“Women have always been the primary victims of war”- Hillary Clinton. Granted that arguments have made their way for this very statement as well, it cannot and must not be absolutely invalidated. For, history, or rather the Great Indian Mythology has time and again illuminated us with the utter helplessness of the bravest of female characters while ironically partaking with one of the biggest revolutions across the ages. For generations, Indian culture, tradition and ethos have been a promulgation of the two greatest epics, ‘The Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’. My personal favoriteamong the two is definitely the Mahabharata, becauseof the more practical and complex portrayal of the characters straying away from the ‘all black and all white’ character sketch of the Ramayana, and the pivotal contribution of each and every personality in the story-line. But more than that, and a much bigger reason for my obsession with the Mahabharata lies in the portrayal of these strong female protagonists, who, instead of shouting victim to the injustice meted out to them, actually paved the way for ground shifting moments in the narrative.
With Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s bestseller, ‘The Palace of Illusions’, I rediscovered a refreshing turn on the events portrayed in the Great War from the perspective of one of the most fiery characters of the Mahabharata, Panchali, Daughter of King Drupad, and the wife of the Five Pandavas. Needless to say, that for us, Panchali has always had a reputation of a kritya, one who brings doom to her clan, and narrations of our forefathers have often depicted her as the sole cause for the destruction of the Third age of man. Divakaruni here makes a bold move by transforming Draupadi’s portrayal to a powerful, strong and independent woman in the era when subservience was the foremost quality looked for in a wife. Draupadi, Kunti, Gandhari and even Sikandi are clearly shown to subject themselves through a lifetime of sacrifice in order to uphold their own emotions and choices, emotions that go beyond the boundaries allowed even in this generation, and choices conscious yet strong enough to overturn the course of history.
What strikes me the most in the novel is the realization of how relevant Mahabharata is to us, in a way, much more than other epics, with the astounding fact that it was penned down around 3000 years ago. Take the abominable ‘Vastra Haran’ as an example. Nothing short of disgusting does it sound for a woman to be stripped off her clothes in front of a vast multitude of men who stand there silently watching her plight, doesn’t it? In 2007, Laxmi Orowan, a tribal woman, was rallying for better tribal right in the north-east Indian state of Assam when she was stripped naked and beaten by a violent mob, as others looked on at the incident as if it were a spectacle. This is just one of the several instances in the novel that deals with issues ranging from sexual advances and attempt to rape, from property disputes to murdering, from forbidden love to equal rights of the third gender, from polyandry to the caste system to which we can relate to even now. In reasons more than one, Divakaruni’s ‘Palace of Illusions’ successfully bring out the humanistic side of each character, with Kunti’s pride and obsessive love for her children, Gandhari’s indifferent attitude to the wrongs committed by her family, The Pandavas failure to save their wife despite having boasted time and again of the enormous strength that the five brothers bring together, Duryodhan’s greed and foolhardiness, Karna’s dangerous self-deprivation and Draupadi’s torn life in love, desire and the responsibility of fulfilling a prophecy.
On a personal note, there is one aspect portrayed in Divakaruni’s novel that makes it above other interpretations, which is the underlying relationship between Panchali and Krishna. Krishna, who is the puppet master of the classic, is nothing more than a friend for Draupadi, a friend who provides her with strength whenever even she fails to provide herself with some. This, rather pious friendship between the two proves to stand the test of time when all the other relationships, at one point or the other turn to nothingness.
I recommend ‘The Palace of Illusions’ to everyone who has and hasn’t read the Mahabharata, for I can vouch on its ability to touch its reader’s life in an incontrovertible way. One of my most favorite lines from the novel is when Draupadi seeks answers from Krishna regarding her insecurities and Krishna quotes ‘A problem becomes a problem only when you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself.’