wedding jewellery and bought sacks of flour, tubs of butter, cream, and kilos of demerara sugar and pistachio nuts. She was going to fatten the bird to death.
Every evening, Neel would rush home from work, quickly change into his shorts and take the peacock for a stroll in the public gardens. He bathed the peacock’s feet in the fountains and obliged passers-by who wanted a selfie. When the nights were too hot and clammy, he coaxed the bird up a flight of stairs to the roof, where he pointed out the stars and sang him lullabies. A local newspaper carried a special feature on him, titled, ‘One Man and his Peacock.’ Neel had the article framed and he showed it to his boss.
Meanwhile in the kitchen his wife bent double over the hob, prepared dishes swimming in butter, nuts and cream.
‘How come we’ve suddenly got so much wonderful food?’ Neel asked her, as she cajoled another mouthful into the peacock’s open beak.
Geeta patted his hand. ‘My uncle passed away and he left me a little inheritance. We can have as much fish and rice, as we like. We want our bird to be well-fed don’t we?’ She fed the peacock pancakes for breakfast, beef burritos for lunch and biryani for dinner.
Months passed and the peacock’s feathers gradually turned dull and his belly rotund. His eyes were heavy lidded with sloth. At night, he belched and kept Neel awake. On weekends, he refused to come out of the kitchen. Neel wept with worry. He checked the bird’s pulse and massaged his neck with coconut oil. The bird grunted in pain and bit Neel’s hand.
‘What’s wrong with my love,’ Neel asked the vet who pressed his stethoscope to the peacock’s heart. The vet shook his head and drew up a list of ailments. All the rich food had damaged the bird’s heart, liver and kidneys.
Neel’s peacock died on the first harvest moon of autumn. The next day Neel packed his bags and left home. His wife never saw him again.
Reshma Ruia is a novelist, short story writer and poet based in Manchester. Her first novel Something Black in the Lentil Soup was described in the Sunday Times as “a gem of straight-faced comedy”. Her second novel manuscript, A Mouthful of Silence, was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her poetry collection, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ won the 2019 Word Masala Award. Her work has appeared in British and international anthologies and magazines such as Fictive Dream, Lost Balloon, The Nottingham Review and the Mechanics Institute Review and commissioned for BBC Radio 4. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a collective of British writers of South Asian origin.
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