Cultural Resistance and Gender in Anita Desai's "Cry the Peacock"

Academic Paper, 2019

15 Pages

Nono Kgafela-Mokoka (Author)

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Theoretical Framework

Analysis of the text




Globalization brings with it a cross pollination of economic, cultural, religious and social ideas and perceptions which may result in convergent and divergent reactions in different societies. In most societies, globalization results in socio- cultural resistance, especially on gender and power relations. This paper seeks examine the the impact of globalization on cultural gender stereotypes regarding the place and role of women in Indian society. It grapples with the question of how globalization reinforces or subverts gender stereotypes. The paper concludes that even in the advent of globalization, there is still cultural resistance concerning the place and roles of women in African societies as depicted in Disai’s Cry the Peacock.i

Key words: Globalization, gender, culture, reinforce, resistance.


Globalization is a process of interaction and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations. This process has effects on the environment, on culture, on political systems, on economic development and prosperity, and on human physical well- being in societies around the world. (

The argues that, even though there has been interaction of societies and some positive effects from globalization as asserted above, indigenous cultures have resisted globalization in their cultural treatment of women as subordinates of men. These societies have resisted globalization by continuing to preserve cultural values, including cultural gender role stereotypes, which further perpetuate the alienation, marginalization, and oppression of women. This view is shared by Chinkin (2001) who posits that:

The power structures of the nation State have been organized around patriarchal assumptions that have accorded to men monopoly over power, authority and wealth. A number of structures have been erected to achieve this in-balance that has disguised its inequity by making it appear as natural and universal… At the same time, the role of men in the public sphere has been supported by divisions between productive and un(re)productive work, presenting women's work as lacking economic value. While recognizing the fluidity of any demarcation between public and private spheres, the undervaluing of women's contributions and the primary responsibilities of women within the family impeded their advancement across many, if not all, societies… the reality that the State is no longer the sole institution that can define identity and belonging within it has denied women the space to assert their own claims to gendered self-determination.ii

Desai’s Cry the Peacock (1963) portrays the reality that traditional gender roles still prevail and a change of these stereotypes within patriarchal societies still remains a pie in the sky in most third world countries, despite the advent of globalization. The novel depicts precarious experiences of women: social, economic and emotional, perpetuated by promotion of patriarchal sentiments in societies. The power relations within societies is skewed towards the privileged males to the detriment of the subordinated women, who find themselves fighting and crying for social and emotional recognition, thereby choked by their muted and stifled existence. It is evident that globalization has not changed the role of women, but rather, further alienated and impoverished them due to cultural resistance. Jyoti (2017) observes that Desai probes into problems of women, be it of a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother or a wife. She focuses on gender roles, seen through the lenses of female activities, goals, values, institutions, relationships and modes of communication. Her protagonists are in constant conflict with the society. They suffer in a world dominated by men, who in the guise of a father, brother, or husband present a constant threat to their integrity (p.76)

Theoretical Framework

The paper adopts Intersectional Frameworks as a tool for the analysis of Desai’s Cry the Peacock since according to CRIAW (Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women), “different and diverse approaches are urgently needed in struggles for social and economic justice. This concept according to CRIAW (2006) grew out of the inadequacies of individual feminist movements to address the issues, concerns and struggles of women and their failure to keep pace with the growing complexity of contemporary social, political, economic and cultural conditions”iii (p.7)

Intersectional Feminist Frameworks (IFFS) according to CRIAW, examines how factors including socio-economic status, class, gender, sexualities, ability, geographic location. current systems such as colonialism and globalization to simultaneously determine inequalities among individuals and groups. It also challenges binary thinking (i.e. able/ disabled; white/ black; man/ woman; West/ East; North/ South, etc.) taken as definitive, since such thinking breeds social rankings and hence unequal power relations between groups of people. The framework focuses on locational, situational and particular, rather than universal, unlike the Global/ International feminism, that promotes universal sisterhood and ignores the uniqueness of every societal context. Mekgwe (2008) also observes that “women do not easily fall into neat categories such as ‘the oppressed’ as against ‘empowered men’; ‘marginalized third world women as against imperialist western women.’iv (p.210). The IFFS is appropriate for the analysis of Cry the Peacock because as an Indian novel written in English, the kind of gender oppression and means of survival by the protagonist are peculiar to the cultural context, which is Indian. IFFS helps identify and explain the marginalization, alienation of women within the Indian context, as represented in the novel.

