A Chronicle of the Peacocks – Summary

A Chronicle of the Peacocks (Morenama) was written in 1999. ‘Nama’ means Chronicle and is of special significance in Urdu literature. As your textual notes inform you, ‘nama’ generally describes the life of a well known person, as in Babarnama or Akbarnama. Husain’s use of the word is ironic because he is writing a chronicle not of any known personality but of the peacocks.

In writing his chronicle of the peacocks Husain takes us on a journey through troubled times of past and present and draws on myths, legends and contemporary history to drive home the point that war only leads to destruction, dislocation and environmental degradation. It is ignited and stoked by a total collapse of reason and rational judgement.

Summary and Analysis

A mixture of fantasy and realism opens the story. The immediate context is India’s testing of the atomic bomb at Pokhran. The first person narrator who is quite obviously the author here is shocked and upset at being pursued by an evil spirit. Only towards the end of the narrative it is revealed who this evil spirit is. India’s testing of the atomic bomb has resulted in all the peacocks of Rajasthan flying away in fear. Husain is pointing at the destruction of the natural world which is occurring as a consequence of the use of more and more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction in war. It is a fact that environmental degradation as a consequence of man’s greed for power is never given much significance. For this same reason news about the peacocks is tucked away as a small note amidst the more terrifying news about the explosion. By writing a column about the peacocks, the author smugly thinks that he has done his duty and is free from all obligations. But is it really so? Are we really free, asks the author? The manner in which that insignificant piece of information continues to haunt and disturb the author leads him to illustrate his mental state by using the example of a legend about Manuji’s fish that continues to grow till it becomes so huge that it has to be released into the sea. In a similar manner the small note about the peacocks continues to overwhelm the author’s imagination.

A mixture of fantasy and realism continues to build up the narrative and from Manuji’s world we move into the author’s world. A flash-back to the past takes us to an earlier occasion and Husain recalls his first visit to Jaipur and his amazing encounter with the beautiful peacocks. They turn out in such great numbers that they are seen on every tree, rock and hill. They had a quiet dignity, and a royal grace and a calm elegance, writes Husain. This is however a picture from peaceful times. Post Pokhran there are no peacocks to be seen anywhere. Husain’s technique of juxtaposing memory and the factual situation allows him to heighten the contrast in the situation. While his first vision of the peacocks was one of beauty and grace, the second vision is of a ‘battered and bruised’ lonely peacock on a distant hill which rises into the sky screaming with terror when the author approaches him. There are no peacock songs to welcome him now. Despondent, terrified, dejected and bewildered, the peacock is the very picture of desolation.

Suddenly the perspective shifts to a more global context and Husain recalls another similar picture of devastation: ‘. . . a forlorn duck covered with foul effluents watching the waves in disbelief . .’ The weary bird is a symbol of the horrors of war between the United States and Iraq. The two images become a powerful condemnation of all forms of violence. The suffering of these natural creatures for no fault of theirs is a reminder to us that we are not too far behind. While we destroy their habitat and their world the needle of destruction is moving towards us at the same time. The royal swans exist only in legends now and the reference here is obviously to those species of the natural world that have become extinct now. Husain interestingly polarizes the ancient and the modern to highlight the difference between the two situations. There are no shimmering waters of the Mansarovar now. Instead ‘the lakes are dry, the rivers polluted and the air thick with the dust and smoke of bombs.’

By now it is evident that the story is shaping up as an allegory against war and its evils. The lonely peacock and the bewildered duck as symbols of our times are both powerfully evocative images of what we have done to our world by inducting unnecessary suffering into our surroundings suffering that is engulfing poor innocent victims of the power – hungry. The irony is that while we continue to destroy the natural world we are by extension destroying ourselves because we too are a part of it. If we try to be a little more specific in the context of the story then both birds also become symbolic of all those innocent victims of war who ultimately pay the price for man’s greed for power. In Husain’s own words ‘the rich and the powerful rarely ever pay for their sins: instead the poor and weak take upon themselves the burden of suffering so as to redeem their times.’ Husain stretches the allegory and the symbolic significance a little further and likens the birds to ‘those prophets who, according to all religious texts, think of suffering as a sacred duty.’

Throughout the narrative we are constantly on the move along with the author traveling through worlds of past as well as present ages. Journey is obviously being used as a metaphor here. We are all familiar with the concept of life being a journey where we begin somewhere and then travel through time and space to reach a goal which ends that journey. In Husain’s narrative his life’s journey is almost symbolic of the journey of mankind through different time and ages at the end of which he should have reached a goal which could be that of understanding his role in the natural scheme of things. While there are many lessons to be learnt on the way the sad and unfortunate realization is that the goal of understanding is still beyond the reach of man. For the same reason man persists in his self destructive pursuits of power. Through his use of myths and legends Husain points out that despite having traveled through a long span of time for mankind the situation today is not very different from the situation a few millenniums ago.

