A slightly edited version of this appeared in Sunday's DNA.
THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
In The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni sets aside her usual brand of exotic realism and attempts to show us the world of the Mahabharata though Draupadi’s eyes. Which brings to mind other feminist retellings of mythological epics, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which narrated Arthurian legends from the point of view of Morgan Le Fay, Guinevere and others and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s slim The Penelopiad, which retold The Odyssey from the point of view of the distressed Penelope. The success or otherwise of such attempts is clearly to be measured in terms of how they make us re-evaluate the previous work.
Here, the mode of expression is in the first person -- the challenge, then, is to work with the limitations of such a viewpoint to recast the omniscience of the original. Unfortunately, Banerjee side-steps this by having her Draupadi become the recipient of the stories of others, be they the Pandavas, her nursemaid, sundry bards, her brother Dhrishtadyumna and more. This seems like a cop-out: the uniqueness of a woman’s point of view is diluted and what remains is another potted version of the epic. In addition, many of the characters appear unchanged: Duryodhan is always vengeful and wicked, Krishna is always playfully divine, and so on.
Banerjee does introduce touches of her own, principally Draupadi’s unconsummated yearning for Karna, which she uses as a device to set some of the events in motion (although anthropologist Irawati Karve points out that this notion is to be found in some later Jain puranas). Banerjee also has Draupadi in an adversarial relationship with mother-in-law Kunti, and setting up courts after the Kurukshetra War to hear bereaved women’s issues. Her account of Draupadi’s outrage and subsequent acceptance when told that she is to marry all five Pandavas, as well as her implacable determination that her husbands fight the Kauravas to the finish are occasionally insightful -- but equally, there are parts that are unconvincing, such as the Freudian analysis of her husbands: “Your childhood hunger is the one that never leaves you. No matter how famous or powerful they became, my husbands would always long to be cherished”.
If it’s stimulating insights into the Mahabharata you need, there’s still nothing better than Iravati Karve’s Yuganta; if it’s a clear-cut encapsulation you’re looking for, brush the dust off the Rajagopalachari version.