Beyond Polyandry; Exploring Draupadi’s ‘Desires’ in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘The Palace of Illusion’
Mahabharata is a fascinating story. It continues to inspire the creative writing. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, USA explores the mind of epical heroine Draupadi through her retelling of the epic, ‘The Palace of Illusion’ (Picador, 2008).
Divakaruni’s Draupadi struggles between her desires for Karna and her duty towards her five husbands. Divakaruni also adds another element in the story by giving romantic twist to the relation between Draupadi and Krishna. So Divakaruni’s Draupadi is having altogether seven men occupying space in her life! Karna, Krishna and five husbands!
Yudhishthira’s excessive goodness irritates her, she confesses of exploiting Bhima, as she does not love him as he loves her. She finds Arjuna irresistible and long for his love. She is not able to control her heart which do not obey her but fantasize about Karna, the mortal enemy of Arjuna. She finds Krishna very close, yet enigmatic.
It is fascinating to read how Draupadi negotiate the call for duty towards her husbands and the pull of her heart which pulls in different directions.
Key words- Swyamvara, complex, exploits, revenge, humiliation.
In the introductory note, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes that she was unsatisfied by the portrayal of women in the Mahabharata. This foretells the agenda that she had in her mind. She further says that if she ever writes a book, she would place the women in the forefront of the action. No wonder that in this novel ‘Panchaali’s Mahabharata, The Palace of Illusion’, Draupadi occupies a centre stage with all humanly virtues and vices. In the popularly accepted version of the Mahabharata Draupadi leads a desexualised existence. Divakaruni departs from this and explores the hidden recesses of Draupadi’s mind.
Krishna is introduced very early in Draupadi’s life by Divakaruni. He was portrayed as being friend of King Draupad, Draupadi’s father. Since childhood Draupadi is being portrayed as fascinated by Krishna.
Draupadi here carries some complex for being dark complexioned. But it was Krishna, who was even darker than Draupadi, raises her self confidence and motivates her not to treat her complexion as disadvantage, but to believe it to be of advantages. He says,
“A problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself” (Divakaruni, p.9)
Krishna’s different exploits like his lifting of Govardhan, his abduction of Rukmini and his charming his way into the hearts of sixteen thousand women fascinates Draupadi, but it was unfathomable depth of Krishna’s personality that fascinates her most as she admits,
“I was fascinated by Krishna because I could not decipher him” (Divakaruni,p.11)
The fascination of young girl for charming personality of Krishna is described in her own words.
“......I adored the way he laughed.....I often forgot that he was much older than me. He had been friend of my father’s......he was genuinely fond of my brother; but I had the impression that it was I whom he really came to see. He called me by a special name, the female form of his own; Krishnaa. It had two meanings; the dark one, or the one whose attraction can’t be resisted. Even after he returned to Dwarka, the notes of his flute lingered in the walls of our cheerless quarters” (Divakaruni, p.12)
Krishna as a scheming chameleon also plays an important role to bring about a match between Draupadi and Arjuna. His motive is political. He says that Arjuna, the greatest archer marrying Draupadi will be a great victory for the Panchala, because Arjuna as a son-in-law will not fight with against Draupad. Draupadi who was dreaming about love in marriage feels that her mouth is filled with the ashes as she is nothing but a worm dangled at the end of a fishing pole. (Divakaruni, p.57).
Through this disappointment and heartbreaks Draupadi seems to be growing up. Reflecting upon the power play behind her Swyamvara, Draupadi learns how to wear the armour of caution so that no one could reach past to break her heart. (Divakaruni, p.59)
Krishna throughout the novel plays the role of friend, philosopher and guide to Draupadi. At the time of ‘Rajsuya Yagya’, Shishupala attempts to kill Krishna. He rushes at Krishna with a drawn out sword and Druapadi feels that if Krishna is not there in her life, nothing mattered. Nor her husbands, nor her brother, nor even Karna! (Divakaruni, p.165)
Krishna kills Shishupala and with tribulation Draupadi opens her heart to him and says,
“When I thought you had died. I wanted to die too” (Divakaruni, p.166)
But the spiritual aspect of their bond is revealed immediately. Draupadi says,
“Krishna gazed into my eyes. Was it love I saw in his face? If so it was different in kind from all the loves I know or perhaps the loves I’d known had been something different, and this alone was love. It reached past my body, my thoughts, my shaking heart, into some parts of me that I hadn’t known existed” (Divakaruni, p.166)
Shikhandi, who was Draupadi’s brother, is also brought in the narration, though born as a girl, he turns herself into a man by austerity. He/she gives a valuable lesson to Draupadi when he says,
“Wait for a man to avenge your honour, and you’ll wait forever” (Divakaruni, p.49)
As Shikhandi had been both man and woman. He is aware of the relative strength and weaknesses of both the sexes. He/she advises Draupadi,
“....the power of a man is like a bull’s charge, while the power of a woman moves aslant, like a serpent seeking its prey. Know the particular properties of your power unless you use it correctly, it won’t get you what you want” (Divakaruni, p.52)
Draupadi seems to remember the advice throughout the life. Knowing that Bhima, the most powerful and most straightforward among the Pandavas is devoted to her. She takes her revenge on her perpetuaters through him. She allows him to fulfil her demands. Which Bhima always cherish to do. It was Bhima who fights with Yakashas for the Saugandha flowers for her. He kills Kichaka, who molested her. It was he who punishes Jayadratha, who tried to kidnap her. He tears open the chest of Dussasana, drinks his blood and ties the hair of Draupadi with his hands stained with the blood. It was he who breaks the thighs of Duryodhana and punishes him for his offensive gesture to Draupadi. Divakaruni’s Draupadi admits that she do not love Bhima as much Bhima loved her and she in fact used Bhima. During the period of exile, Draupadi do not let the fire of revenge cool down. She keeps provoking Bhima now and then as she says,
“....recognizing Bheem’s weakness, I took advantage of it. I wept more loudly when he was around, knowing it would make him rail against Yudhishthira” (Divakaruni, p.213)
Drupadi admits that she took love and used it as a balm to sooth her ego. She says that going against the laws of righteous war, Bhima will kill her tormenters at Kurushetra, not for victory or glory, but for her sake. Bhima and Krishna at the end admits that it was for Draupadi’s sake that they have resorted to unethical practices during the war.
