Aug 22, 2009

Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Who is your sister? I am she.

Who is your mother? I am she.
Day dawns the same for you and me.
This quotation is from Innana’s Journey to Hell (3rd millennium BC, Sumerian language) and is quoted in the beginning of the book The Palace of Illusions. The quotation also sets the tone of the novel. Most ancient Indian epics have always focused on the famous warriors and kings who have created and destroyed empires. While some of the famous beauties had a subtle hand in politics, history has never given women their due. The womenfolk were treated akin to property. Draupadi, queen of the five Pandavas however was different. She changed the course of history as foretold. 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has also felt that women in Mahabharata were noted only when their actions had affected their men folk but no one really thought about the various emotions and circumstances affecting such behaviour. This has always been a mystery and that’s why the author wants to relook at the epic Mahabharata in a different light from a woman’s standpoint and she finds no better muse than Panchaali, who was an inherent part of the entire epic.

The Mahabharata was a long epic with different stories entwined with each other. Ms Divakaruni however recounts a rather simple tale and retaining most of the authenticity of the original epic. The word “most” is used here because at certain points I am not sure whether the story telling has really overtaken the actual facts. However I would prefer to overlook such details because they help explain the story and its ensconced characters so well. 

Panchaali, queen of the Pandavas, was renowned for her dark dazzling beauty as well as her pride and arrogance. The latter quality had allegedly led to the Great War of Mahabharata. However, in this story one gets to realize why Draupadi acted the way she did. Accepted hesitantly by her powerful father, the King Dhrupad, Draupadi clings to her brother Dhristhyadumna who refused to let go of her, while emerging from the sacred fire at birth. She has spent her entire life in loving and sacrificing her children, her pleasure, for her five husbands but ironically, despite such marital devotion, she is also attracted throughout her life to one man – not Arjuna, but Karna.

If Ms Divakaruni’s almost lyrical story establishes anything, it is probably that man cannot overlook his destiny; and that is how , Draupadi cannot escape any of the mistakes she has already been forewarned of, by Sage Ved Vyas. Thus even when in her heart she prefers Karna to Arjuna as a suitor, she ends up humiliating him only to save her brother Dhristhyadumna. She cannot but help insulting Duryodhana or cursing the entire clan who attempted to shame her in court. She realizes how Bhima loves her more than any of the brothers and how Arjuna can never be fit to be the lover or husband that she thought him to be.

It is life that makes Draupadi choose her husbands over her palatial life, her children and her personal mental peace every time. Although she learns of Karna’s love for her, she is never able to confess to him. An admirer of Kunti since childhood, but she fails to become the beloved daughter she would have loved to be. While she is also able to realize how she cannot exist without her friend Krishna, she has never been able to tell him how much she loved him. Despite knowing Bhima’s love for her, she never is able to reciprocate; and finally even her endearing love and prior knowledge of the future is futile in trying to save her loved ones.

Despite this, Divakaruni’s Draupadi doesn’t come upon as a tragic character. She tries her best to endure life’s gifts and torments as they are flung upon her . Among the other women in Mahabharata, Kunti, Gandhari, Subhadra, Uttara and few others are acknowledged as spokes in the giant wheel of fate but Draupadi is obviously the central character. While one might be tempted to think that the author is trying to create a heroine out of the Pandava queen, it would be fair to acknowledge that the whole flow of the story makes one empathize heavily with Panchaali . In the end we accept her as she was, rather than grudging her few characteristic traits and blaming her for the Pandava Kaurava war. As Krishna explains later, the war was always waiting to happen but needed some events to push it to initiation. And that is the real story of the dark princess who changed history.

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