The Peacock Garden was written by Anita Desai and originally published in 1979 by William Heinemann Ltd. This is a story told from the eyes of an innocent child who tries to see the positive in everything.
Zuni is a young girl who is woken one night in the summer of 1947 in India by the extreme heat. She sees flames in her neighbour's courtyard and realises that's why she was feeling hotter than any other night of that hot summer so far. Zuni's dad carries her with her mother and sister Razia following carrying very few of their possessions but including her mother's beloved sewing machine. Gopal, who watches over the family's mango grove and helps look after their cattle leads them safely to a mosque as the Hindus are burning down Muslim homes wanting them to leave and live in the newly formed Pakistan. Razia's fiancé Ali and his family have left for Pakistan much to her dismay. Whilst their other Muslim neighbours who are also taken to the mosque to safety have agreed to move to Pakistan, Zuni's father insists that their family must stay in the mosque until it's safe to leave and go back to their own home and soon Zuni is spending her days alone within the confines of the mosque with no company aside from the beautiful peacocks that also live there. Will Zuni's life ever be as happy as it once was? Will Razia ever be reunited with her Ali?
The Peacock Garden is a very short book of just 71 pages and of those 71 pages; some 14 pages are dedicated to black and white illustrations by Mei-Yim Low. I read this book quite easily cover to cover in less than 45 minutes although it would have been faster had I not taken time over looking at the fabulously detailed illustrations interspersed with the story.
Zuni's character comes across as a delightful child of around 7 or 8 years of age and the story is told mostly from her point of view (although not in the first person).
1947 was the year India got independence from the British but it was also the year that Pakistan was formed and there was a lot of rioting and killing of Hindus by Muslims and vice versa. Hindus that lived in what is now Pakistan were killed or forced to leave for India losing their property and land in the process and the same happened to many Muslims in India.
This story does not dwell on the rights or wrongs of what happened between the Hindus and Muslims. In fact, the characters introduced in this short book are mostly likeable. Gopal who works for Zuni's father is a Hindu who risks his life to get them to safety and to try to guard their property whilst they're in hiding. When Zuni's father takes her to visit her school after what is probably several months in hiding she is excited to meet up with her Hindu friends who have missed her terribly and she takes a few of them back to see where she lives in the mosque and to admire the beautiful peacocks she has grown to love and admire.
The Peacock Garden is a lovely read which transports you back in time to a difficult era in India's history with friendships torn apart and homes and possessions destroyed needlessly. Desai tells the story simply but with beautiful descriptions of the scenery which help you visualise (as well as the book's illustrations) the colourful surroundings of Zuni and her family's safe haven.
Overall I found The Peacock Garden to be a charming story, although very sad in some places. Told through a child's eyes, the illustrations are very helpful in bringing the story to life and even though this book may have been originally written for a young audience (I think to age 12), I thoroughly enjoyed the read myself, hence a decent 4 out of 5 stars from me.
My edition of The Peacock Garden was published in 1991 by Mammoth and printed in the UK by Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading, Berkshire. The cover price on the book is £2.50 which seems rather dear considering this was published in 1991 and was only 70 odd pages. It seems to be a very difficult book to get hold of now though as it's not freely available on Amazon or other sites. The only copy I could see for sale was a used hardback copy via Amazon for nearly £90! I was able to find out, though, that the book seems to be available for loan from libraries.
Anita Desai, the author, grew up in India and published her first story, aged 9 and has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize for fiction.
ISBN: 0 7497 0592 2