Coming back to the narrative we resume our journey with the author in search of peacocks and enter another legend which tells us how the peacock once inadvertently helped Satan to enter the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden the peacock too is asked to leave. What a fall from grandeur! While earlier it used to perch on the walls of Paradise now it sits on the wall of the author’s terrace. Husain repeatedly resorts to legends to enrich his narrative and to give us a multi-dimensional picture of the peacock consistently focusing on what used to be and what is. In the above mentioned legend however, the peacock is being seen as an ‘exile’. Exiled from paradise in the ancient lore and now exiled from its natural habitat in the hills of Rajasthan. The idea of exile and migration that is the central metaphor of the story finds a concretization in the words of Husain’s old grandmother. Her words bring back memories of the Partition days when thousands of people were exiled from the land of their birth simply because they belonged to a particular community or religion. Her words include all those who face the aftermath of wars between countries. Referring to the peacock on her rooftop she says: ‘. . . that is what happens when we are exiled from our own courtyard. Now all he can do is find something to sit on – any wall around any courtyard – or any tree or hill where he can find a foothold.’ Being exiled from one’s homeland from one’s familiar surroundings is one of the many outcomes of war and violence. The exiled peacocks of Rajasthan and the exiled peacock of the legend assume symbolic proportions to highlight the plight of all those who face a similar outcome of the ravages of war. The narrative thus keeps on unfolding as an allegory drawing attention to various aspects of war and the way it affects the world. .

The author carries on with his journey and we see him walking through Sravasthi next. Even though this abode of the Buddha is in ruins now yet Husain sees one peacock sitting on a green hill, lost in thought as if waiting for someone. Due to the presence of that one peacock Sravasthi seemed a ‘place of great tranquility.’ The image of a ruined yet tranquil Sravasthi is juxtaposed with yet another image of desolation. Husain is recalling the days of the Partition here and the immediate reference is to the looting of a caravan of migrants which was a common occurrence in those days of turmoil. Even amidst this desolation he hears the call of a peacock which in the present circumstances seems strange and ‘resonant of millenniums past.’

The metaphor of a journey continues and with this strange call of the peacock we go further down the ages into those past millenniums of which this call is reminiscent. Fantasy comes into play in quite a strange manner in this part of the narrative. The author continuously beckoned by the peacock’s call finds himself in Indraprastha, the city of the Pandavas. The significance of this journey into the past is revealed only later when the author returns to Rajasthan and discovers that the spirit of Ashvatthama has followed him. The image of the author being followed by the evil spirit is horrifying enough to make the peacocks fly away in terror. Fantasy and realism once again come into play together. On the realistic level the Husain is probably journeying through India and particularly Rajasthan but on the metaphorical level it is also a journey into the past – a past built not only by history but also by myths and legends.

We have seen how Husain has constantly woven myths and legends into his narrative to effectively comment on war and its evils. Once again the same technique is adopted to make a compelling assessment of a situation in the past which has risen like a phoenix in our present times. With the mention of Ashvatthama’s name we enter the world of The Mahabharata and the battle at Kurukshetra. Husain makes a skilful comparison between the realistic situation and the situation in the legend when in the last days of the battle Ashvatthama, son of Dronacharya, releases the Brahmastra. Husain’s description of the Brahmastra though based on information in the legend can easily fit the description of any modern day atomic bomb. The interplay of tradition and modernity goes hand in hand with the mixing of fantasy and realism. The comparison between the two situations can be stretched even further only to point out the fact that we have not learnt any lessons from our past mistakes. Just as modern day countries sign nuclear non-proliferation treaties so also both Dronacharya and Arjuna, the two parties in possession of the powerful weapon, vow never to use the Brahmastra and unleash its destructive powers over the world. Husain makes an astute comment on the situation in any war when things spiral out of control and people start resorting to desperate measures. He writes: ‘The last days of the war are the most fearful. They are dangerous and unpredictable. During those days men are tempted to use weapons that are only meant to threaten.’ This is what had happened when Hiroshima burned and this is exactly what had happened millenniums ago when Ashvatthama in his foolishness, used the Brahmastra and unleashed total destruction over the world of Kurukshetra.

The description in the legend evokes an all too familiar picture. ‘The fire is so intense that its flames singed all three worlds’ writes Husain. The most difficult aspect to the use of such a weapon is that once it is released there is no stopping it. Destruction is imminent and all one can do is deflect it a little bit to control the extent of that devastation somehow.

There is a tacit warning embedded in the legend especially for modern day readers like us for whom Hiroshima is not too distant in the past and who continue to witness countries in a constant race for arms and adamant in their efforts to build up nuclear arsenals. On the surface of it leaders vow never to use nuclear power for destructive purposes. But Husain’s words are a chilling reminder that in times of war reason fails and rationality does not work. Who can keep the controls then? This is what had happened in the legend and Ashvatthama had released the Brahmastra. This is exactly what can happen in any similar situation of war irrespective of time and place. The only difference would be that instead of being a Brahmastra it may be an atomic bomb or any other weapon of mass destruction.

Husain may be writing of times in the past but the image that he builds up is ominous and at the same time familiar. ‘There was mourning in every home. In every family a child had died.’ Children, the most innocent victims of the situation have to pay the price with their lives. Even the wombs of women become barren thus snuffing out the possibility of a continuity of life. The aftermath of a nuclear explosion can present a direct comparison with the above description from the legend. In modern day warfare such an outcome is always a real possibility. No amount of punishment can undo the harm that is done.

The interplay of fantasy and realism continues. A punished Ashvatthama presents a horrible image with blood and pus flowing continuously from open wounds. Husain tries to escape this apparition by hiding near Meerabai’s Samadhi at first and then inside Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti’s dargah.

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