Pigeons at Daybreak by Anita Desai is a masterfully told short story in which we meet an older married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Basu. Mr. Basu is suffering from many maladies, one of which being asthma. Mrs. Basu, Otima, spends her days and nights caring for him tirelessly.
In this short story there are two flashbacks. The first flashback happens when Otima Basu and their neighbor Bulu is strenuously bringing Mr. Basu to the terrace so his breathing can be helped by the outdoor breeze. The narrator tells us why they no longer sleep there: “They had given up sleeping there on summer nights long ago, not so much on account of old age or weak knees, really, but because of their perpetual quarrels with the neighbours on the next terrace.” (Desai). The second flashback happened as Mr. Basu remembered a time when he brought his grandson to the roof to see the pigeons: “Basu recalled how, not so many years ago, he had taken his daughter Charu’s son by the hand to show him the pigeon roosts on so many of the Darya Ganj rooftops…” (Desai)
This short story has a very understandable timing / narrative profluence. It takes place throughout a day and night. Just before lunch the reader witnesses the reaction of Mr. Basu as he learns the electricity will go out. The events go on in time order from that point, with two flashbacks. The rise of narrative arc is mirrored by Otima and Bulu carrying Mr. Basu up the stairs toward the terrace, using the symbolism of the stairs to show the rising action.The reader is then taken through the night, then into the next morning when Mr. Basu’s passing is juxtaposed with the flying of pigeons. It is told in a way that makes the reader feel the narrative flow.
The rising tension in this story happens when Otima Basu reads to her husband about the electricity outages their area will be experiencing. That is when he starts to have a sort of anxiety attack which caused his asthma to surface: “‘How will I sleep then?’ he gasped fearfully, ‘without a fan? In this heat?’ and already his diaphragm seemed to cave in, his chest to rise and fall as he panted for breath. Clutching his throat, he groped his way back to the cane chair. ‘Otima, Otima, I can’t breathe,’ he moaned.” (Desai)
Reversals happen toward the end of the story. The first time we see Otima Basu start to falter under the pressure of caretaking for her husband is right before she realizes the electricity came back on: “Her eyes drooped, heavy bags held the tiredness under them.” (Desai) She seems to be losing hope at this moment, then the moment the electricity comes back on, she’s back to her old personality: “The relief of it brought her energy back in a bound. She bustled up the stairs.” (Desai) While she is bustling up the steps Mr. Basu is in his terrace cot having memories of his son and finding comfort, accepting where he is, and ultimately accepting death. For the first time in the story Mr. Basu is not angry; he is fully accepting of where he is and what is about to happen.
In Pigeons at Daybreak the reader finds a sick man who needs much aid, but is taking his caretaker, his wife, for granted. Mrs. Basu spends her days and nights caring for a man that seems a bit insufferable, but she does so without complaint to him. They bicker as an old married couple would. When he starts having his anxiety attack, she worries that the attack will produce a real asthma attack, and she was right. She and a neighbor struggled to get him to their terrace so he could breathe better during the power outage, it was no easy feat: “Of course old Basu made a protest and a great fuss and coughed and spat and shook and said he could not possibly move in this condition, or be moved by anyone,…” (Desai) Once the night was over and he could have returned to his comfortable bed, he said the most pleasant thing to pass his lips: “‘It is cool now.’” (Desai) as he has memories of his child. He’s ready to pass on.
I think there are several themes in this short story, but one that I note most readily is the theme that love doesn’t wither away at illness. Here we see a wife caring for her sick, grumpy husband who seems much older than his age. She scoffs at his demands at times, but ultimately she does what she needs to do to keep him comfortable. When I was finished reading this story I tried to picture their wedding day. Was he handsome? Was she windswept by the idea of this older man? Was it an arranged marriage? At what point did he become sick? Did it change his personality? We don’t know. But, over the years it’s clear they became exceedingly comfortable with each other.
Desai, Anita. “Pigeons at Daybreak.” Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings edited by
Linda Anderson, The Open University, 2006. Pgs 98-107.