Divakaruni introduces a character called Sorceress, who teaches many skills to Draupadi. She teaches her how to seduce a man, an important job a women should do to sustain her marriage. She also teaches her how to cook delicious food, how to cure illness, when to speak and when to remain silent. How to sleep comfortably on floor. In a way the Sorceress prepares Draupadi for different roles. Role of a queen, role of a wife of five men as well as a difficult life of exile in the forest. She also gives her a practical advice about the illusion called ‘love’ as she says,
“Love comes like lightning and disappears the same way. If you are lucky, it strikes you right. If not, you will spend your life yearning for a man you can’t have”( Divakaruni, p.63)
The Sorceress also advises Draupadi to forget about love and be satisfied with pleasure and duty.
For portraying flourishing of romance between Karna and Draupadi, Divakaruni introduces many episodes. Draupadi before her ‘Swyamvara’ sees many portraits of the prospective suitors. While seeing the portrait of Kaurava princes Duryodhana and Dusasana, she notices Karna also painted in the portrait. She was immediately drawn towards him, especially towards his eyes filled with ancient sadness. She finds herself strongly pulled into those eyes. She feels that she no longer needs to see Arjuna’s portrait. But as Karna was making his way into her imagination, Krishna intervenes and stops the growth of tender feeling. He scolds the artist for showing picture of Karna to Draupadi as Karna was not a prince. He also belittles Karna by saying that his kingdom is a gift and Karna is just a son of a chariot driver.
Krishna was eager to nip in the bud the tender feeling that she might be developing for Karna. But this vehement reaction from Krishna makes Draupadi more curious as she thinks that a man who had the power to perturb Krishna, had to be more than merely a chariot-driver’s son. Draupadi was surprised at Krishna’s outburst and started doubting if he himself wanted to be her suitor. The thought made her uncomfortable. She confesses that she loved Krishna, but not that way. Krisha puts her at ease by saying that he is not going to compete against Arjuna. Later, when Arjuna’s portrait was shown to her, Draupadi finds herself struggling hard to like Arjuna and tries to put away the thought of ancient sad eyes of Karna from her mind. (Divakaruni, p.73)
When Draupadi becomes aware of the circumstances leading to the birth and rejection of Karna by Kunti, she feels pity for both- the son and the mother. Dhrishtdhaumya tries to convince Draupadi that as Karna is cursed and anyone joining him in a bond of matrimony will also be cursed. But each painful detail of Karna’s life binds her more to him.
At ‘Swyamvara’ Draupadi longs to take a look at Karna. Her attraction towards sad, simple and masculine personality of Karna is described in her own words,
“I longed to look into Karna’s face to see if those eyes were indeed as sad as the artist had portrayed, but even I know how improper that would be. I focused on his hands, the wrists, disdainfully bare of ornaments, the powerful battered knuckles” (Divakaruni, p.93)
Later on during the ‘Swayamvara’ which is recasted considerably by Divakaruni, it was Dhrishtdhaumya, who first raises objection to Karna, as being a son of a charioteer, competing for Draupadi’s hand. At this a dual was about to commence between Karna and Dhrishtdhaumya, but here Draupadi steps between two to save her brother and deliberately insults Karna by asking the name of his father. The author describes,
“In the face of that question, Karna was silenced. Defeated, head bent in shame he left the marriage hall. But he never forgot the humiliation of that moment in full sight of all the king of Bharat. And when the time came for him to repay the haughty princess of Panchaal, he did so a hundredfold” (Divakaruni, p.95)
Arjuna, disguised as a Brahmin wins the contest and was garlanded by Draupadi. She follows Arjuna, barefoot on cracked, burning path. She falls, her knees and palms get cuts and Arjuna nurses her. Forcing Karna out of her mind, Draupadi prepares herself to accept Arjuna as her husband. She repeats different virtues of Arjuna like being courteous, noble, brave and handsome and began to believe that he would be a suitable husband for her. She tries to convince herself that she would no longer waste time on regret. She would turn her face to future. She would satisfy herself with duty and if she was lucky love would come. (Divakaruni, p.94)
When Kunti decides that all her five sons should marry her, Draupadi expects that Arjuna should stand up for her and say that she is only committed to him. But Draupadi is disappointed to find that Arjuna do not say anything. When Druapadi’s father, brother and the Pandavas discuss about the feasibility of Draupadi marrying five brothers, their main concern is family honour and tradition. Nobody gives importance to Druapdi’s wish. Draupadi, angry at man’s world, where women’s wishes are not considered as important gets agitated. Her mind again goes back to Karna and she began to think that probably this was her punishment for having treated him so unfairly.
