Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of illusions came highly recommended as a must-read book (based on the Mahabharata) for feminists. I should have known before I started reading that this isn’t technically retelling (as in rewriting the story as how a woman would want it to be) but narrating an existing story (one we’ve all heard a million times over) from a female perspective. The story doesn’t change, it’s the way the events are processed that should ideally change. But that also falls short.

CBD (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – I’ll stick to CBD because I don’t want to refer to her as Divakaruni and Banerjee-Divakaruni every time is too long) begins the story from Draupadi’s birth. Draupadi is one who was born to shape history. It is only a matter of how that unravels in the book. It’s written in first person from Draupadi’s perspective. One of my problems with that narrative style is that the reader is forced to read it as if it’s occurring to them because they are reading so many ‘I’s. Here, Draupadi forces me to associate myself with her; makes me live out her life. And there begins trouble.

Draupadi is a princess living within the confines of her father’s palace waiting to shape history. She has a Dhai Ma who takes care of her and a world that wants her to grow into a respectable queenly adult. She, however, doesn’t want to be that. She wants to be a hero – she wants a heroic name, she wants a big palace, she wants to wear great jewels and exquisite saris. She hasn’t seen enough to dream for anything beyond. She is taking to Vyaasa who warns her of the events that will cause her trouble. She doesn’t take them seriously. She rebels when it’s unnecessary, but conforms when she must rebel. For instance, in her brother’s class, she prompts him when she knows it could cost her her education. As a smart person trying to subvert the patriarchal system, wouldn’t she hide and learn as much as she can?

CBD opens up several issues and tries to interpret them through the eyes of a woman. Fair skin, caste system, war, power, womanliness, brotherhood, valour – she takes us through Draupadi’s thoughts on a variety of things but hardly deep enough. When all of these things are experienced in the story later, Draupadi’s character stands as flimsy. For instance, I’ll pick the most complicated of them all – war. In the chapter titled ‘cosmology’, Draupadi ponders about war and declares she would teach the men in her life to search for other ways to glory because war wasn’t necessary. She implies here that war is a man’s way to approach glory/ victory and a woman wouldn’t think that way. But the moment she feels humiliated in Duryodhan’s court, it’s her blood lust that comes fore.

Before we get to that, my problem with Drapadi (apart from the fact that she is flimsy) is that she is ordinary. Most of the book revolves around a handful of things she needs – Karna (the man she humiliated and chose not to marry), her palace and the manicured gardens, what clothes to wear when, how to keep Kunti away from controlling her husbands, what to make of the relationship with Krishna. There is a good chunk of the book wasted on how she fights with her mother-in-law Kunti to become the more powerful woman in the house. In fact, she even thinks cooking brinjal is a woman’s equivalent of shooting a moving metal fish’s eye by looking at it’s reflection in water that Arjuna had to do to marry her. Another good portion of the book is about her obsession with her palace, the gardens, the flowers, the mirrors, the water; the home she contributed towards building. The one thing she will think about every time she sees water/ gardens/ mirrors. Then every event she is invited to, she talks about what clothes to wear and what will make her seem like what. The rest of course is her obsession with Karna.

Don’t get me wrong: mine is not a problem of morals about desiring Karna. Mine is of the ordinariness of it all. I can name ten women I know who spend their entire time worrying about these things. Their elite position in the society, their designer clothes, the one man who doesn’t desire them and the house they helped decorate. Draupadi says atrocious things at times: “she sat pristine in her white widow’s sari, her hair blacker and glossier than it had any right to be” – about Kunti’s old age, “If I am, I owe it to my palace” – about having become queenlike, “I knew I was special to them in a way none of the syrupy beauties they married later could ever be” – about her husbands’ other wives, “I too wanted him to be dazzled by all their treasures-including myself their crown possession” – about preparing for the Kaurava visit to her palace. I’m not putting together these examples to nitpick. Reading a book full of such things, it’s difficult to swallow when in the last chapter Draupadi calls herself a rebel, someone who broke the boundaries prescribed for women. I somehow think she revelled in it.

This ordinary woman is all the more troublesome when she is seen as helpless and at the mercy of the men in her life. In situation after situation, she is seen expecting man after man to protect her. In the beginning, when Arjun wins the Swayamvar and takes her away, she goes with the man who she has no idea about. He refuses to even introduce himself until they have met his family. She goes with him, unquestioningly. When Kunti asks them to divide her up, she is sitting there expecting Arjun to tell his mother that is not acceptable. When she is humiliated in Duryodhan’s court, (there is no debate/ dialogue/ seeking of justice) before she expects Karna, of all people, to protect her. And then Bheeshma and then all the other men. I am only implying here that she didn’t seem to have spoken up for herself – she didn’t fight legally, she didn’t ask any questions, but expected the men in her life to save her. In this case especially, it is funny that she’d think of Karna as one who should have protected her. In fact, she even thinks Karna would have protected her if she fell to his feet and rendered herself helpless, but her pride comes in the way. When Keechaka harasses her, she is aghast at her husbands not helping her. She incites Bheem to kill her harasser, putting their future at risk.

While the incidents are already written down, and it’s only the thought process that CBD has to play around with, there are some impressive portions. When she is asked to live with each husband a year, she doesn’t resist. But feels miserable thinking of herself as a communal drinking cup and detests her lack of choice. She argues with herself that her restored virginity every year is for the benefit of the husbands and not hers. Particularly impressive is the scene of her humiliation in Duryodhan’s court – while even though she doesn’t say anything to protect herself, the chapter is not narrated with Krishna’s palm held up and sari flowing unendingly. Draupadi is seen as one who is not to be affected by the ‘shame’ intended in the scene where she is disrobed. She thinks “let them stare at my nakedness. why should I care? They and not I should be ashamed of shattering the bounds of decency”. – Impressive, for me. (though in the end, she is all teary-eyed about how Krishna says he will shoulder the penance for his sin if killing Dusshasan for it is indeed a sin. So there.)

But the impressive portions were few and far between. In most cases, Draupadi was ordinary – nagging, silly, materialistic, petty, elitist, dependent, obsessive, selfish and highly superficial. She is perennially judging women around her, easily playing men, constantly contradicting herself. The line she walks between the strong headed woman she wants to be and the victim she feels to be is awfully shaky!

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