Analysis of the text

Cry the Peacock is a good example of a novel that represents the struggles of an Indian woman within an Indian society, who experiences the pain of social, economic, and cultural binary segregation and ultimately finds solace in her love for nature and pets, as a means of survival. Maya, the protagonist, is married to a prominent lawyer, Gautama, who spends ninety percent of his life drowned in his career, which he takes on a daily basis to his home. This logically means that he has close to no time for his young wife, physically and emotionally. The marriage is basically loveless and the partners have no sexual relationship, leaving the wife emotionally starved and inculcating in her, a feeling of rejection and alienation. She becomes part and parcel of the furniture in the house, except for occasional sessions of tea with the husband at his will. This drives her into psychological torture and drives her beyond the borders of sanity and in turn, turns her into a psychological and neurotic lunatic who borders on mental insecurities; fear and death.

At the heart of the novel is the symbol of the peacock which is likened to the life of the protagonist and her behaviour throughout the novel. Efraim asserts that:

In India, the peacock carries both negative and positive symbolism. According to Hindu tradition, the flesh of the peacock is considered impure (i.e. bad to eat), since during the time of creation it was the one who captured the negative energies of the universe in its body. In secular terms, Indians see the peacock as a symbol of love and beauty- associations present in other cultures as well. However, the bird also possesses a rather unmelodious cry, considered by some to be a herald of the rainy season/monsoon. There is even an Indian saying that accurately summarizes all of this varied symbolism: "a peacock has the feathers of an angel, the voice of the devil, and the walk of a thief".(

The paper observes that Maya seems to have negative energies in her body from creation like the peacock. There is supposition that women are innately evil which can be traced back to Islamic traditions/ sayings, pronounced by some prophets. Rahman (1989) argues that a woman is a string of the devil; a woman is like a private part when she comes out, the devil holds her thigh. This idea of perceiving women as evil corresponds with the biblical version on the subject: that “Adam represents the positive atom/ion and Eve represents the negative atom/ion v hence the latter embodies negative energy, which resonates with the Hindu perception of the peacock as evil.

The use of the symbol of the peacock in the novel, therefore, ties well not only with Maya’s alienation by her husband, but also with her ultimate killing of Gautama. In other words, she becomes a ‘thief’ of his life.

Another similarity of Maya to the peacock is that of her cry: the unmelodious cry for love, for attention and touching by her husband. As a wife, she should be entitled to the husband’s love, attention and companionship. The deprivation of the above, the paper argues, is tantamount to sexual oppression, which according to Rahman (1989) exists in every society in the world and is achieved through men’s control of women’s bodies and when and how they (men) can fulfill the woman’s conjugal Maya cries and craves for her husband’s attention, which she never gets even when they are alone.

In the flashing darkness of eyeballs pressed upon by wet fingers, I relived the horror of those awesome realizations that had followed, sometimes a moment of union, and taught me how hopeless, how important is sex-where not union but communion is concerned. ‘Gautama,’ I had whispered then, torn to shreds by the dragon- like dark, and my worn body had made a movement towards him. ‘Yes?’ he had replied in a voice so daylit, so styptic, so dry, that we might never had brushed hand with hand, twined hair with hair, even in the most private of the night. (Cry the Peacock, p. 104)

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the passage: first that there is no sexual relationship between the husband and wife, which should form the core business of marriage; and second, that she is very frustrated and is in fact sobbing or crying as evidenced by ‘the wet fingers being pressed on eyelids.’ This demonstrates men’s control in sexual relations with womenas argued by Borger (1972) when he states that:

Men act, women appear, men look at women, and women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also in relation to women themselves…The woman’s sexual power needs to be minimized so that the spectator may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion. Women are there to feed an appetite not have any of their own. vii

On the importance of being loved, Coleman (1969), a psychologist states that the need to be loved is crucial for a healthy personality development and functioning .The longing for intimacy with others remains with us throughout our lives and separation from or loss of loved ones usually presents a difficult adjustment. The effect of the loveless marriage takes a toll on Maya and she, like the peacock, bemoans her rejection and alienation by her husband and his family when she laments that:

‘No one, no one else’ I sobbed into my pillow as Gautama went into the bathroom, ‘loves me as my father does.’ The curtain fell behind him, in tragic folds. He did not hear me- the tap was running. The vacuum into which I spoke made me more frantic, and yet he was not really meant to hear. In Gautama’s family one did not speak of love, far less of affection. One spoke- they spoke- of discussions in parliament, of cases of bribery and corruption revealed in government, of newspaper editors accused of libel, and the trials that followed, of trade pacts made with countries across the seas, of political treaties with those across the mountains, of distant revolutions, of rice scarcity and grain harvests… Gautama’s mother… I could mean anything more to her than yet another human being to be made comfortable in a hostile world. (Cry the Peacock, pp. 46-47).

