Alison Singh Gee: Palace Life

Alison Singh Gee: Palace Life

Where the Peacocks Sing book coverAward-winning journalist Alison Singh Gee discusses her new memoir Where the Peacocks Sing, about being swept off her feet by an Indian prince—now her husband—and moving to his family’s palace.

Zola: What’s been the reaction to the memoir from your family and from your husband’s?

Alison Singh Gee: Ha! That question makes me laugh. I know why you ask that, of course. I wrote about my father and my in-laws in a way that may feel a bit too honest, i.e. unflattering. When I first started writing about the palace and my new Indian family, I envisioned the book to be a sort of Under the Tuscan Sun set in Uttar Pradesh—a narrative in which you might have lots of scenes set in the luscious countryside and other scenes set around great big outdoor feasts and the only real problem is how to fix the ancient plumbing. But then when I started to write about the family that inhabited this idyll and the reason why I had always pined after a grand abode of my own, I realized I had to write about my relationships—and therein lay a huge rub, a paralyzing issue. I had to write honestly about relationships that weren’t always positive, and about people who were complex and deeply flawed. Kamala, my evil sister-in-law, is a perfect example.

I’ve gotten reactions I didn’t expect. I thought that my mother would be upset about the family scenes—at least saddened by them. But I spent an entire afternoon reading her all of the italicized childhood passages, and she just sat there nodding and smiling. She said she loved the book; indeed, she said it was the best book she’d ever read. (Of course, she’s only read about five books in her life, including one I wrote in second grade about dogs. So take that comment how you will.) I think my mother appreciated her life being played out in front of her again, as if literary cinema. I think she loved feeling understood.

My older brother Peter bought Peacocks the day it came out, and devoured it in 24 hours. He told me that it was painful to read but that “this was a story that needed to be told” and brava to his little sister. He says he wants “the Asian guy from Glee to play him in the movie.” So I guess that’s a thumbs up from Peter!

My niece, a New York book editor at a major house, said that she had to read the book slowly because the family scenes have been hard and painful for her to process. She freed me by saying, “I know it must have been difficult to write, but I’m so glad that you did.”

Two of my sisters, complex personalities, rated about two lines each in the book. Neither one has read the Peacocks, but they have expressed their displeasure with my literary pursuits. I tried to treat everyone in my family fairly and view everyone through a lens of love and compassion. So I can only hope they can come to terms with my narrative. At the end of the day, I wrote a true story and it was a story I felt I had to write. To paraphrase George Sand: “Art makes no apologies.”

We have not yet sent Peacocks to India. My excuse (flimsy) is that all the postal packages—even FedEx boxes—basically get stolen if they have even a whiff of foreignness about them. So how to get the book to my Indian in-laws? I guess we will have to pack a dozen copies of Peacocks in our suitcases when we next visit. I did tell Ajay [the author’s husband] that we might want to consider avoiding the subcontinent for the next 10 years and, thus, avoid any of the immediate backlash from Mrs. Singh and Kamala. But we are actually going to face the sitar, so to speak, this December, when we head back for a Bombay wedding and possibly the Jaipur Literary Festival. I’ll let you know what happens then!


Zola: How has your relationship with your in-laws grown? Have they made it back to America?

ASG: I was about 50% through the writing of the book when Anais [the author’s daughter] and I last visited in 2008. (Ajay has been back a few times since then, since Kamala has launched a lawsuit against the rest of the family—look for that drama in Book Two!) Anais was almost six during that visit and she was really dazzled by Indian life—while in Delhi, we went to Lodi Gardens almost daily, and attended many musical shows at the Cultural Institute. She also developed a really playful and loving relationship with Ajay’s mother. They have a lot in common—they are both beautiful, fun-loving, creative, and artistic. And so I got to see a different side of Mrs. Singh, one that made me fall a little more in love with her. It was such an important trip for us—all of us—and for my book, because I could end the narrative on a much higher, more optimistic note.

The Singhs have not been back to America, and that is much to my great sadness. We have set up an entire life—a nice house and lovely garden that is impossibly well-situated around the block from a gigantic India Sweets & Spices. I think both the Singhs and Ajay would feel transformed if the in-laws could see their son in his new life. But they claim they are getting too old to travel and will simply have to see our American set up in their “next life.”

Zola: You write quite a bit about your lifelong obsession with status and comfort, but at the same time you were appalled by the extent to which status colors every aspect of life in India. Have you adjusted to that culture or do you still hope to see it change?

ASG: If I had to marry any Indian family with servants, I am grateful it was the Singhs. As I mention in the book, they have always been incredibly compassionate towards and even familial with Hoti Lal, his wife and sons. He is more like an employee or relative than a servant. They have given him a big parcel of land in Mokimpur, and he’s built his own mini-haveli there.  So I would have to say that the Singhs, in their own way, set an example for all Indians.

I put some of my book advance aside with a specific plan: My daughter and I are now building a lending library in the palace for the village children. Most of these kids would never own a single book of their own. Anais has overseen a long list of titles that she especially connected to as a child—books such as Folk Tales of India and the Rick Riordan series. We dream of these books opening mental doors for the village kids and offering them a view into a bigger world. In that small way, we hope to affect change in Indian lives.

Zola: How does your daughter like the palace?

ASG: My daughter was still a small child when she last visited. She remembers playing with Hoti Lal’s granddaughter and teaching her to make a paper airplane. But she did not remember what the house looked like, only that is was expansive and run-down. The other week I showed her a photograph of Mokimpur’s facade that I had found on the Internet. She looked at it and said, “Oh, wow, that place is really nice. When can we go back?” I think she inherited the Gee obsession with fancy manors.

Zola: The story in Where the Peacocks Sing ends a few years ago. Any updates on what’s happened since, particularly regarding maintaining the palace? Or will we have to wait for the sequel?

ASG: Some good things, and some sad. The Singhs were able to sell a little land, so there’s a little more money floating around for repairs and such. That’s the good thing. The sad thing is there was a so-called “rascal” uncle who lived in a main wing. When we last visited, we saw that his wing had completely disappeared. He was bi-polar and one day got the notion that he should bulldoze the entire section of the haveli down. He did that and sold the 100-year-old bricks for about $2,000. He died a few weeks later.

And thanks for asking about a sequel. It’s in the works. It’s called Cooking for the Maharani: Four Continents, Six Iconic Chefs, and One Tall Glass of Revenge. And in the way that in Peacocks I examined my life through the prism of houses, home, and value, this book examines my relationship with food, cooking, nurturing, and love. I am learning to cook from famous chefs around the world—including my own mother!—and in the end I plan to make seven nights of feasts for Mrs. Singh. That’s where the revenge part comes in. In essence, the saga continues.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.