Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Can there ever be a boring telling of the Mahabharata? Rajaji’s version was my introduction to the epic. I have spent innumerable childhood hours reading and re-reading it and then you grow up with these images in your head – the heroic Arjuna, the doomed Karna, the wicked Duryodhana, the wise and righteous Bheeshma, the sly Sakuni, the beautiful and proud Draupadi, the playful and wily Krishna… You have arguments in your head whether Arjuna deserved to kill Karna, whether the Pandavas deserved the kingdom, whether Krishna’s partiality was justified…

It is not a clean story, not a classic case of the good winning over evil. There are far too many ambiguities, too many heroes on the losing side, too many lies and half-truths on the winning one. Victory at the end is not an unalloyed triumph and revenge does have more than a taste of the bitter. Which is what makes it such a fabulous source for re-telling.

Chitra Banerjee attempts one such re-telling. From Draupadi’s perspective. Draupadi or Paanchali is a woman as much embedded in the Indian collective imagination as a Sita, a Rani of Jhansi, a Mira. She is strong, beautiful, with an ability to turn the course of a story on her own strength. Isn’t it strange then that we never name our daughters Draupadi or Paanchali? Her praises are not sung nor is she revered in the way the other heroines are. Strong willed women with a streak of individualism have a way of being uncomfortable. So it is interesting that Banerjee takes her up as the protagonist and weaves the stories of the Mahabharata with her as the centre.

Banerjee stays true to the original most of the time and there are few surprises. But there are some new perspectives that have the ability to startle. Draupadi’s lifelong rivalry with Kunti, Kunti as the stern mother with little tenderness, Bheeshma as the righteous patriarch whose adherence to his code of conduct makes him less than human, Draupadi’s own secret love and longing for Karna that lasts throughout her lifetime, her inability to feel anything half as passionate for her own husbands, her special relationship with Krishna that is hard to qualify, her irrational love for her palace, the description of her father as a vengeance-obsessed autocrat, Karna’s ascetic loneliness…

Coupled with a rather melodramatic telling, Banerjee’s tale of Draupadi is interesting, racy and sometimes surprising. It could have been so much more though… a more unique point of view, with more revelations, more straying from the original, more perspectives that shocked, more imagination that astonished. But overall, The Palace of Illusions is a good solid story that has the ability to grip you. But then, that is the power of the Mahabharata itself.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


By Raymond Carver

My first Carver is a set of short stories. Immaculate cameos, not traditional stories with beginnings, middles and twisty ends, these are almost still life pictures in word form. Scenes assembled in front of you carefully and meticulously, almost poetically. Carver is after all, also a poet.

There are a lot of drunks fighting addiction, in rehab and out of it, the women who love them and the women in whom there is no love left; there is looking for love, love dying, love dead; there is ‘a small, good thing in a time like this’ – freshly baked bread in a time of grief; stories of hope and slow revival, stories of moving on and help for moving on; stories of hopeless despair where ‘dreams are what you wake up from’. And then there is ‘Cathedral’, a wonderful beautiful story of a man describing a cathedral to a blind man by guiding his hand as he draws it out for him – an act that offers as much to the sighted person as it does to the blind man. Sheer poetry.

These are truly stories of the human condition, with all its warts and and all its glory. Love, longing, despair, hope – all is encompassed, in a style that is minimalistic, spare, intense. I will be re-visiting Carver again.

In the meantime, here is a poem he had inscribed on his gravestone:

No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.

Gravy, these past ten years.

Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years

ago he was told he had six months to live

at the rate he was going. And he was going

nowhere but down. So he changed his ways

somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?

After that it was all gravy, every minute

of it, up to and including when he was told about,

well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"

he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone

expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."


I am a lucky woman.