‘Love comes like lightning, and disappears the same way. If you are lucky, it strikes you right. If not, you’ll spend your life yearning for a man you can’t have.’
~ Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
It has been raining stories set in historical and mythological pasts, retold in startling perspectives and flavours. Novel methods and innovations have been pressed into service with wide-ranging outcomes. Mahabharata too, that colossal epic of ambition, heroics, intrigue, treachery and vengeance, goes through the customary tweaks and twists in ‘Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Believed to have taken place circa 3100 BC, the saga of Mahabharat is a veritable mine of complex characters terrestrial to celestial, part-men to part-gods, and tiers of deities, whose paths intersect and intertwine, catapulting the fortunes of the small and the great. There are few accounts as vivid and panoramic, of the petulance and starkness of human failings, and the elegance or perfidy of men. Divakaruni’s adventurous version of the age old tale undertakes to ‘uncover the story that lay invisible between the lines of men’s exploits’ through the eyes of Panchaali, the princess who pulverised her times.
Once upon a time under an ancient sun a king prayed the gods for thirty days to send him a scion who could avenge his dishonour by his onetime friend. A boy did walk out of the sacrificial fire but the very next instant a girl appeared too. Gods enjoin the king to take good care of her for she would change the course of history. She would grow into a vivacious princess, keen on politics and duelling rather than cooking and music. In time, a grand archery contest is held whose winner is allowed to take her as a bride. A Pandava prince disguised as a beggar wins the test in a trifle and whisks her away. His mother, not knowing what prize the son has won asks him to share it equally among the five brothers who all then become her husbands.
Pandavas are forever dodging assassination bids by their scheming uncle and his brood of one hundred sons called Kauravas. Although the blind uncle is the reigning emperor, the crown is due to the eldest of Pandavas. The patriarch of the clan brokers temporary peace between them by dividing the kingdom into two but the Kauravas not only win the other half back in a wicked game of dice, they win the five brothers and the princess too as slaves. Worse would follow. The princess is dragged by her hair into the middle of a jeering assembly of Kauravas. One of them pulls away the clothes from her trembling body and orders her to sit on the thigh of the gang leader Duryodhan; the five husbands sit with bowed heads through the heinous spectacle. The princess would remain stung for life by the half-rape. She would take a vow not to tie her hair till the delinquent is beheaded and his blood applied to her tresses. The incident would lead to a cataclysmic war that would see all the kings and rulers of the continent taking sides. Most of them would perish in the horrific bloodletting lasting eighteen days, ushering in the end of an age of humanity.
Divakaruni seems unawed by the grandeur of the epic, or the majestic sweep of its verses and its religious overtones —a portion of it is still used by the judiciary to impart oaths in India. Well, at least not initially. She sets the ball rolling at a comfortable pace in an intimate, conversational tone. When the courtesans and the king are dumbfounded by the appearance of a girl out of the sacrificial fire, ‘It was so quiet, you could have heard a housefly fart.’ The irreverence of that one sentence at the outset is a signal of the colloquial style held through most of the book.
The depiction of the grudging welcome of the princess is a brilliant touch, symbolic of the reception she would receive for the rest of her life. The momentary hitch before she is picked up by her putative father would leave a lifelong scar —a craving to be loved unconditionally that would never be quenched. We share her feelings as she grows in the damp, stony corridors of the bleak palace and her dark chamber with a window set high in the wall; even the bars of the window are rusted. As against her cloistered life, her twin brother is free as a bird, absorbing exotic arts and knowledge. The bond she shares with her brother Dhri throbs noticeably through the pages.
The picture begins to get crowded as characters pour in. The eunuch sibling, the sorceress, a boatload of husbands and their stony, shrewd mother; the blind king and his sulking wife and the maddening Kauravas; the larger than life grandfather Bheeshma, each with a vendetta and a vengeance of one’s own. The creation of the ‘palace of illusions’ strikes the right chord as a fulfilment of the protagonist’s craving for fine living. The dialect for a change, rises a few notches:
“Above us our palace waits, the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. We rise; the shapes cluster around us in welcome, dissolving and forming again like fireflies in a summer evening.”
But the proceedings flounder with the Pandavas’ crusade to secure heaven for their departed ancestors. Kauravas’ overstay at the palace drags it down further. By the time the Pandavas lose everything to mind-numbing wagering, the sense of proportions has slipped well past the fingers of the narrator. The story has moved erratically across swaths of time, cruising past where it should have pondered, and lingering at inconsequential shrubbery. Panchaali does fetch snippets from her yet untold future now and then but they stand out like unsightly patches on the fabric, enriching neither the present nor the bygone. The largely linear structure of the story is choking for movement ahead. Then Pandavas hit the forest for twelve years of exile and a year of hiding. It is a testing time for the reader as Panchaali goes about heaving and hoeing, stinging each brother like a clockwork lest they forget the unforgivable that happened to her. More than vengeance, there is exasperation in the air, thick and palpable. The book is dead by the thirteenth year and the war has not even begun.
But the greatest failing of the story is the choice of first person voice. The clear vision of the princess as a girl moves away steadily from the personal to universal till it is just a third person narrator describing what is happening to her own character. “A woman doesn’t think that way.” “But was a woman’s heart any purer in the end?” “But a strange implacability had taken over me…. I stitched discontent onto my features and let my hair fall.”
Perhaps it is easy to be swept by the expanse of the canvas when your source is an epic like Mahabharata. A seer penning a momentous saga has the luxury to splurge in characters, bump them in and out at will, each with a potful of life of their own. It is a pitfall, one that is perilous to someone writing a stock potboiler, to peer at infinity. It is best for both author and audience that the focus be selective, characters few and the emotions consistent. It pays even if your premise is contentious, like the love between Panchaali and Karna we have in the book, carried to a credible conclusion.
Then there is the question of language. The decision to defang a mammoth, half-sacred epic is already taken and the style matches the severity of the dilution for most parts. Yet, there are sparks of lyricism at points that rise to the sublimity of the task at hand. However, the effects get rubbed away quickly by a lingo of Facebook chat. Here is how a regal prince narrates a crucial moment in the epoch churning battle: Nakul said: “You know how Eldest Brother is, very noble and admirable, only sometimes he doesn’t think things through. So he tells Duryodhan, You’re alone here and tired out, and there’s five of us against you, which isn’t fair…”
The sense of disproportion plagues the book till it’s excruciatingly delayed end. This is what the dying arch-villain slaps on Panchaali in the closing moment of the holocaust, “You will rule a kingdom peopled with widows and orphans and wake each morning to the grief of loss. Who is the real winner, then, and who the loser?” Gosh! That’s enough to turn the victory into ash in the mouths of an entire race. The panting book has ended with a beautiful sting and for a moment one is reminded of that age old adage, all’s well that ends well! But Divakaruni would rather not stop there. She would meander aimlessly for fifty more pages, copying and pasting sorrow widow after widow, mourning the headless dead and the listless living, brooding over the detritus of kingdoms. Eventually, she would fall on her way trying to follow the Pandavas into the clouds of heaven. Yudhishthir’s fading voice would be replaced by Krishna’s philosophical crooning, till there is nothing but death whistling in her ears.
Whence did she speak to us in the book?
Palace of Illusions
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher: Picador India