How had it been if Mahabharata was narrated from Panchali aka Draupadi’s perspective? Did you ever imagine why Draupadi could not refuse to marry the five Pandavas or why she never retaliated against her so-called ideal husbands who were mere spectators when she was humiliated and dragged in a gathering replete with men? Maybe, this is what “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tries to untangle. It takes you through the journey of scripture that stems from dilemmas, choices, and war.
The story is about Draupadi’s life that was weaved via patriarchy, fate, and her five husbands. Banerjee walks you through circumstantial dilemmas where sometimes you feel for Draupadi, while sometimes her decisions irk you. The book is beyond what we perceive of not just Draupadi but facets of human nature that reflect both envy and empathy. One ends up learning empathy towards the people that he may never approve of. Moreover, it will also delve you into the unkind nature of relationships. You imbibe the wisdom of Mahabharata through Draupadi’s eyes. And eventually, you realize that there is a Draupadi in all of us, an indecisive and slightly complicated woman who was conditioned in the ‘necessities’ of human existence. The one who was told about her fortunes and misfortunes prior to the actual events.
The daughter of Panchala’s king Drupada and the manifestation of Agni, Draupadi was a mystery unfolded at the behest of fate. Her grown-up years were a blend of valor, wisdom, and beauty. She was unconventional, unlike other girls of her age. Barely could she stand kohl on the waterline but yearned to learn the fiercer sword. Her formative years laid the foundation of a distinction that meant household chores for girls while the boys were acquainted with education, sent to Gurukul, taught science and maths, trained in armed combat. Little Draupadi found it unfair as she would often ask her Dai-Ma (house help) why she was made to dress a certain way, put on makeup, or learn cooking.
It would always irk Dai-Ma when Draupadi countered her with arguments and curiosity. Her questions centered on gender distinction. She was not rebellious but the monotony of pre-defined roles made her question the status quo as she grew up.
Time had come for Draupadi to choose the ‘suitable boy’. In an assembly full of royalty, kings from across the country showed up for the Swayamvar. Among the prospects, one was Karna who was unfairly rejected by her as she mocked him in front of the gathering and eventually went on to marry Arjuna. Little did she know that fate had something else in store for her. Accepting a difficult journey ahead, given Arjuna, his mother, and the rest of the Pandavas were in exile, Draupadi was prepared to depart from the jeweled comforts of the royal palace. But her conviction was short-lived as Kunti had asked Arjuna to share whatever he had brought home with his four brothers, without knowing that it wasn’t food but a daughter-in-law. These were the times when promises meant everything, you couldn’t turn them down. And if it was made to your mother, dare you to counter it. Poor Arjuna had to oblige and likewise the other brothers. But nobody ever bothered about Draupadi, how she felt, or whether she even wanted to stay in the relationship after this abysmal wife-sharing deal.
The Palace where Draupadi lived in post-exile years was Pandavas’ dream home. From turning barren land into a flourishing kingdom to sowing an enigmatically beautiful garden, the Pandavas’ life after the exile was no less than a blessing. Their palace was all gold and glory with each corner carefully customized by an architect from heaven. As the queen of the palace, Draupadi could feel the warmth that was bestowed on her by the men in her life. After all the turbulence and sorrow, it was finally Draupadi’s moment and the husbands were seemingly compensating for all the pain she had to bear in the bygone years. She was learning to cheer life until misfortunes knocked on the door again.
Draupadi was humiliated by Kauravas after Pandavas lost in the game of dice (gambling). She was hounded in front of her husbands, not one but five. All of them squinted here and there but did not have the courage to protect their wife whom they shared. The ‘Draupadi Cheer Haran’ anecdote shakes you to the core and makes you question your existence as a woman. She kept shrieking for help from the elder members, but to no avail. They were equally responsible for her humiliation as they showed no spine in condemning Kaurava’s actions.
She realized how difficult it was to prove her worth as a woman and guard her morality. But she fought for it and pledged that only the death of Kauravas will suffice for the inhuman treatment meted out to her. She never tied her hair since that day. Soon, the war ensued and justified everything. It is the deadliest and most depressing phase as the story progresses. Strangely, the war that took place at Kurukshetra speaks for both sides. The aftermath was equally devastating for people on either side. It is this realization towards the end that compels you to introspect over people around you. When the war ended, nobody was happy. Yes, there was a winning side, but that was just a handful number of people. The only emotion in abundance was pain and loss.
For Draupadi’s self-respect and the kingdom that Pandavas’ had lost by folly, it was a consolation against their cowardly conduct. They fought for their wife, for the love of their children and kingdom, but it just did not make sense. All the sacrifice, war, revenge seemingly looked futile because a hundred Kauravas were dead, and so were the innocent soldiers. At the same time, the war was also the onset of a new dharma that preached an “Eye for an Eye” action with Lord Krishna emphasizing to speak up and fight for what is right. Meanwhile, Draupadi was both relieved and restless as she lamented the irreparable loss of her five sons and Abhimanyu. Her perpetrators were dead, the past baggage was eased in some way, but a new baggage was looming over now.