My knowledge of the ‘Mahabharata’ is confined to bits and pieces of anecdotes and excerpts from the grand epic . I have a rather perfunctory familiarity with the names of the myriad characters all of whom play a meaningful role in a saga which is so much a part of the fabric of Indian mythology.
Recently, I was recommended a book, ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Bannerjee Devakaruni, and it was unputdownable. There are those who will find it a little slow-reading in the beginning, but to me it was an excitingly original take on the events leading to the great epic war from the point of view of Draupadi , at whose door is laid the responsibility for instigating the great fratricidal war. What made the deepest impression on me was that the powerful narrative was built and developed not just out of the author’s readings of the epic but from her memories of tales told to her as a child by the elders in the family which had imprinted themselves in her psyche.
One is spellbound absorbing the many teachings that are threaded through the narrative such as the science and art of honourable warfare, the power of oratory and the importance of correct choice of words by leaders while addressing the masses. One cannot forget Draupadi’s comparison of a resentful heart to a burning stick – ‘it may hurt you but in trying to burn you it’s consuming itself’, or ‘ the humiliated enemy is the most dangerous one’, giving the examples of the hair of Duryodhan’s brother-in-law Jayadrath chopped off by Bheem for trying to abduct Draupadi, and Duryadhan’s rescue from capture by a Gandharva king by Arjun, his most hated enemy.
There is the breathless building up of the tempo leading to the war of Kurukshetra – the hectic throbbing pace and build up to war, its climax, its denouement. One practically feels one is in the thick of it, the aligning of the 2 armies, the resonance of the musical instruments, the preparedness of horses and the elephants, the description and use of different types of weapons, the layout of the battlefield and the living quarters (including brothels for the soldiery), the rules of honourable battle and the state of preparedness of the generals.
It is difficult not to love and empathise with the character of Draupadi – her strengths and weaknesses, her wilfulness and her regrets. Also her practical nature and logic. For instance, when she accepts her Pandava husbands taking extra wives because you ‘couldn’t expect them to remain celibate while waiting their turn’ as her spouse. Still, she adds elsewhere, ‘it’s never a good idea to let one’s husband grow too complacent’ hence her temper tantrums to ensure a healthy respect for a wife’s anger. It is easy to identify oneself in her very modern ideas, her chafing throughout at the restrictions that limit women froma wider area of knowledge and activity such as the art and science of warfare, the veiling of body and face, even talking unless specifically permitted to do so. With her life so closely entwined with those of five strong men, she can conclude that- ‘for men the softer emotions are always intertwined with power and pride’. One understands that five husbands are four too many and life can be so trying under such circumstances that she looks forward to a life in the next birth ‘ where she can be free of male demands’.
What moved me most was the author’s beautiful depiction of Karna as the tragic hero whose fate was decided before he was born. Draupadi’s deep and abiding attraction and love for Karna shines through the entire narrative; comparing him almost involuntarily to her husbands she confesses that ‘none of them had the power to agitate me the way the mere memory of Karna did’. Her glowing, detailed descriptions of Karna so lovingly etched reveal her burning desire, the depth of her feelings for him, the understanding of his pain.
Finally, what a master story teller is Vyasa who penned the Mahabharata and is also plays himself in it – the delineation of each character and their individual and separate idiosyncracies, and the stories- within- stories enmeshing with each other. And what an equally amazing raconteur must have been the family elder of the author, that every little detail remained etched in an impressionable child’s memory till she was able to bring them all to life many years later.