The Peacock

A peacock had acquired 17th Street off Khayaban-e-Badban. While it wasn’t uncommon to see a peacock or two pecking away at the trunk of a gulmohar tree in one of the sprawling lawns of the Defence Housing Authority in Karachi, the appearance of this one was sudden and without warning. Rumors flew up and down the neighborhood about where he came from and why, but there was no way to know anything for sure. Probably after dispensing with his prior acquisitions, the peacock grew bored of wandering through empty lawn after lawn and decided to move on. The backstory isn’t important. He arrived, and we calibrated ourselves to the unwritten customs that govern peacock-human relationships.

We were forbidden from making conversation and eye contact with him, and we couldn’t directly acknowledge his presence even when he appraised us up close with his long neck turned sideways and quizzical. With some practice, I perfected the feint of seeing and not seeing at the same time, downcast eyes followed by a quick glance sideways. I’d catch a wash of green and gold to my left and on turning my head, a sunlit streak of cobalt blue to my right. Since the shape of the peacock was unusually elongated—the body of a giant chicken attached to six feet of iridescent tail feather—it was entirely possible for the top half of his body to be moving in a different direction from the lower half.

He was meticulous with his time and established a daily routine that took him up and down the neighborhood to evaluate whether it was well-suited to his needs. You don’t ask a peacock questions so it’s unclear what these needs were other than to maintain the social order by which he ruled his new kingdom and us, his subjects. The guard hired to protect the street from the usual riff raff on motorbikes and rickshaws woke from his decade-long slumber on the plastic chair at the end of the street and took to accompanying the peacock on his stately excursions. It was a sight to see, the slender blue neck bobbing back and forth and the guard marching in time to the peacock’s gait from a respectful distance with his gun tucked away beneath his belt. It always helps to have someone important living on your street and we all felt much safer than we had before. Meals were an affair. The peacock was served his breakfast of four gulab jamuns drenched in sheera on a silver platter in Lena aunty’s lawn, and his evening constitutionals brought him to my balcony where I presented him with high tea while avoiding eye contact. This wasn’t a job we could leave to the bumbling and fumbling of the servants. It had to be perfect. My high tea consisted of a delicate blend between east and west, pani puri, channa chaat, and cucumber and egg sandwiches, all of which the peacock pecked at with deadly precision, and a bowl of rosewater. The long hours of the afternoon he spent perched on adjacent roofs and balconies in deep contemplation of the wretchedness of all things in contrast to his own magnificence. I never discovered in whose lawn he found repose on the hottest days because he was excellent at vanishing when he didn’t wish to be seen.  

We, on the other hand, were always within the peacock’s line of sight as he enacted his rituals about the neighborhood day after day. We were aware of that kaleidoscopic presence at all times, that imperious beak considering all the options, paltry as they were. He’d stand on the tip of the highest roof, his tail feathers aflare in the breeze, and look out in the direction of the sea, far past our small neighborhood. What he saw out there we didn’t know, but in the authority of his gaze we understood that he knew his place in the world and in turn, we grew unsure of ours. We fought each other to gain his favor; if uncle Iqbal from across our house fed him mithai from Rehmat-e-Shireen, uncle Ahmad from down the street would appear with organic cottage cheese from Fresh Basket. The peacock had a discerning palate so we began looking up gourmet recipes that required the finest imported ingredients, each dish more elaborate than the previous. We sent our cooks back to the kitchen at all hours of day and night, and the sweeping women were forbidden from returning home in the evenings since the balconies and driveways required around-the-clock cleaning so the peacock’s feet wouldn’t encounter sharp pebbles or dirt on his walks. His leaps from one house to another were made cumbersome by the boundary walls, so we summoned the best contractors we knew and ordered expensive demolitions, the Housing Authority’s rules be damned. We knew they wouldn’t stop us, anyway. We had someone important living on our street. Front doors and balcony doors were left open so the peacock could peck at the contents of our homes at his leisure, and we took to sleeping on our bedroom floors because he expressed a clear preference for grooming himself at a height, and on the bedsheets. Shining trays of delicious treats were presented to him at all hours of the day and he evaluated our performance as we stood by sweaty and unnerved.

We were desperate for praise, for those moments of luminous symmetry in which swirling patterns of purple and teal fanned out before us and feathers quivered at a gold-flecked frequency no mortal could comprehend. He regarded us, then, not through one set of eyes but an iridescent hundred, each one telling us that we’d done well. It shook us to our cores and we bowed our heads and scurried off to the bathroom to empty our agitated bladders. In such moments, we were grateful at being spared his displeasure, which was a feral thing plucked from the deepest recesses of hell and lodged in his throat just waiting to blast off and demolish everything in its path. And when it finally came, that scream would reverberate through the walls, shatter anything made of glass, and deafen us for the rest of the day. We screamed at the maids to clean up the carnage while we hid behind curtains and wondered which neighbor’s effort was found worthless. We ignored the sweet jab of pleasure that it wasn’t us this time.

Time passed. It might have been months, it might have been more. I woke restless after Fajr one day right as the sun rose, and wandered out to the balcony. No one was ever awake at this hour except the drivers washing the cars and the crows making a ruckus overhead. The early morning light and the pollution mixed to create an anemic orange wash across the sky and I noticed the peacock walking past my house. He was slower than normal and I saw, along the nape of his neck, streaks of rust amidst cobalt blue for the first time, and crest feathers wilted like a plant hungry for sunlight. I watched his tail recede from view and wondered why the guard wasn’t following him up and down the street like he usually did.

