Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The Palace of Illusions - a masterpiece retold by master storyteller Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
I am a self-confessed book lover and there is hardly anything in this world that can give me as much peace and satisfaction as having laid my hands on a new book (after I have quickly devoured the previous one) and settling down to let those pages take control of my senses. So it was no surprise that when I saw my friend holding a book that I had not seen earlier, I peeked to check the cover and discovered to my utter surprise that here was a book I should have heard from someone by this time....how the name of such an amazing work eluded me is still a mystery...
The book is 'The Palace of Illusions' by one of my favourite and one of the best female writers of Indian origin - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
We have all seen the Mahabharata....literally...ok, a little adulterated maybe, but yes, we have all seen the epic unfold before our very own eyes, on each Sunday morning, courtesy the very (now) underrated Doordarshan. Almost all of us will have happy and nostalgic memories of those Sundays when mothers would finish off the cooking before nine and fathers would complete the shopping and outside chores of the day, when we would have woken up early and sat through pages of homework and memorising....all gearing up for that 'special' time of the week when the sages and the kings and the warriors would invade our homes and take over our senses.....
Who doesn’t remember the silver-bearded Bheeshma Pitamah, the strong and charismatic Karna wrapped in a gold armour, the 'satyavaadi' Yudhishthir, the ever-powerful Bheem, the brave and famed Arjun, the smiling and hugely popular Krishna (who was actually thought to be a God by many mere mortals), the vision-less Dhritarashtra and his 'loyal' wife Gandhari, the one with the blindfold on her eyes...
And Draupadi? Of course you must have heard of the beautiful and arrogant Draupadi, Paanchali, the one with the five husbands, the haughty and arrogant one, the one whose pride and the need for vengeance ultimately led to one of the biggest blood bath the lands of Bharat have ever witnessed.
The book Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is immensely apt in its title in the sense that even by the time the reader moves on to the second page, a lot of the illusions created by the epic Mahabharata are already beginning to clear off. You will see questions where earlier you had only taken each of the mythological fact at sheer face value. As the book begins we see King Drupad invoking the blessings of heaven and bringing forth from the fire a ‘blessed’ son Dhristadyumna (Dhri), who will help him in avenging his rivals. But even as the king begins to move away from the fire holding the hand of his beloved son, something else tugs at them. This something is a girl, who too has been sent along with the son. Not sure what to do now, the king brings her out of the fire too, and since she was unwanted and unasked for, he simply names her Draupadi, meaning daughter of Drupad. The gods warn Drupad that Draupadi will eventually change the course of history and even as the little girl hears the same remark repeated over and over again, she cannot for one moment comprehend how it will be that she would cause such a change in history that it would become something monumental.
From the moment she steps into this world Draupadi realises what it means to be a woman in this male-dominated world. She will receive none of the education that her brother is privileged to get, though she has a penchant for studies and has a sharp intellect.
We get a glimpse of the little Draupadi, how, as she is growing up into a woman, she gets more and more self-conscious about her dark complexion, until she meets Krishna, who is even darker than her. He tells her that ‘others see you as you see yourself’ and her words soon put a confidence into the nervous and shy Draupadi, who now holds her head high and is amazed to see a change in the way people behave with her. Where earlier there were nudges and whisperings about the dark girl, now there are praises and comments on her beauty and the way she carries herself.
Early on in life Draupadi meets the sage Vyasa who gives her warnings about what is about to happen in the future and tells her there will be three major moments in her life that will change the course of things. To help her he warns her thus:
1. just before your wedding, at the time hold back your tongue
2. when your husbands are at the height of their power, at that time hold back your laughter
3. when you’re shamed as you’ve never imagined possible, at that time hold back your curse
The sage tells her that if she can do the above, maybe it will mitigate the catastrophe. The reader can only hope that Draupadi remembers the warning and acts accordingly.
As the story moves forth we see the growing relationship between Krishna and Krishnaa, as Krishna calls Draupadi. The friendship, which almost can be termed as love, proves to be one of the most strong points in Draupadi’s life. Krishna assists her in situations when she believes there is no hope, he instils a sense of confidence in her and tells her to be cautious and to keep a check on her temper as well as her curious bent of mind.
During her swayamvar Draupadi sees Karna and we can immediately see how her heart goes out to him as it is love at first sight. The attraction is not one-sided and the reader can clearly state that Karna too feels the same way. But remember sage Vyasa’s warning, that there will be a moment just before the marriage? The moment arrives and Draupadi speaks, and something is set in motion that will change many things.
We see how the newly-wed Draupadi is taken to a hut, where she weds all the five brothers, as per the command of their mother Kunti. Arjun, who cannot counter his mother’s command, directs his pride and anger towards Draupadi instead, and a husband who was once almost caring and loving, will now turn his attention somewhere else. For how else can a man behave when the code of marriage, arranged by Vyasa, states that Draupadi will be wife to each Pandav brother one year at a time, starting from eldest to youngest. The command of the mother-in-law will prove to be the root for her marital disharmony – the woman who had so looked forward to be a good wife will never be happy as a wife again.
At Indra Prastha, the Palace of Illusions is set and the Pandavas are at their height of powers. Remember the warning – hold back your laughter? Though she does not realise it then, this will again be one of the follies that will work towards bringing forth an impending doom.
When the game of ‘chaupar’ or dice is on in full swing, our very own ‘satyavaadi’ Yudhishthir, who has developed an intense liking for sura and gambling, will lose his all, so much so that he will put his wife as a pawn, trying to salvage what is lost. But when the most shameful act is performed on Draupadi, sage Vyasa’s warning of holding back her curse is forgotten again and hence the beginning of the doom.
Her temper, her pride, her curse, her need for vengeance has been attributed to be the cause for the biggest war on Indian land. But how did that little unwanted girl, the one who wanted to be the cause of love and peace and who never wanted to have anything to do with ‘astras’ and violence lead to a war that shattered the very core of the human nature? As Chitra Banerjee takes on the tone of Draupadi you are witness to what transpired between those years from Paanchali’s childhood to her youth that made her one of the most controversial women in Indian history.
Go, immerse yourself in these pages and be a part of an epic that will never be retold as only Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni can.