My #TripLit pick for February: Where the Peacocks Sing
India is often described as a country that either seduces or repels visitors; no one returns feeling indifferent about the place. But what happens when you fall in love with an Indian before you’ve ever met India? And what happens when that Indian brings you back to his ancestral home — and it turns out that he’s a prince with a 100-room palace?
That’s the tantalizing premise at the heart of Alison Singh Gee’s heart-warming and eye-opening debut memoir. Gee is a social-butterflying, celebrity-profiling magazine journalist based in Hong Kong when she meets a thoughtful Indian journalist named Ajay Singh at an international conference. Where the Peacocks Sing recounts the cross-cultural challenges and revelations that arise as their romance blossoms, twining from Gee’s middle-class Chinese-American roots in suburban Los Angeles to the now-crumbling estate in rural India where Singh’s own aristocratic past plunges deep.
Gee describes high-flying expat Hong Kong—tea at the Peninsula, weekends in Bali, clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong — then immerses us in the disorientingly different world of Singh’s India. His family palace is five hard hours east of Delhi, at the end of a road that is paved not with gold but “rocks, oxen poop and potholes the size of small craters.” Yet when she arrives, Gee discovers an enchanting landscape of mango trees, wheat fields, water buffalo, and bougainvillea, and a rambling mansion with a history as rich as its present is problematic.
As her relationship deepens, Gee evokes India with an insider’s understanding. She captures the heartfelt art of cooking — “you can taste a family’s entire legacy in one paratha” pancake, she writes — and the land’s defining smells: cardamom and cumin, “night-blooming jasmine, blue pines and the scent of a kerosene fire.” She evokes the slowing stretch of time in the Indian countryside, and illuminates the contradictions that confound so many travelers, such as the relationship between master and servant.
At one point in their emotional odyssey, Ajay says, “The only way to understand India is to surrender unconditionally.” Gee’s own surrender here is a revealing triumph.
New Book Roundups:
- Two from the British Isles
With titles like “Occult London,” “White Hair Right Now: Styling the London Man,” and “Rats with Wings: London’s Battle with Animals,” the essays in London from Punk to Blair detail the modern-day issues affecting this ancient city. In On Glasgow and Edinburgh, Robert Crawford recalls the roots of the 300-year-old rivalry between Scotland’s two largest cities and argues, using landmarks and histories, that their competitive relationship has helped their growth and Scotland’s.
- Just in Time for Valentine’s Day
In All This Talk of Love, Christopher Castellani presents the Grasso family — Italian immigrants with a deep and storied past in the village of Santa Cecilia. Their daughter, American-born Prima, raised on stories of the old country, resolves to take her aging parents back again — and the ensuing adventure almost tears the family apart. An urbanite with a fear of deep water and a tendency toward seasickness, Torre DeRoche is about to lose her newfound love, Ivan, as he plans to set off on a sailing adventure. At the last minute she decides to join him, boarding his leaky sailboat for a year-long voyage that she describes in her memoir Love with a Chance of Drowning.
- Predators and Place
In Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, Zac Unger travels to Churchill, Manitoba, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” to find the real story behind an animal that many hold up as a symbol for our changing planet. In Wolves in the Land of Salmon, David Moskowitz follows these most controversial of animals through the wilds of the Cascade Range and up into British Columbia, richly evoking their habitat and complex nature.
- One Last Thing: First Contact
Every once in a while a book comes along that rekindles the Indiana Jones embers in my soul. One such tome is Napoleon A. Chagnon’s Noble Savages, which describes the noted anthropologist’s adventures among the Yanomamö Indians of the Amazon Basin. The Yanomamö are a textbook tribe today, but when Chagnon first settled with them in 1964, they were living in almost complete isolation from the outside world. Chagnon’s detailed account machetes the mythical glamour of living in primitive conditions for extended periods of time, but at the same time, it offers a fascinating portrait of the evolution of a wild tribe within our own time, and it embodies the passion of the scientist who observes and absorbs firsthand, and who enlarges our knowledge of the world, from the vine-latticed forests of South America to the ivy-clad jungles of academia.
Don George is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine and has edited several travel-writing anthologies, including his latest, Better Than Fiction. Follow his story on Twitter @don_george.