“And so was born out of fire, Draupadi, daughter of King Drupad, and the princess of Paanchal”, said my mother placing the last morsel of dal soaked roti in my mouth. This signified the conclusion of the Chaitraratha Adi Parva in the epic of Mahabharata. The dinner-time story telling ritual continued throughout my childhood, and I heard the vivid tales of the epic from my mother. During one of these story sessions, my mother also narrated the Vana Parva from the epic, and said, “Then was born Lopamudra from the loss of the beautiful eyes of a deer; the wife of Agastya, and the princess of Vidarbha.”
I grew up listening to intertwined tales of both the ladies from the Mahabharata. One day I told my mother, “Draupadi is so charismatic! Her enigmatic birth from the fire is so mystifying! Why didn’t you and Daddy name me Draupadi instead of Lopamudra?” My mother replied, “Lopamudra is equally mystifying! And haven’t I told you that she was the knowledgeable wife of the great Agastya?” To this I replied, “Lopamudra is known because of Agastya! Look at Paanchali (Draupadi is also known as Paanchali), married to all the five Pandavas, and yet she had her own allure, not shadowed by the eminence of her husbands.” When I read the epic by my own, I concluded why my parents didn’t name me Draupadi. Draupadi was hailed as kritya – one who is jinxed, and brings doom to the family. I wondered if Draupadi is a kritya, why is her name chanted in the Panchakanya stuti – a hymn of five auspicious virgins who signify the five elements of nature.
Many times I read the Mahabharata, and many times I analyzed Draupadi’s character, and every time I failed to agree that she was a kritya. Recently I read ‘Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Bannerjee Diwakaruni, and my opinion of Paanchali not being a kritya was reinforced. Unlike the original Mahabharata written by sage Vyasa, Palace of Illusions is Draupadi’s first person narrative of the great saga. Draupadi has always been considered as the impetus and the reason for the holocaust in the Mahabharata that massacred mankind, and hence she is called a kritya. With Palace of Illusions, Chitra Bannerjee breaks this notion.
The author presents Draupadi not as the Princess of Paanchal or the Queen of the Pandavas, but as a woman – a mere woman who is born to live a destiny she didn’t design. She was called a kritya for what? For being accepted falteringly by her father after birth? For always being hushed because she was a girl? For being married to five men whom she didn’t choose? For being gifted to be a virgin every year so as to be the lawful wife to each of her husbands equally? (In the book, Draupadi laments if it was a boon or a curse? And perhaps the boon was crafted to suit the needs of her husbands.) For being used as an item at stake in gambling by her husbands? For being lost in the gamble, and humiliated and manhandled amongst and by her own family? For being vengeful for the misery she suffered? I think it’s the other way round. Instead of her being the harbinger of misfortune, I believe misfortune chose her time and again, and struck her hard.
Chitra Bannerjee has lent Draupadi a powerful voice. The book expounds Draupadi’s emotions in several ways – through her tales, her dreams, her fantacies, her desires, and her retrospections. The author has the prowess to construct beautiful sentences, which bring forth Draupadi’s character splendidly. The book is not an ode to Draupadi as many think. It is the story of a woman, of what hardships she faced, how she handled the tough situations she encountered, what glory she enjoyed, how she lost it, and how she regained it at the cost of uncountable deaths. Even though the tale of Mahabharata is narrated via Draupadi, the book is not written chronologically as per the events. And that is what makes the book even more interesting. Chitra Bannerjee transforms the reader from Draupadi’s present to past, and past to present. The flashbacks are narrated beautifully in the form of dreams and illusions, and I truly commend the author for this wonderful knitting of thoughts.
Another aspect that is highlighted in the book is the deep yearning of Draupadi – her yearning for a stunning and lavish palace full of grandeur, (The book is named Palace of Illusions after the numinous palace that Paanchali lived in after her marriage to the Pandavas.) her yearning for fatherly affection, her yearning to be treated equal as her brother, her yearning for true love that she seeks in her husbands throughout her life, her yearning to be loved back by the man she fell in love at the first sight, her yearning to be a gush of motherly love to her children, her yearning to be craved by her children, her yearning for a companion with whom she can be Paanchali – the woman, and not Paanchali – the queen. My heart completely resonated with the ups and downs of Draupadi’s tone, and for the first time I realized that a man can never understand what goes on in a woman’s heart. Perhaps he can read her mind, but there is only one in a million who will be able to read her heart. The book elucidates this man in Draupadi’s life – the eternal Krishna. I am mesmerized by the beauty of their relationship that is not bound by any name, and undeniably is an epitome of unconditional love.
Chitra Bannerjee’s Palace of Illusions is a magnet that held me, and instilled deep thoughts in my mind. Not only does the book narrate the Mahabharata, but it also silently narrates the struggle of a woman with her own self. I could not stop from asking myself, “Who is Draupadi?” Is she a fighter who never said die? Is she a warrior who faced challenges with all her might? Well, she is all this, and much more. She is the spirit that resides in every woman. I am not here to blow the trumpet of feminism. I am just thoroughly impressed by the book’s power to nurture deeper thoughts in me, and make me feel proud to be a woman! I also asked myself, “Who is that one person who loves me truly and never asks anything in return?” Well, there cannot be an ambiguous answer to this. It is none other than Krishna, who stands by me through thick and thin.
I have finished reading Palace of Illusions but it seems I have come out of a dream or perhaps I am still in trance. I yearn to read some more. Let Paanchali not stop narrating for I never want to come out of the web that she has woven with her spellbinding tale. It’s more than a tale actually. It’s a journey rather, which we all make, and in its wake forget the one who stands by us all along, and yet again when we reach the destination we think where it all began!
My favorite quote from Palace of Illusions –
“Time is like a flower, Krishna said once. I didn’t understand. But later I visualized a lotus opening, the way the outer petals fall away to reveal the inner ones. An inner petal would never know the older one, even though it was shaped by them, and only the viewer who plucked the flower would see how each petal was connected to the others.” ~ Draupadi