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Review: The palace of illusions

It's really intriguing to find a book that deals differently with Draupadi, writes Renuka Narayanan.

books Updated: Apr 13, 2008 16:58 IST
Renuka Narayanan

The palace of Illusions
PICADOR
RS495*PP360

Almost nobody names their daughter Draupadi - unless it's for an upaay, an astrologer's trick to stave off the hostile fates by pre-empting their ordained malice with such an 'unlucky' name for the child.

For millennia, the fire-born Princess of Panchala has had a bad press in the world of men. She's been casually, brutally called a kritya (one who brings doom to her clan).

Ugly sayings based on elements of her story are used to judge the bridal suitability of a girl, like this charming South Indian Brahmin caution, 'Ati keshi pati naasha' - A woman with long hair spells destruction for her husband. (Of course, that doesn't stop South Indians from looping their daughters' long hair into ribbon-festooned plaits.)

So it's really intriguing to find a book that deals differently with Draupadi - not a Manushi article or a Gender Studies tract on 'Mythical Women and Agency', but a proper story, like Vyasa's epic, where Draupadi begins.

Perhaps there was a modern Draupadi story in English before Chitra Banerjee's Divakaruni's, but it hasn't come my way. Unsure of what I'd get as her earlier books didn't quite work for me, I began to read The Palace of Illusions in a tentative sort of way The 'mysterious woman' style of narration is unmistakably Divakaruni's.

But as often happens with the epics, the grandeur of the story transcends the telling. Have you noticed this pattern at work even with the tacky sets, gold crowns, bamboo bows and guchchas of pink plastic pearls in the teleserial versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata?

However shoddy the communicator's skills, it's almost impossible to make an epic story flop. And Divakaruni is not bad at all. In fact, she's pretty good in this book.

Told in the first person, Divakaruni's tale takes us through the epic in Draupadi's voice. From being born of the sacrificial fire (thus her beautiful name 'Yajnaseni', though the author doesn't use it, preferring 'Panchali'), to her strange, lonely childhood, her tricky marriage to five men with a persecution problem and a control freak mother, her own, lovely home at last, and then the unbelievable traumas that follow that nobody should have to go through (but millions of refugees do).

Having her home, freedom and honour gambled away, almost stripped in public, her terrible life of hiding, servitude, evading assault and finally, the grim justice of war and a lonely death falling off a mountain track.

Most of this is 'true', as in the original epic. Divakaruni adds other imaginative twists of her own: Which man does Draupadi really love? How does she get to describe the battle? And most resplendent discovery of all: who is the one who really, truly loves her?

I can't bear to spoil the charm of these insights. Please read this poignantly told book for yourself. You won't stand to hear Draupadi called a kritya ever again, even assuming you never liked it that they did in the first place.