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The power of tales

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peek into the past Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at the Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi
peek into the past Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at the Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi

In conversation Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who has retold the Mahabharat from Panchaali’s angle, tells ANJANA RAJANthat stories shape our understanding

We tend to see our epics as occupying a space somewhere outside of us. We read them or grow up hearing their stories, and we find allusions to them in proverb and painting, gesture and metaphor. Since epics are part of a society’s cultural memory, and since memory — don’t we all know — is a peculiar sieve, one never quite knows what it will retain and what it will reject. So every time someone takes an epic, re-examines and retells it, it takes a different shape. Somewhat like the mysterious walls and rooms of the Palace of Illusions, where Queen Draupadi and her five husbands, the Pandavas held court in ancient Indraprastha. And so it is with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel, “The Palace of Illusions”, or “Panchaali’s Mahabharat”. In the novel, recently released by Picador India, the queen, born of fire, destined to change history, tells her side of the story.

One might have thought that after reading Panchaali’s ‘version’, one would be left with more sympathy than ever before for the wronged woman — forced to marry her husband’s four brothers along with him, humiliated in full view of the royal court, abandoned to her fate by her husbands, rendered childless at the end of a war history blamed her for, and finally, after fulfilling her wifely duties to all five brothers, faulted for having secretly preferred the one she had first married! But Chitra’s Panchaali almost agrees with history, and you find yourself concurring. Sympathy is replaced by empathy for a character who, shorn of her epic mystique, comes across as real and as struggling as the rest of us. Perhaps that is the author’s triumph, since she believes “stories shape our understanding” and “give us power, because they show us other people who have been there.”

Complex character

Therefore Chitra’s Mahabharat is not a simplistic or overtly feminist work. Like Vyasa’s original, it is complex, and Panchaali the narrator is particularly so. “I wanted to portray her as a complex character and show she has many sides to her, which is so in the Mahabharat too,” says the author in a conversation on the fringes of Osian’s Cinefan film festival where she spoke at the seminar on literature and cinema. She also points out her heroine is “very much a female but also a human protagonist.”

As for Panchaali’s part in triggering the holocaust at Kurukshetra, she notes, “I wanted to show her as a person who takes responsibility.”

Chitra’s work also reads as a strong pacifist plea. The devastation of Kurukshetra, even in the original, sounds uncannily like the horrors of present-day war. Perhaps we haven’t learnt anything at all. She agrees, but is optimistic that there is still a possibility of change. “I’m a great believer in that,” says the author who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston. A changing and growing character is what she attempted, she says. She likens the story to the journey of the ego or of the soul and mentions this is the first of her books that deals so consistently with concepts of a spiritual and philosophical nature.

But some would find it difficult to digest the mundane humanness of Panchaali and other characters, some of the motives and episodes woven into the novel. Take Panchaali’s attraction for Karna, her run-ins with mother-in-law Kunti, her persistent perception of Krishna as not more than human, or her vividly sketched childhood with brother Dhrishtadyumna. But the original story and its various language versions contain seeds of her ideas, says Chitra, who spent four years on the novel, researching for much of that time, till, she says, she decided, “Enough!” and got down to writing it. Some is artistic license, she concedes, but based on the logic of the story. Laughing, she admits she had to convince her own mother it was all plausible.

And if today’s readers go back to the original, if only to check up on her facts, says Chitra, “that was one of my agenda.” Not bad. Sage Vyasa only called himself a chronicler. Here is an author who takes responsibility!

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