The paper concurs that indeed in a patriarchal societies, women lack agency especially in sexual matters. Maya faces problems in her conjugal life, which results in anxiety, a sense of rejection and despair. “The absence of her husband’s companionship causes her to, like a peacock, cry for love. She wanted to live passionately like peacocks which tear at each other before making love.”viii

In the novel, Desai exposes culture-specific issues within the Indian patriarchal society. One of such issues is sexual division of labour. On the separation of gender roles, Smith (2018) argues that ‘socially and politically produced gender identities shape and influence global interactions. and produces such gendered identities in perpetuating assumptions about who should do what and why. These gender identities are also imbued with power, in particular, patriarchal power, which subordinates women and feminine gender identities to men and masculine gender identities.’ix

Such identities are portrayed in Cry the Peacock, in which ‘Desai probes into problems of women, be it of a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother or a wife. She focuses on gender roles, seen through the lenses of female activities, goals, values, institutions, relationships and modes of communication. Her protagonists are in constant conflict with the society. They suffer in a world dominated by men, who in the guise of a father, brother, or husband present a constant threat to their integrity’x

One wonders if Desai was, in writing the novel, disturbed by some Islamic traditions/ stereotypes which “considered women as ‘empty headed blabbers’ causing chaos” (Rahman: 1989), or their relegation to submissiveness out of the fear of their sexuality by men. This patriarchal oppression of women is reflected through Maya’s confinement to the home. Gautama on the other hand, has the privilege of working outside the confines of their home. Maya spends her days in solitude and as a result, “suffers from headaches, experiencing rages of rebellion and terror, and as she moves towards insanity, she sees visions of rats, snakes, lizards, iguanas creeping over her, slipping their club-like tongues in and out. Her dark house appears like tomb.’ xi Maya’s confinement to the home or private sphere can be summarized by Aristotle’s contention that:

Men and women naturally differed both physically and mentally. He claimed that women are "more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive ... more compassionate ... more easily moved to tears ... more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike ... more prone to despondency and less hopeful ... more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory and ... also more wakeful; more shrinking and more difficult to rouse to action" than men.xii

To add salt to Maya’s psychological wounds, Gautama also thinks that Maya is mad:

‘Listen,’ he insisted, for my words made no sense to him, he was not a mind- reader at all, he had not the faintest knowledge of me. ‘Listen. You do not need to explain. I understand, I do. And if I appear- untouched, then it is because I am too perturbed to be touched. This is madness, Maya, quite uncalled for…’

‘Then I am mad? You think me mad?’ I screamed, throwing up my fists to thrust him from me, flinging myself away from him, down the steps, into the dark, the dark. Traitor! I wanted to scream. Traitor, you are the one to betray me!

He followed me, grasped me and shook me roughly. ‘Neurotic, that’s what you are. A spoilt baby, so spoilt she can’t bear one adverse word. Everyone must bring a present for little Maya- that is what her father taught her.’ It was he who spoke bitterly now. (Cry the Peacock, pp. 114-115)

The passage above highlights the perception of women within the patriarchal Indian society which reflects Aristotle’s idea that women are ‘impulsive and ... more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike ... more prone to despondency and less hopeful ... more void of shame or self-respect.’

Maya and Gautama live in two different worlds: one of dreams, fantasy and romance and the other, of pragmatism and reality . This is evident during their walk in the garden:

And we strolled up and down the lawn, talking desultorily, not really listening to each other, being intent, on our own paths which, however, ran parallel and closely enough for us to briefly brush against each other, now and then, reminding us- or, perhaps only myself- of peace that comes from companion life alone, from brother flesh. Contact, relationship, communion… I let these warm, tender sensations bathe me in their lambency, soothe me till the disturbed murmurs of my agitation grew calmer, and I could step out of the painful seclusion of my feelings into an evening world where the lawn had just been trimmed. (Cry the Peacock, p.18)

This, the paper maintains that cultural influx has only served to reinforce gender role stereotypes. Hindi (2014) asserts that globalization has been has been [apart from its economic, religious and political impact], a cause of numerous socio-cultural complexities.xiii

