Book time: Palace of Illusions

My introduction to Mahabharata was way back , as a bedtime story narrated in simple terms by Dad and Thatha. The Pandavas were good, the Kauravas evil and goodness won over evil in the Great War. Of course, Krishna , being God, constantly sided the Good and helped them triumph. That was the key take-away from the black and white narrative. Slightly later, when I took to reading on my own and progressed beyond Amar Chitra Kathas, I got my hands on a copy of Dr C Rajagopalachari’s version of the epic. THAT was the book that got me riveted to this epic and has been my go-to resource for Mahabharata related information since then. I used to read it over and over again, never tiring of the engrossing sub plots and schemes. There were shades of grey, weaknesses in the greatest of warriors, deceit, treachery – in short a lot of juice that resonated with basic human character and behaviour. Also, it was quite a detailed chronicling that joined most of the dots that make up this mammoth saga. But that was all it was. An unfolding of events in chronological order where the characters were merely instruments in carrying the story forward. Not to mention, there was always the subtle preach of God siding the good over evil and how He designs to bring the downfall of evil eventually. The faults of the perceived good characters were always justified, and the dark side of the evil characters magnified.

I was quite intrigued when I heard about Palace Of Illusions – Draupadi’s version of the Mahabharata.For starters, I did not even imagine there could be a version of this story from the point of view of one of the characters, or that it could be Draupadi. Pedantically, my idea of Draupadi’s part in the actual scheme of things was restricted to two main areas : her polygamous wedding and her oath in Duryodhan’s court which eventuallyy brought about the war. It was startlingly fresh to revisit the story from the beginning from her view point, right from her birth(an interesting bit that I had no clue about earlier) and stifling girlhood to the famed events leading upto the war and eventually her last journey. Her introduction as the restless girl with a doting, protective elder brother, Dhrishtadyumna(in a strange way, him being addressed as Dhri in the book adds so much more to his character as Draupadi’s brother than just a slayer of Drona) and the overbearing, yet fond Dhai Ma make us instantly get into the flesh of her character. Thereon, her thoughts and feelings take the centre stage completely and the actual events merely propel the narrative forward.

That she might have had such complex feelings for Karna, or that she had so many shades of grey, or that vengeance had turned her into a person for whom all other emotions paled in comparison, or that there could have been such grating friction between her and Kunti and her impression of Kunti as the mother in law with an iron fist over the minds of her sons- these are things that have never crossed my mind earlier, but having read the book , seems very plausible. And at every level, understandable and natural.

The author effectively conveys the influence wielded by the womenfolk(Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari) and also their helplessness despite their strength of character. Draupadi’s impudence at duryodhan, her complex love for Karna, her indignation at having to take on five husbands, her wrath and thirst for revenge make her character seem less larger than life and identifiable. Also, the depiction of Krishna is brilliant -there is no overt emphasis on the concept of God from her view point. Fate and destiny shape lives and her revelation of Krishna towards the end completes the jigsaw of the turn of events.

But there are a couple of things that rankle: Her love for Karna. You feel pity that she could not wed the man of her choice, you feel sorry for her not being able to redeem herself in Karna’s eyes. At every stage, the author misses no opportunity to keep the Draupadi-Karna flame alive in the reader’s mind, and beyond a point it starts to chafe and get annoying. Hits a peak when at the time of Ghatothkacha’s end, she feels more remorse at Karna’s fate being sealed than the brave warrior’s death. Also, though common as it is for the twin brothers, Nakul and Sahadev to be sidestepped in most versions of the epic, more detail was definitely expected here considering that they were after all her husbands too. But save some unimportant cursory references, they do not play any prominent part.

Love , LOVE the language and her writing style. Some figures of speech were so beautiful that I read those lines multiple times, and now regret not having noted them down somewhere. A couple that I can recollect now – “Draupadi was impatient like mustard seeds spluttering in oil” and “the pendulum of victory swung between the Pandavas and Kauravas every hour of the battle”. Despite being the first book of her’s that I ‘m reading , she goes right up there among my favorite Indian writers. Having said that, the language is far far removed from the style that is normally associated with epics – makes it hard to associate that style with the likes of Krishna and other epic characters, yet makes the characters less larger than life !