Any writing terrifies me (But I still write, because it never fails to perk me up after I hit “Publish”!), but writing about “The Palace of Illusions” has so far intimidated me! Even as I write this, I know I will fail to do justice to this outstanding book. Still… I want to share my (divine) experience reading it. I don’t think I’ve said this before about any other books I’ve read, but this one just pulled me into its folds and didn’t let me go until I’d reached the end, exhausted, but blissed out. I found myself going through a wide range of emotions from pure sympathy to utter disgust, heart drum-rolling to being moved to tears, bafflement to feeling blessed as I read the book.
This story is, in essence the story of Mahabharata (one of the 2 major Sanskrit epics of India), told from the point-of-view of Draupadi, the wife of Pandava brothers. And Mahabharata (to those of you who have no clue what it is all about) is a narrative of the lives of 2 sets of brothers- Pandavas and Kauravas and their battle for the throne of Hastinapur. Almost every Hindu child grows up listening to the stories mentioned in the book.
I don’t know how true this historical fiction by Chitra Banerjee Diwakaruni is, in telling the tale of the Mahabharata and how accurate the depictions of its characters are to Vyasa’s original, but I loved this one to pieces, mainly because it is told from a female perspective and also because the writer makes something so sacred, so austere, truly accessible to all.
I don’t say that I liked all the characters that peopled this book, not even the virtuous ones! In fact I found myself rooting for the “bad” characters at times, which goes to show that each one of us is a complex mix of both good and bad. I liked Draupadi, the central character, in the beginning, raw and innocent with a deep yearning for a better life, than the stifling, fortified life her strict Father had bestowed upon her. But with passing time and the unusual circumstances she’s thrown into, she hardens into someone unrecognizable, even to herself. With every turn of page, I liked her less and less. Guess who I liked the most? No, not Yudhishtir, the most righteous or Bhima, the strongest or Arjun, the bravest or any of her other dashing husbands. It was Karna that I fell in love with. Karna, the enigmatic. Karna, the thorough Gentleman. Karna, the magnanimous. Karna, her husbands’ fiercest enemy. And Karna, the firstborn of Kunti, the mother of Pandavas! I pitied and admired him at the same time. Like in “Gone with the wind”, where I kept waiting for the elusive Rhett Buttler to appear, so did I anxiously wait for an encounter of Draupadi with Karna.
Draupadi is destined to do great things. Powerful, but deadly. She is the main reason for the Battle of Kurukshetra, the war that pitted brothers against one another, killed innumerable beings and left mothers and wives without their sons and husbands. Vyasa, the writer of this epic is writing all of this even as the story unfolds. So I kept wondering whether all of this could have been averted. But no. As Vyasa puts it to Draupadi – “Only a fool meddles in the Great Design. Besides, your destiny is born of lifetimes of Karma, too powerful for me to change.” But… He does ask her to do (and not to do) certain things which might help change the course of history, but she will not do as she’s told…
I just couldn’t hold my tears back when her own husbands stand back, heads down in shame, while their enemies humiliate her in a crowded court by disrobing her. Her words “I’d believed that because they loved me they would do anything for me. But now I saw that though they did love me- as much as perhaps any man can love- there were other things they loved more. Their notions of honor, of loyalty towards each other, of reputation were more important to them than my suffering. They would avenge me later, yes, but only when they felt the circumstance would bring them heroic fame. A woman doesn’t think that way. I would’ve thrown myself forward to save them if it had been in my power that day. I wouldn’t have cared what anyone thought.” Who comes to her rescue then, when even the man of her dreams, Karna, has joined the Shaming club? Lord Krishna. His words to her, “No one can shame you, if you don’t allow it.”, simple, yet so weighty left me beaming with joy.
Until the end of her life, Draupadi fails to see the divinity in Krishna. She loves him, yes, adores him, confides in him, yet, fails to see how he’s always there when she needs him. When others treat him as God, she scoffs at their ‘exaggeration’! A Chameleon, she thinks he is. I looked forward to their verbal exchanges- a treasure trove of wisdom I think they are. Here are a few examples-
“A problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself.”
“Even a curse can be a blessing, Krishnaa. Don’t you agree?”, he called her “Krishnaa”, the female form of his own.
“‘ Try to remember that you are the instrument and I, the doer. If you can hold onto this, no sin can touch you.’
‘What if I forget?’
He said, ‘You probably will. Most of them do. That’s the beguiling trick the world plays on you. You will suffer for it-or dream that you’re suffering. But no matter. At the time of your death I’ll remind you. That’ll be enough.'”
I wish I could kiss the hand that wrote such words.
For now I’ll make myself happy by reading the book again. And again.