If somebody asks me to choose between two Indian epics, Mahabharata will be my clear-cut choice. There are obvious reasons for this. While Ramayana is more or less a straightforward narrative, Mahabharata is much more complex. There is so much to explore in Mahabharata like different characters, war strategies, politics, administration policies in the form of Vidura Niti, human psychology, and, most importantly, the Bhagvad Geeta. Additionally, there are stories within the stories. Mahabharata is not just an epic but a practical repository of information both on life and the world. The characters of Mahabharata are clearly identifiable to the people of modern world. None of these characters is perfect including the Lord Krishna. And, each of these characters has his own story to tell. Therefore, I always feel delighted whenever someone picks up one of these characters and try to tell the great story of Mahabharata from that character’s point of view.
A few months back, I got my hands on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘The Palace of Illusions’, a tale of Draupadi. I got intrigued as soon as I read the blurb of the book. I also cheered for the author for choosing Draupadi as her storyteller. While we all know that Draupadi is one of the pivotal characters in Mahabharata (the actual person behind the great war of Dharma), she is also the least written figures of Mahabharata. Expecting to learn something new about Draupadi, I started reading the book and finished it in a couple of weeks.
I won’t go into the storyline as most of us know about Mahabharata. The writing style is simple, clean and straightforward. The author has successfully managed to evoke the emotions required in the story. The intricacies of the epic tale of Mahabharata have also been distilled well without losing too much of that inherent complexity. The book has been divided into small chapters which are easier to read. However, I found the titles of these chapters really odd and bizarre. For me, the choice of such strange titles is really poor. Turning our attention to characterization, we find that most of the characters have been sketched well except the portrayal of Drauapdi (Keep in mind; she is the main character of this novel). Her character really frustrated me. Her character was like a spunky feminist heroine who keeps rambling about herself. I really got tired of this continuous sprawling. However, I really liked the manner in which the character of Krishna has been dealt with. Reading the character of Krishna in this book reminded me of Krishna of B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata. That was the real era of Doordarshan and this was one of the most popular TV shows of that time. The ending of the book has been done beautifully and the author should be complemented for that.
Retelling of a mythological tale, which is known widely, is always a difficult task. The author has not only to serve something new in her plate to make the readers enjoy the book but also to stick to the script of the original epic while doing so. The interpretation part is another difficulty as author has to choose wisely (there may be a number of interpretations of one single scene). While Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has tired her best to stick to the script of the original one, she has also taken creative liberties at certain fronts. The author has depicted a ‘racy love-angle’ between Draupadi and Karna, and ‘saas-bahu angle’ between Kunti and Draupadi. The author has also attempted to show a love-angle between Draupadi and Krishna. The hidden love of Draupadi for Karna is something that has been explored by many other writers too. Likewise, the subject of Drauapdi’s feelings towards Krishna has also been touched upon by many in the past. While I think these were nice additions in the storyline, the author tried to make these as the core issues in the book. And, this is where she seems to have failed. To be frank, most of the time, the secret cravings of Karna and Draupadi for each other appear to be a badly planned film script. And, what can one say about the scene where Kunti is trying to plead with Karna to join Pandavas and even offers Draupadi in exchange in addition to many other things. It was simply ridiculous. In an attempt to make the character of Draupadi stronger, the author has accidently weakened the character of Karna. The author should have remembered that Karna has his own persona and he is one of the most loved characters of this fascinating tale.
According to Narada and Vayu Puranas, Draupadi was composite avatar of Goddesses Shyamala (wife of Dharma), Bharati (wife of Vayu), Sachi (wife of Indra), Usha (wife of Ashwinis) and Parvati (wife of Shiva), and hence married their earthly counterparts in the form of five Pandavas. There are also references that Jayadratha fell in love with Draupadi and even tried to forcefully abduct her once. Then there are also writings which say that two Kauravas protested in support of Draupadi while she was being disrobed in the court room. These two Kauravas were Vikarna and Yuyutsu. Yuyutsu was the most learned Kaurav and secretly admired the Pandavas and Draupadi. We do not find any mention of these events in ‘Palace of Illusions’. Either the author was not aware of these details or she deliberately skipped these parts. Inclusion of such events could have made its reading more interesting. These are just a few examples. There are a number of other events in the epic, which the author apparently missed or skipped on purpose.
So what is my overall impression of this book? Well! I liked this book in bits and pieces. I feel that the author had a potential plot to exploit, which she failed to do so. However, I would also like to confess that it was certainly an interesting take on Draupadi. And, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Indian mythology.