So in the last post I talked about how my curiosity about the Mahabharata was reignited by The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Lekha Divakaruni Bannerjee (and may her name be a lesson to us all to rethink multiple last names).
This might seem kind of new agey for some, but this book taught me something. It taught me about myself.
I found myself identifying with Draupadi which is something I didn’t expect (because I have always perceived her as something of a victim and feminists might argue that this retelling doesn’t particularly change that). There are many nuggets of wisdom I’ve gained from this book but I’ll concentrate on just one scene.
The famous one. The one where a sari comes unraveling.
In that episode, it all comes together just as things are falling apart.
All this time I’d believed in my power over my husbands. I’d believed that because they love me they would do anything for me. But now I saw that though they did love me – as much perhaps as any man can love – there were other things they loved more. Their notions of honour, of loyalty towards each other, of reputation were more important to them than my suffering. They would avenge me later, yes, but only when they felt the circumstances would bring them heroic fame. A woman doesn’t think that way. I would have thrown myself forward to save them if it had been in my power that day. I wouldn’t have cared what anyone thought. The choice they made in the moment of my need changed something in our relationship. I no longer depended so completely on them in the future. And when I took care to guard myself from hurt, it was as much from them as from our enemies.
I have always struggled to articulate why I felt betrayed by the men I chose to love. And this paragraph laid it out for me. It’s the realization that in your moment of crisis, the person who professed to love you the deepest, may not be there for you. You may ask but you may not receive. Of course, he may rise to the occasion but it’s the uncertainty that’s unexpected. The song doesn’t go “I may die for you, I may lie for you”. It’s realization that there’s a “but” and also the realization that so far, in your love, there were no “buts”. That’s when you change and decide to insert one. And that insertion, that protective shield that not being unconditional affords, changes you and makes you harder.
And there’s more. As she rests her mind on Krishna (and this too is curious, and she surmises its because Krishna owes her nothing that she can think of him without getting angry), she is calmed and the unraveling of her sari refuses to end because she refuses to be shamed. And then she is faced with two choices:
“Is the desire for vengeance stronger than the longing to be loved?”
When she comes out of her trance, Draupadi chooses vengeance over love and forgiveness, and the rest is history. In my darkest hours, I’ve found myself facing these same choices. My pride makes complete forgiveness impossible. And so the cycle goes on, and because of the previous lesson (the need for a “but”) it’s really hard to break out of it.
And of course, I identify with Draupadi’s relationship with Kunti. Nice to know it’s timeless :)
Finally, Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna plays out the function of God. God is what you call to mind when you’re confused and miraculously the answers come. God is what you rest on when the world is whirling. God is what works only if you believe it will. Strangely, Draupadi doesn’t see Krishna so much as God but as a friend and even as the one she loves the most.
I’ve come across a couple of less than flattering reviews of the book on blogs. What was interesting to me was that most (and I could be wrong here) of those who didn’t seem to like the book were male.
There were also a small proportion of women who disliked the book but they fell into the category of people who had read other versions of the Mahabharata and couldn’t bear changes to that reading, kind of the same reaction anyone has to their favourite book being redone. So it could be that I (and the Mad Momma) liked it because we had relatively little exposure to the Mahabharat so we didn’t feel as if something we held dear was being tampered with.
But, that apart, the male-female divide in response to The Palace of Illusions again made me wonder about the idea of ecriture feminine. At the simplest level, the book may appeal to women more because it adopts a woman’s perspective and this is something we can relate to. But that apart, there is also the question of style. Many of the male commenters, including I think the blogger-reviewers, had problems with her “flowery” and “exotic” language. Frankly, I didn’t find her any more flowery than, say, Salman Rushdie. It’s a style of writing called magic realism, now recognised as a literary genre. However, of course, Bannerjee’s writing differs from Rushdie’s. The question is: is it more feminine and is this why it turns men off?
I have now started reading Prem Panicker’s online version of MT Vasudevan Nair’s retelling of the Mahabharata through Bhim’s perspective. I’m loving it. And I’m not finding it that different from Bannerjee’s approach. I don’t see the multiplicity of perspective that Jai Arjun Singh is talking about. And I don’t have a problem with that lack. If it’s obvious from the outset that the story is from the perspective of one character, one assumes there will be biases no? Even when they report events that others have told them and they have not seen themselves, there can be bias in hearing too.
Moreover, at the outset itself, Bannerjee writes in quite a lot about the storyness or stories:
Were the stories we told each other true? Who knows? At the best of times, a story is a slippery thing…Perhaps that was why it changed with each telling. Or is that the nature of all stories, the reason for their power?
So what’s the problem? I don’t get it, someone please explain.
Apart from subjectivity, it could be said that Bannerjee’s telling is more “magical”. But again, that’s a stylistic thing. So is it that guys don’t appreciate magical realism that much? Just wondering and would love it if people who have read this book and other examples of magical realism weigh in.
MinCat‘s going to join me in reading a novelised version of the Mahabharata. We’re probably going to have two different versions and I think that makes it interesting because we can compare notes. As with Blogyssey, whoever wants to is free to join in. Rules are simple: read, post on it and then we’ll cross link and comment on each other’s posts.
Also I’m wondering about a tag for this endeavour. Should I continue with Blogyssey, because it’s something in that vein, or does it deserve a separate tag? Anf if so, what? Mahassey? Mahaproject?