Globalization has, therefore, not done much to change the status/ place of women in Indian society. It has instead reinforced and cemented the cultural gender stereotypes constructed from time immemorial by patriarchal societies across the globe . Gautama’s detachment from Maya affects her psychologically. However, she could not protest against it since her father has taught her to accept life as it was. She suffers without discussing her feelings with her husband. Maya’s emotional repression shows her struggle against patriarchy. She in turn becomes frantic and even sees shadows in the night; hears drums and all these remind her of the astrology: the eminent death of either Gautama or her. However, Gautama is oblivious of her suffering and trivializes whatever she says to him:

You are right. You are, in a fashion, less of an egoist than I. While I must always have piece of paper in my hand, or a book, or people around me, so that I may write of myself, search for myself in them, talk to them of myself, you are the one who can bear to be absolutely alone, losing yourself in your garden and your pets. Strange,’ he mused, turning away from me and beginning upon a nervous chain of cigarettes, half or quarter smoked, that seemed to be necessary fuel for his ticking brain. (Cry the Peacock pp. 118-119)

Maya shifts her love to the natural world around her, something that causes her to ultimately push Gautama over the balcony when he accidentally comes between her and the moon in the garden:

And then we turned again, walking towards the terraced end now, and I saw, behind the line of trees that marked the horizon, the pale hushed glow of the rising moon. I held him there, while I gazed at it watching the rim of it climb swiftly above the trees, and then walked towards it in a dream of love…casting a light that was holy in its purity, a soft, suffusing glow of its chastity, casting its reflection upon the night with a vast tender mother love… And then Gautama made a mistake- his last decisive one. In talking, gesturing, he moved in front of me, thus coming between me and the worshipped moon, his figure an ugly, crooked shadow that transgressed its sorrowing chastity. ‘Gautama!’ I screamed in fury, and thrust out my arms towards him, out at him, into him and past him, saw him fall then, pass through an immensity of air, down to the very bottom. (Cry the peacock, p. 208)

It is clear that Maya’s neglect, rejection and alienation finally lead to neurotic aggression as a result of her fragment psyche. Gautama has now become an intruder in her closely knit love for natural object, the moon, which has been elevated to the place of her absent mother. The end is tragic and the albino Astrologer’s prophecy that either of the couple would die an unnatural death has come to pass. The peacock has finally killed its mate, pushed into the act by patriarchal seclusion, frustration and oppression.

Another form of patriarchal oppression of women characters is their victimization by prophets or astrologers, who have the preserve of supernatural knowledge. The novel has an astrologer who is male. A devastating prophecy is uttered to Maya, the female character, and the effect of which is spine-chilling and turns her into a lifetime psychological and emotional wreck. It haunts her and denies her the opportunity to lead a happy and fulfilled life. In Cry the Peacock, there is an Albino Prophet who prophesizes about Maya’s future while Maya is still young:

He twitched the fold of his grimy robe between thighs that flashed through holes and openings, here, there obscenely. ‘No doubt about it, and so it is my duty to warn you,’ Like sweet oil, his smiles dripped on me. ‘My child, I would not speak of it if I saw it on your face alone. But look, look at the horoscope. Stars do not lie. And so it is best to warn you.’ He played on in this manner, seemed even pleased when the ayah, grown impatient and plaintive, interrupted with her whinings, her protests, for this gave him time to argue with her, coyly, and prolong the tense drama. All the while he smiled, and his eyes now turned colourless, now flashed with light. Sometimes he grew emphatic, and creased his brow and raised his arm, his voice, ‘Death,’ he finally admitted, in one such moment, ‘to one of you. When you are married- and you shall be married young.’ The light suddenly sunk, and his eyeless face assumed the texture of a mask above me, ‘Death- an early one- by unnatural causes,’ he said, softly, sibilantly, and gently lowered his arms till they dropped to his side, and then became furiously mobile once more, casting his robes once this way, once that. He cut short the Aya ’s horrified wail. ‘Be quiet, woman, who speaks to you, you old illiterate? You believe me anyhow, whether I lie or speak the truth. (Cry the Peacock, pp. 29-30)

The paper notes that prophecy cannot be questioned, after all it has been pronounced by a man, privileged to be the embodiment of indigenous and supernatural knowledge. That is why the astrologer does not allow the Aya to question his prophecy. The effect of such pronouncement can be clearly seen in Maya’s neurotic state:

