Friday, November 14, 2014

The Palace of Illusions

The Palace of Illusions - Chitra Banerjee Divakurni
... and some random musings on Mahabharat ....

Mahabharat is a huge treasure trove of interesting stories, stories which are intriguing in themselves, and further, present a great possibility of interpreting them in many ways, postulating about the thoughts and emotions of the myriad characters. I, as many of my compatriots, have grown up on the tales from the epic, and it still holds a great fascination for me. 

In childhood, I read many Amar Chitra Katha volumes about different characters from Mahabharat, and a couple of condensed versions of the complete story. And then, of course, there was the epic serial ( ... who can forget that deep voice starting each episode with "Main samay hoon" ...) which we religiously watched (I still remember how, at the air time of the serial, our colony wore a completely deserted look).

Though I have not yet had an opportunity to read the complete, original version, I have read quite a few renditions from the perspective of different characters - Mrityunjnay by Shivaji Samant (from the viewpoint of Karna, and a few other major characters), Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray (the story of Draupadi) and Bheema - Lone Warrior by M. T. Vasudevan Nair (the story of Bheema). Although I know (I think, most of it) the story, it is intriguing to see what the people might have thought and felt, what motivated them in their actions, to know more about the lesser-known aspects of their lives.

“The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakurni - a retelling of Mahabharat in the words of Draupadi - had been highly recommended by multiple sources - a blog I follow (by a couple of very voracious readers), Goodreads, and many of my own friends. I had been looking forward to read it for a long time, considered it buying several times and finally bought it a few months back (at a ~40% discount from flipkart – thank god for small mercies!). To quickly sum up - it left me deeply disappointed, more so because of all the accolades assigned to it. As a story, it is an interesting read alright (or is it difficult to get it wrong with Mahabharat?), but considering it the story of one of the most important ladies of the saga, it was rather a let-down.

One of the reasons cited as the purpose of this book, and in the acclaim it received, is that all of the versions of Mahabharat that we have grown up with, and the many interpretations that have been put forth in the last few years, have been written by men, and present their perspective (this is not entirely true though). The voice of women, even an extraordinary one like Draupadi, has been suppressed, and this book aims to fill that void. CBD’s Draupadi is very intelligent, and raises quite a few pertinent questions and irrefutable points. Over time, in the course of events, she becomes bitter (who wouldn’t be?). However, she comes across as materialistic, haughty, manipulative and selfish – which is no different from her portrayal in other “male-centric” versions of the epic – and this is my greatest issue with this book. She is completely enamored of “her” palace (the palace of illusions), and it is the palace that is important to her more than anything or anyone else. I feel that a story from her perspective should have added more strength and depth and meaning to her character. I did not feel particularly (actually, at all) sympathetic to Draupadi’s character in this book. [For me, this is where Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni scored much higher – also an account of Draupadi’s life in her words – but one where Draupadi is strong, yet spiritual, kind and considerate of others.]

Another complaint I had with this book was the writing style. Many stories move back and forth in time with an effortless ease, or refer to past events or foreboding of future ones, subtly; but this is not one of them. Not only does Vyasa foretell her future, nearly all chapters end in a paragraph or sentence which says, “We were not to know then that such-and-such would happen” – explicit pointers that kind of take away the joy of discovery along the story. For someone who doesn’t know the story, this is a big spoiler; for someone who does, it becomes a monotonous irritant. And this borders on ridiculous – the way the events that simply couldn’t have taken place in Draupadi’s presence, nor related to her by someone close to her, are brought to her awareness – she sees them in her dreams!! 

*Major Spoiler* (stop here if you are yet to the read the book for yourself)

Another major issue I have with this book is Draupadi's obsession with Karna. The idea of an attraction between Draupadi and Karna is not a novel one, as seems to be the impression. It has been hinted at before – mild references were there both in Mrityunjay and Yajnaseni (and, I believe, in some other versions that I have not read). However, PoI doesn’t allude to an attraction – it portrays a great infatuation on the part of both – so much so that all of Draupadi’s reflections and actions are punctuated by thoughts of Karna. Her feelings towards Karna are much stronger than even Arjun (she doesn’t seem to have a particular affection for Arjun, only envious of his tenderness towards his other wives). I think PoI should not have been a book about Karna; it should have been a book about draupadi. Instead it comes across as a big unrequited love affair between these two.

My problem with this idea is just not that it is too radical, but that I felt this might have been just a means to create sensation or controversy. A couple of reasons – if she was as impulsive and strong as she is supposed to be, she could have chosen to marry Karna if she really wished to. And also, she could have found a better way to protect her brother from Karna’s arrow, other than insulting him for his parentage. Why, then does she marry the Pandava(s) [oh, fate!!], and humiliates Karna, intentionally or unintentionally, time and again.

Unlike others before it, this book gave up all subtlety in this aspect and made it explicit and stron, even though there is no basis for this assumption in the original Mahabharata. In Yuganta, the author Irwawati Karve clarifies that Vyasa's Mahabharata indicates at no such possibility, and the reason it was not logical. [That is the only book I know of, which has analysed Mahabharata from a historical and anthropological perspective, and I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the epic.]


Though I didn’t appreciate it as Draupadi’s story per se (as I didn’t find much redeemable in her character), I would agree that it is an absorbing read. I also found a few interesting ideas, some of which I would mention. During the disrobing in the Kuarava sabha, at first Draupadi is ashamed and embarrassed. However, later she remembers Krishna and tells herself that the shame is not hers, it is that of those present – the perpetrators and the silent observers. Infuriating and endearing at the same time, is her refusal to believe in Krishna’s divinity, until at the end. Another interesting concept was Vyasa’s gift of divine vision of the battlefield of Kurukshetra to Draupadi, just as he had done to Sanjay. And this is perhaps the only version I have read, where Draupadi actually appreciates Bheem’s concern and attention towards her.

I have been reading quite a lot in last few months (thanks to my JustBooks membership), but with all the other things I have to or want to do with my spare time (very little of which is there anyway), reviewing the books I read has taken a backseat. There was something about this one though, which compelled me to write this note, even though it took quite a long time to put it together. In fact I would like to compare ‘The Palace of Illusions’ with ‘Yajnaseni’ in detail, but it has been a few years since I read the latter. Though from what I do remember, ‘Yajnaseni’ left a deeper impression on me, and created a positive image (a fact that was endorsed by another friend to whom I lent it) of the woman who changed the course of history.