Although the book cover boasts only the title and the name of the writer, the world that births it is often forgotten, and in The Time of the Peacock, the reader gets a ticket to that world – of publishing. It harbours people who, like the peacock, strut with arrogance, vanity and boastfulness. The characters in this novel can be labelled “writer”, “editor” or “translator”, but the multiple points of view from which Siddharth Chowdhury writes would make them pointless. Instead, you see how the peacocks are much more than their vanity: they are the profession.
Janmejay “John” Nair, managing editor at Peacock India, drives around in a Delhi he’s familiar with, and yet he observes it like a flaneur bound to a car seat. He’s a Malayali married to a Kashmiri who thinks he has “no understanding of caste,”. Rifat Pandita-Nair isn’t wrong about this.
You’d expect an editor to reread his tweets before he posts them, but as a reply correcting his spelling of “gau”, which he spelt “g-a-y”, suggests, John will save his “decrepit ass” and “use TopGear” anyway. Chowdhury hits a nerve with this incident of performative activism gone wrong, as John helps out a family – comprising a henpecked husband, Hindu fundamentalist wife, and scared son – caught in an accident that totalled their car, by giving them a ride to Dharuhera.
“‘This is not a taxi. You don’t have to pay anything.’ After such monumental bad luck in the last half an hour, this small stroke of good luck, I hoped, would do much to restore his self-confidence. I would have hated to see him break down before his son.”
The publisher’s vanity
John is not a bad man, though he’s realistically flawed. But one could argue he’s not a faultless publisher. He conveniently assumes that one of his writers, Angika Raag Nishad, is Dalit. In the second part of the three-part novel, the reader learns from Angika that John “just assumed that” she’s Dalit and she “never corrected” him. This dynamic paints the picture of a larger space in the publishing world, one where the writer’s identity, rather than their story, gets the books off the shelf.
When John is not wooing Peacock India’s readership, his attitude moults like the peacock’s plumage. He sheds his vibrant tail feathers when he reminds himself that he hasn’t written fiction “since the age of twenty-five.” Those who can, do, but those who can’t, edit. But it’s hard to see why John can’t.
“I have made my peace with my inadequacy. I will never be a Roth, Capote, Seth, or Vijayan. And since I know of this despair, of not being able to write fiction, I can very well imagine the monumental hard work and perseverance of my authors, the fragility of their dreams, not to mention their egos. It is my job as editor to ensure that both do not shatter, and they continue writing their magical books.”
John has the feather customary for writers: he is as vain as a peacock, but he’s not as polygynous as the bird, even though his wife’s suspicions of an affair are proven true through Angika’s perspective. Nevertheless, he sees why it “serves” him “absolutely right for being a fence sitter,” he thinks, “looking at the weary policeman with his untucked shirt and loosely tied flak jacket slowly waving,” him and his hitchhikers on.
Thanks to this one-off incident, John recognises the effects of his political – and by extension, literary – inactivity. The frustration John feels at hearing the hitchhiking wife, Mrs Yadav, scream, “We are not Muslims,” could fuel his writing. It is impossible to divorce politics from craft, and Chowdury carries this sentiment in his dialogue.
A point of view
Men are as condescending as ever, addressing the women around them as “dear girl”, and Ritwik Ray, writer and translator, talks about women like a parlour aunty. But the dialogue is never static because Chowdhury has worked out every single one of his characters through their speech. How do they speak? In what language do they converse with each other? Why do they talk the way they do?
Not only does the novel answer all these questions, but it does this appropriately. From Ritwik’s conversation with Sukanya De, a literary agent, in the “pidgin Bhojpuri of their childhood” to Angika’s annoyance with a Mirpuri vendor from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the reader stands close enough to smell the alcohol on Ritwik’s breath and feel the coldness in the Rankin convenience store.
But dialogue is not the only weapon the writer wields. Chowdhury makes Ritwik’s character vulnerable to the reader’s interpretation, choosing an omniscient third-person point of view for him. The choice is intriguing, and although inconsistent with the other two parts of the novella, it is not misguided. Ritwik’s confident demeanour crumbles in the hands of the brutal narrator.
“He thought of Ramanuj and his plea, and he thought of his new novel, which it seemed no one liked, not his agent, not his publisher, but which he felt was one of the most unbridled he had written.”
Apart from occupying a room in Ritwik’s mind, the reader gets to peep at his world through the most transparent of windows – his eyes. Chowdhury feeds the voyeur in all of us, telling us what breaks Ritwik through this strategic use of perspective. Emotions run across one another in the other, first-person narratives, but they run clear in the third.
This approach begs the question: Why were the parts “Bhasha India” and “Wallace Water”, the voices of John and Angika, respectively, written in the first person? John’s section would also have benefited from the third person perspective – Chowdhury holds back as he does with his writers – but in complement with Angika’s, these sections become less of a moment. For Angika, the chosen perspective fits like a glove. She doesn’t hold back from telling you where she’s failing. She spits her failures out nonchalantly.
“I was not working on a new novel. I was just coasting along, flush with the success of my first novel and being the new darling of the Delhi literary world.”
Chowdhury’s transition from a man’s perspective to a woman’s is smooth. He makes it seem easy, drawing from the two things that bind John and Angika: Peacock India and the infidelity Angika wears like the peacock brooch he gifted her. John doesn’t wear it, let alone admit it.
But don’t mind about John, Angika doesn’t. “Fucker”, she calls him, adding, “but a brave, kind, and charming one at that.” Angika is self-aware, and she doesn’t need anyone, least of all a man. The internalised male gaze that often accompanies a male writing from a woman’s viewpoint doesn’t sully this part. She doesn’t drink coffee, and Chowdhury doesn’t make her a writer stereotype who sits in corner of a coffee shop:
“I smoke and drink my tea at leisure, warding off switching on my ancient Dell Vostro for as long as possible. But then after a quick satisfying shit I do switch it on and start reading from the top of the chapter I had been working on.”
Shame doesn’t stick to Angika; she resists it as laminated fabric does water. In “Wallace Water”, Chowdhury exposes the woman John calls “an excellent Bihari Dalit novelist from Calcutta”: the shame that chaperoned her parents’ marriage, the weight of her name, all wrapped with a bow of “crippled emotions”. Angika’s perspective is pivotal to the storyline. It loops the identity politics that stems from her embracing her father’s name, and the forgotten mundane life of a female writer, a story no one wants to publish.
“When I had added Nishad to my name, instead of the Das Sharma that she had insisted on, mother had thrown a massive fit.”
The novella reads like the mating cycle of a peafowl, where the peacock sheds its feathers in a matter of seven days, except it takes Ritwik only a few hours to stain his reputation, exposing himself during a book launch. But “Wallace Waters” hints that a few feathers remained on John. Angika’s episode is a two-year jump from the event, and Chowdhury moulds time around the three chapters.
When the reader stumbles into John’s life, they know nothing about the future, and neither does he. You hold hands with this character, even if you don’t want to, and you let him go to clasp Angika’s. Ritwik’s chapter is clarificatory, a nod to all the things that go wrong in the “goldfish bowl of the New Delhi publishing world.” The feathers that cling to this world are books like these that reveal its vulnerabilities. It forces the publisher to ask themselves a difficult question: “Why do you publish?”
The Time of the Peacock: A Short Novel, Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph Book Company.