And then those fierce headaches began, frightening in their intensity, clenching in their steel jaws my entire brow, then shifting a tortuous weight to point between my eyes- the albino astrologer had touched me, just there, had he not? Then to one side of my head, till only that seemed to exist and I became a half headed ogre, then slipped across my scalp and down to my neck, throbbing like a drum. The drums never ceased. ‘Stop them, tell them, tell them to stop,’ I begged, when in this state…Shadows and drums, drums and shadows. (Cry the Peacock, pp. 151& 153)

Maya’s neurotic state is indeed a result of the horrible prophecy about her eminent death or that of her partner. It grows like a sick rose until she finds solace in pets, animals and plants. This draws her away from Gautama, who never bothered to understand what she was going through. When her dog dies, it triggers the memory of the prophecy and no one seems to understand her unusual mourning for Toto, the dog:

It was that something else, that indefinable unease at the back of my mind, the grain of sand that irked, itched, and remained meaningless. Meaningless, and yet its presence was real, and a truly physical shadow[of death[, like the giant shadows cast by trees, split across the leaves and grasses towards me, with horrifying swiftness, till like the crowding blades of grass, it reached my toes, lapped my feet, tickling and worrying, and I leapt from my chair in terror, overcome by a sensation of snakes coiling and uncoiling and uncoiling their moist lengths about me, of evil descending from an overhanging branch, of an insane death, unprepared for, heralded by deafening drum- beats…. (Cry the Peacock, pp. 12-13)

Indeed asChanda (2014: 2) argues, Cry the Peacock ‘is a faithful description of psychosomatic growth of a female character, who cannot cope up with the practical world of the husband and feels dejected, forlorn and demoralized.”xiv


The paper has identified ways in which Indian societies have resisted globalization (as depicted in Cry the Peacock) in as far as gender issues are concerned. The third world perception of globalization is that of a harmful process that maximizes inequality within and among states [and among men and women, deepening misery of women of women by reinforcing gender stereotypesxv. An average woman always lived a life not better than that of a slave right from childhood to older age, she has been in a subordinate position to man. She has not been recognized as an independent entity. Her welfare is associated with that of her husband. The woman is enslaved, degraded, and subject to various types of atrocities and tyrannies in the man dominated society. In households there are two laws: one for the privileged males and the other for the deprived tribe of women. Women have inferiority complexes and the complex of revenge against society.xvi



i Anita Desai. (1963). Cry the Peacock. Dehli: Orient Paperbacks.

ii Christine Chinkin. ‘Gender and Globalization’ Global Forum (UN Chronicle), February 2001.

iii Intersectional Feminist Frameworks: An Emerging Vision. Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 2006, pp.5

iv Pinkie Mekgwe, “Theirizing African Feminism(s): the ‘Conolonial’ Question”, in Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy/Revue Africaine de Philosohie XX 11-22

v Pao Chang. “The Secret Meaning of the Tree of Life& the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” in good-...

vi Farhat Rahman. (1989). “Female Sexuality and Islam.” in http:/ (retrieved 8/13/2019

vii John Borger (1972).Ways of seeing.

viii 2009.

ix Sarah Smith. ‘Introducing Feminism in International Relations Theory. Accessed 6, June 2019 at

x Jyoti. ‘Women as a suffering Soul in Anita Desai’s Cry The Peacock’. International Journal of English Research Vol. 3, Issue 2; March 2017, pp. 76-78.

xi Pawan Kumar, Nazir Ahmad Reshi. ‘Anita Desai: Cry The Peacock, “A series of situations arise in man and woman relationship.’ IJLTEMAS Vol III, Issue 1, January 2014 (pp.65- 69), p.67.

xii Aristotle. (1961). Aristotle's poetics. New York :Hill and Wang

xiii Gizel Hindi, ed. ‘The Effect of Globalization on Identity’.’ European Scientific Journal. Special Edition, Vol 1, June 2014.

xiv Priyanka Chanda. (2014). Sense of Alienation: Anita Desai’s Cry the Peacock. Abhinav

xv Habib. ‘Globalization and Literature’ Language in India Vol. 15:9 September 2015

xvi Jyoti, 76.

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Cultural Resistance and Gender in Anita Desai's "Cry the Peacock"
University of Botswana
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Nono Kgafela-Mokoka (Author)Daniel Koketso (Author), 2019, Cultural Resistance and Gender in Anita Desai's "Cry the Peacock", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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