Friday, March 26, 2010

Book Review: Palace of Illusions

For the first time, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes about Indian mythology rather than just characters influenced by it or stories inspired by mythology.

In the genre of speculative fiction, she retells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view. Draupadi plays an essential role in the epic. If not for her, perhaps the Pandavas might not have lusted for revenge against their cousins as much.

Divakaruni takes the commonly known episodes of Draupadi's life, starting with her "birth" from the fire with Drishtadyumna and the prophecy at her arrival, her swayamvar and subsequent marriage to five husbands, her laughter when Duryodhana accidently falls into a pool in her palace at Indraprastha, her being staked and lost in a game of dice and the attempt to disrobe her in front of Dritarashtra's entire court and the miracle by Krishna, Krishna's assistance at the time when Durvasa and his numerous sages arrive at the Pandava's residence during vanvas, Kechakas infatuation with her and his death at the hands of Bhima during their year of being incognito, the loss of her 5 sons in the war and her being the first to fall by the wayside when she and the Pandavas begin their trek towards the heavens.

With this framework, Divakaruni fills in the blanks. What did Draupadi think about being the "girl who will change history"? What was her relationship with her father, her brother, her mother-in-law, her 5 husbands?

The introduction of the character of her nurse - Dhai Ma - helps to bring in a lot of background and history, which are narrated as stories. Divakaruni's Draupadi is an immature, impatient feminist who is filled with anger and the desire for vengeance (against Drona on behalf of her father and then the Kauravas).

She paints Kunti as a controlling mother who did not want to let go of her hold over her sons hearts and the obedience she commanded from them. Kunti in "The Palace of Illusions" constantly tests Draupadi and chastises her often.

The feminist Draupadi bemoans her empowerment of being granted 5 husbands yet having to follow an arrangement which has rules made by men. - 1 year in turn with each husband while attempting to put the others out of her head completely. She says "instead of a boon which turns me into a virgin before I begin my year with the next husband, I would have much preferred to be given the boon of forgetfullness - being able to forget the time I spent with the other 4 while I am with my current husband".

While the Mahabharatha has many strong female characters, Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Amba, Subhadra they do not have much of a voice. Divakaruni attempts to give that voice at least to Draupadi.

This is a brilliant work of fiction and definitely worth a read.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: Cuckold

After Ravan and Eddie I was itching to read "Cuckold" as this is a book that Kiran Nagarkar himself considers his masterpiece. In the midst of packing and leaving, I did not have the time to buy or read the book. On subsequent visits to India, we bought up all the latest best sellers (Egypt takes time for new books to be relased due to censorship issues) but sadly the Cuckold lost out in the race to my baggage, primarily because of its size and weight.

Once we moved back to India, this was one of the first books that I picked up. The premise itself had seemed very interesting. A fictionalised biography of Maharaj Kumar of whom little is known except that he was the son of the famous Rana Sangha of Mewar and the husband of Meerabai(hence the title).

Nagarkar has carried out a lot of research into Rajput history of those times and he sets his story against the backdrop of real events.

Although Nagarkar says "I was writing a novel, not history. I was willing to invent geography and climate, start revolts and epidemics, improvise anecdotes and economic conditions and fiddle with dates. As luck would have it I didnt get a chance to play around too much except in the case of the main protagonist, about whom we know nothing, but the fact that he was born, married and died"

The period during which Meerabai lived was momentuous. Rana Sangha her Father-in-law had united the in-fighting Rajputs for the first time, Babur was showing interest in conquering Hindoostan, Rana Sangha's kingdom was surrounded by the hostile Lodi Dynasty in Delhi, Muzaffar Shah II in Gujarat and Sultan Mahmud Khalji II of Malwa.

Nagarkar has used known incidents and woven them into his tale. His hero Maharaj Kumar is a brave warrior and a forward thinker who plans many grand and innovative schemes like a water and sewage system for the fort, a brilliant tactician who prefers to watch his enemy in action and then plan an attack as opposed to the straight on confrontation preferred by Rajputs of those times, who ultimately becomes a victim of his circumstances.

The book is a wonderful introduction to Rajput history and culture which can reinvigorate interest, in someone who has been inured to history by lacklustre textbooks.

Politics, scheming, spies, romance, affairs, eunuchs, concubines, cheating wives, dancing queens - this novel contains them all. Nagarkar is a wonderful story teller on the lines of the bards of yore. Each characters development is well etched out and their actions become completely believable.

Its a wonder Bollywood has not yet seized on this book. It would be a far more gripping story than Jodhaa Akbar.


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