I mentioned my morning observations to Lena aunty in passing and less than twenty-four hours later the whole neighborhood was talking in hushed whispers and casting quick glances in the peacock’s direction to confirm whether something was amiss. The more we looked, the more we saw. His appearance was lackluster. For many afternoons, we didn’t see him up on his favorite roof from where he’d observe the neighborhood and us. Even when he resumed his perch up there, he seemed a lesser version of himself and the radiance to which we were accustomed was replaced by a dull glow instead. The majestic stride slowed to a waddle because his stomach, previously sleek, looked as though he’d swallowed a small watermelon whole. The silhouette at sunset no longer inspired awe; it was suddenly round and awkward. Was it always so? Were we just rousing from a deep sleep? We were disturbed and uneasy at the thought. “It’s just not right,” Lena aunty huffed quietly after serving him the morning gulab jamuns. “Who does he think he is??” Uncle Iqbal muttered through clenched teeth as his masseuse worked on the ache made permanent in his lower back from the substandard sleeping arrangements.

We found tail feathers strewn everywhere we went now, the collective gaze of a hundred eyes suddenly diluted and forlorn. The guard at the end of the street had gone back to sleeping the day away and the peacock’s alert disposition had turned to a wandering listlessness. Our confusion gave way to resentment, and our eyes darkened at the thought of how small we’d become, how easily we’d succumbed to squatting in his shadow. It was as if a film was lifted from our eyes. “He thinks he’s better than us,” we said in angry whispers as we went through the motions of catering to his every need. “How dare he?” But the truth is, there is always a pecking order in the scheme of things and we knew he was at the top of it, especially at meal times when our heartbeats chased the tap of that proud beak against silver. But no. No. We wouldn’t be servants in our own houses anymore. We were more than what he’d reduced us to and we’d show him.

The changes happened slowly. At first, minor variations in the new clothes that came from the tailor’s. Bano aunty’s kameezes became more tight fitting than usual and in response, Lena aunty ordered her tailor to take in an additional two inches at the waist even though it meant she’d breathe like an asthmatic from now on. Elaborate sequin patterns twinkled on the borders of all kameezes on 17th street and the sleeves became longer and bell-shaped, set close at the upper arm but flaring out towards the bottom. A swirling fan shaped sleeve pattern in one house would prompt an accordian cuff pattern resembling bunched up feathers in another. Everywhere you looked, there were scalloped outlines in bright blue lace on pant legs that ended in frilly tassels. The men ordered their wives to procure an array of Mughal-style turbans to wrap around their heads, shiny velveteen bundles of purple and green with a jaunty feather on top. Their faces fermented in the blistering heat and rivulets of sweat ran down their temples, but they greeted each other on the street and exchanged pleasantries as though nothing were amiss. No man would be the first to take off his turban. One day when the electricity was gone and the generator had conked off, Lena aunty’s husband had to be rushed to the hospital for heat stroke but when their Prada returned home with him reclining in the front seat next to the driver, the turban was still firmly on his head.  

We were all ravenous like never before. Rehmat-e-Shireen opened a local branch in our neighborhood to accommodate our voluminous daily orders of gulab jamuns at sunrise and sunset. We grew small watermelons in our own stomachs and in the evenings, we swapped out tanker water for rosewater in our bathtubs and sunk into the fragrance, tired but delighted with our progress. Then suddenly, the colors of 17th street all changed. Grey was out, blue was in. Teal replaced turquoise, and mixtures of purple and green were everywhere. The painters came to 17th street in batches of six per house and stripped away the off-white exteriors. Velvety textures of bright blue blared from the walls of every house and the cars all had eyes on them. There were eyes everywhere now, eyes like mirrors watching each other and watching us, urging us on to greater heights.

All this the peacock observed in his usual silent way. One day, perhaps emboldened by our collective rebellion, I did something I never thought of doing before. After sullenly presenting him with a cucumber and egg sandwich on the balcony, I gathered my courage and my breath, and I looked straight into his eyes. The air was still as we stared at each other. I could never tell you what I saw in that unblinking obsidian gaze, only that it made me think of a room in darkness, of a child with its face to the wall, and shadows moving toward me, slow, like spilled ink. A pale plank of light split the dark in half and in it, I saw the peacock’s head illuminated. His neck was cocked sideways in that old way and in his slow considering gaze, I saw such amusement and contempt that I couldn’t breathe from the shame I felt. I just couldn’t breathe. I broke eye contact immediately and fled back inside the house.

We never saw the peacock again. We woke up one morning to the distinct sense that something was different, and we knew immediately that he was gone and wouldn’t be coming back. A deep silence fell over 17th street that day and the air was still. I spent hours on my balcony watching the crows circle overhead. Neighbors to the left and right of me wandered around like deflated wraiths in their gardens and ran their hands absently along their bright blue walls. The daily order of gulab jamuns was in but none of us had an appetite.

JAWZIYA ZAMAN is a writer and editor based in Karachi. She writes fiction and non-fiction, and her work has appeared in the Aleph Review, Dissent, Himal, Psychopomp, and Scribble Magazine, among others.