Anukriti Singh – The Peacock Feather
The Peacock Feather
When my brother was five, he learnt at school that Peacock was the national bird of India. When he got home, he told everyone eagerly of his newfound knowledge. He even declared they were the most beautiful of all birds, waving the picture of the bird from his social studies book.
As grownups often do, not much attention was paid to him, a smile and a nod was more than enough. Weren’t there always more important matters that needed tending to? He retreated into his own world of pictures and awkward drawings, creating imaginary worlds, finding a place of his own; as children often do.
That week when my father came home and my brother decided to share the information about ‘our national bird’; my father heard him intently and asked him,
“Would you like to go and look at some peacocks?”
My brother just stood there for a few seconds unable to process the question. In his naiveté he had never even considered that possibility. He could hardly contain his excitement; his eyes wide, he nodded frantically with a full smile revealing the dimples on both his cheeks.
Such occasions often confused me. Was everything suddenly all right between my parents? Were we really all together or were we all pretending just for that episode? But who really cared about what we thought back then. We were just kids, never to be taken seriously.
I often told my sister we were nothing but wallpaper. We were there sure, but we just witness everything that went around us like harmless bystanders. No questions answered. No feelings dealt with.
So here we were. All huddled together, the three of us in the backseat, my parents in front, driving to an ancient temple at the foot of a small hill in the town we grew up in. What I didn’t know back then was how for years to come I would think back to that drive, relive it over and over. I would remember all the beautiful old Gulmohar and mango trees that lined the streets we passed. I would think back to the beautiful red Gulmohar flowers fallen on the pavements. I would remember how the beauty around me made me sad; it made me think of happiness as only fleeting.
I felt the warmth of my brother’s fingers around my own as the craggy hill gently descended upon us, as we got closer to the temple.
The temple, built in the early eighteen-hundred, stood stoic surrounded by pillared hallways. There was a huge banyan tree in the center of its compound, with a spacious cage built around it. There in the cage two peacocks were fostered. Well, technically a peacock and a peahen. Standing there, looking tiny before the cage was my little brother gaping at the beautiful birds. He stood absorbed, fascinated with the extravagant jewel toned tail of the peacock’s feather.
He held my elbow with his small hands and pointed towards the bird saying, “Look, a peacock feather!” He repeated it over and over and I nodded each time he said it.
My father sat with him on the stoop of the temple telling him all about the birds. What they ate, how they lived, their feathers. My mother joined them, slowly adding details to my father’s anecdotes. My sister looked at me wistfully and I knew very well what she was thinking. How it looked in that small passage of time. As if everything was perfect. Sitting there on the stoop of an ancient temple, we were happy. We were together.
I thought about the yogis at the temple. I wondered if like them, we too had finally crossed over? Left the world of illusion behind, and crossed into one of knowledge and truth?
On the drive back, my brother slept peacefully between my sister and I. In his hands he held a peacock feather given to him by the priest as a token. It was something he held onto for years to come and even considered his lucky charm.
My parents were talking softly in front with each other. It was growing dark and cold, and nestled together in that small car was my family. Far from the kind of families my friends had, but mine nonetheless. And no one could leave just yet. In that little vignette, I was ready to live lifetimes, maybe we all were.
I looked out of the window and for a while, I did not know if we were pretending anymore. Just for the duration of that drive, I knew and I believed that everything was all right. The journey became the destination and I knew all I could do was to just be present there, live it while it lasted.
What I did not know then was how decades later I would come home from a long cold walk to a mail from my brother. How his handwriting on the brown paper would make me smile. How I would tear open the envelope giddy with excitement not knowing what might be inside.
I did not know then how my eyes would well up at seeing my favourite old copy of Romeo and Juliet; the one I couldn’t find in our library on countless visits home. The one I fought for, blaming everyone for losing it just because I left home. What I didn’t know then was how I would stand with the dusty yellowing book in my hand, a bit saddened at not finding a note with it. How I would smell through those pages, the hard cover, the stained end papers, and the ink redolent of my adolescence.
What I didn’t know then, was how, placed between the last few pages, I would find it: the peacock feather.