By Vidya Pradhan
Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni has made a name for herself with her stories about the Indian immigrant experience, usually viewed through the eyes of a woman. I remember being quite impressed with Arranged Marriage and Sister of my Heart, perhaps because in those days I was a new immigrant to the US myself. Eventually, when the theme was repeated in endless variations in successive books, the attraction waned. The flowery metaphors, the effusive prose, epitomized a style of writing that was too gushy to be literary, too cloying to be entertaining.
In Palace of Illusions, CBD returns with a feminist retelling of the Mahabharata, seen through the eyes of Draupadi, one of the few polyandrous women in an age of polygamy. The great epic is surprisingly opaque about the character and motivations of the Pandava queen, given her presence at some of the most crucial moments in the narrative.
Divakaruni attempts a picturesque character study, creating a childhood and adolescence for Draupadi that follows a story arc familiar to readers of historical fiction. In fact, a book I read just prior to this one (Pope Joan) had almost the same formula – an uncertain birth, a neglected childhood and an influential but grief-ridden future foretold by a soothsayer.
To readers who have accessed the Mahabharata through Amar Chitra Kathas or C.Rajagopalachari’s excellent primer, Draupadi is known only as a victim of circumstance – first yoked to 5 brothers without her consent, then famously stripped of her sari in public. Divakaruni had the opportunity to make a stronger, more decisive, courageous character, but in her hands Draupadi is as much a prisoner of her fate as in Vyasa’s narration. Like her more famous husbands, she is pulled along by the tides of her pre-ordained destiny and remains a spectator in the escalating tension that draws the Kuru clan inexorably towards war. Her shrewish nature and hard core make it hard to feel sympathy for a character who is probably one of the most ill-treated in the complex saga of the Pandavas and Kauravas and Divakaruni’s treatment feels like a missed opportunity.
Another female character, Kunti, is also fleshed out. Kunti, in Divakaruni’s version, is almost a Machiavellian character reminiscent of the mothers-in-law from television saas-bahu soaps. It makes for an interesting, if jarring, interpretation.
Palace of Illusions is still a rollicking read, because the story rises above the style. The prolixity of the prose works, somewhat, because of its setting. The Mahabharata, after all, is not meant to be digested at a single setting. The ornamented metaphors (“Summer unfolded its drowsy petals”) seem appropriate for their environment.
The Mahabharata, which my grandmother claims is the repository of every known story in the universe, is an absorbing drama which is less about good and evil than it is about politics and strategy. It is open to a great deal of interpretation and a perfectly good case can be made for the seemingly reprehensible behavior of the Kauravas led by Duryodhana. The moral ambiguity of this epic makes it a page turner and Divakaruni manages to weave in some of the lesser known anecdotes skillfully. You may even find a nugget or two that is new to you. And just to pique your interest, let me add that there is an unexpected and totally dishy love angle for Draupadi that I have never come across in any other adaptation of one of the greatest stories ever told.