Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Palace of Illusions...

...was our book selection for December. Written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, it's the Mahabharata told from the perspective of Draupadi, and therefore quite different to other retellings of the epic which typically focus more on the sequence of events than any one character's motivations.

The book provoked a wonderfully rich discussion. While suggesting it, I had thought that since most of us have grown up with this story, reading a fresh perspective on it would be interesting. At the discussion we found that some people had never really gotten into it and this book wa stheir first detailed look at it, while others had been more familiar with BR Chopra's teleserial of the same which, while very well done, stuck to the traditional line.

There were very strong and opposing views on Draupadi. Vatsala had always thought of her as a strong woman and a feminist icon, and found herself a little disappointed by the pettiness of her issues which ended up being among the goads for the war. While Anju felt that it was a realistic portrayal of the way life works for most of us, and completely related to Draupadi's lifelong quest for validation of herself. Jayshree thought that good or bad, Draupadi came across as a strong woman, not the long-suffering Nirupa Roy-esque Sita of the Ramayan who meekly keeps taking what everyone around her dishes out and finally, once the last straw is loaded on her back, runs home to mother. But Draupadi stands up for herself, dares to question the roles of women and the behavious of those around her, and is a very real power. Ali felt that she played a strong role in everything that happened through both arguments and gestures like keeping her hair unwashed and unbound for 13 years. As he said picturesquely, "The Pandavas must have said let's do this war otherwise this stinky hair of hers will stay that way forever!"

We debated whether the key motivation of Draupadi was her quest for love or her need for recognition as an individual, not the add-on to Dhri or the bounty to be equally shared among five brothers. We all thought it was interesting that she has a relatively unconventional view of her role, be it because of the prophecy she had to fulfil or because of her own strong will - she was not particularly involved with her children, and was much more focussed on her life with her husbands.

Many things in the book struck a chord with us - for instance the fact that despite Vyasa's specific warnings about the three occasions which will prove turning points, Draupadi pursues the very course of action she was warned against. Very like life's oh-no-seconds. And the fact that at the end Draupadi wishes she could have loved Bhima back the same way he loved her, since his love for her was the most uncomplicated and the purest. Don't so many of us wish we could have loved the nice guy/ gal back?

Karna, always one of the most interesting characters in the story, again stood out here as in fact the most honourable character, apart from his one lapse in Dhritarashtra's court at the vastraharan. Yudhistra, being Dharma Raja, loves drinking, gambling, loses control of himself while doing either, and then has to be persuaded to take up the right course of action in pursuing the war, while Karna pursues his Dharma without making the same fuss about it.

We found it interesting that while Chitra focuses the story on Draupadi, she called it The Palace of Illusions, thus giving it a greater philosophic scope for debate, as opposed to Pratibha Ray's Yajnaseni which continued to focus on Draupadi herself. One of the best truths in the book is the line that Krishna says about Sikhandi, which I am paraphrasing here - He believes it to be the truth, and therefore it is the truth. In fact the Palace of Illusions is an allusion to the Hindu concept of maya, which believes that the whole world is in fact just a creation of Maya - an illusion.