The disagreement between king Draupada and the Pandavas gets settled with the intervention of sage Vyasa. He rules in favour of Draupadi marrying all five brothers. He also makes an arrangement that Draupadi will stay with each brother for a period of one year and every time she goes to the new brother she would be virgin again. (Divakaruni, p.120)
Dai Ma, the elderly maid of Draupadi tries to consol Draupadi that finally she is having freedom that men had for centuries, i.e. having several wives. But Draupadi realizes that her situation is different. Like a man with several wives, she had no choice about choosing with whom to sleep and when. On the other hand she feels that she is like a communal drinking cup and she would be passed from hand to hand whether she wanted it or not.
Neither Draupadi was particularly delighted at the boon of getting her virginity back whenever she goes to a new brother. She feels that it is designed more for her husband’s benefit than her (Divakaruni, p.120). She also adds that it would have been better if Vyasa had given her a boon of forgetting, so that when she went to each brother, she would be free of the memory of the previous one. (Divakaruni, p.120)
Drupadi also feels that she could have fallen in love only with Arjuna among the Pandavas and he should be her first husband. But she becomes aware that he does not quite love her. She feels that had he loved her, it would have become easier for her to forget Karna as she says,
“If he had loved me back. I might have been able to push aside my regrets about Karna and find some semblance of happiness” (Divakaruni, p.121)
Though Arjuna do not stand for Druapdi as he cannot go against his mother and brothers. His frustrated anger is turned towards Draupadi. Though he does not say it openly but Draupadi reads through his reproachful eyes that he blamed Draupadi for this unusual marriage. She realises that now as Arjuna cannot have her alone, he will not have her at all. He will go through the rituals of marriage, but he will keep her heart from her. This was exactly that Kunti wanted. She wanted to maintain the unity among her sons at any cost! And Arjuna getting attached to Druapadi would have threatened the unity of the Pandavas.
But Draupadi is practical enough to make best of the situation. During her first year of marriage, which she had to spend with Yudhishthira. She spends significant energy in re-educating Yudhishthira about the sexual behaviour. Though having many virtuous qualities, Yudhishthira’s excessive goodness annoys Draupadi and she really wonders if he is really a saint or merely lacking in common sense? And in either of the cases she finds it was most annoying (Divakaruni, p.129)
At Hastinapur, the call for duty towards the Pandavas and infatuation with Karna pulls her mind in different directions. She says,
“I confess; in spite of the vows I made each day to forget Karna, to be a better wife to the Pandavas. I longed to see him again. Each time I entered a room, I glanced up under my veil...I could not stop myself...hoping he was there” (Divakaruni, p.130)
Draupadi and Karna encounter each others on number of occasion. Drapadi feels disappointed that her magical palace built by Mayasur fails to fascinate Karna. Her infatuation for Karna also makes her feel guilty as she remember the words of the scriptures which says that if a wife desire a man who is not her husband, she is as unfaithful as a woman who sleeps with such a man. (Divakaruni, p.185)
Human life seems to be struggling between two contradictory pulls. One which tries to keep man and woman relationship confined to socially accepted institution of marriage and the other, which tries to break free and look for opportunities to give vent to the promiscuous tendencies lurking in human mind. The struggle is also reflected in the mind Divakaruni’s Draupadi.
Karna’s instigation that led to the stripping episode of Draupai in the assembly finally led to the resolution from Draupadi’s side that she will now put Karna away from her mind forever. She says,
“What happened today had stripped away all ambiguities from my heart. Never again would I long for his attention” (Divakaruni, p.194)
Karna’s infatuation for Draupadi is also revelled through a dialogue between Karna and Bhishma, who was lying on the bed of arrows. During this dialogue Karna confesses his infatuation for Draupadi, which Draupadi overhears. When Draupadi hears that Karna finds her irresistible, a part of her mind is satisfied, but at the same time she also feels guilty that she nurtures an unfaithful thought.
When the Pandavas took another wives, Draupadi felt jealous. But she also admits that she did not expect her husbands to remain celibate while they waited for their turn as her spouse. But she is aware of her special position that none of the other wives can take in their lives. As she herself says,
“If they were pearls, I was the gold wire on which they were strung. Alone, they would have scattered, each to his dusty corner. They would have pursued separate interest, deposited their loyalties with different women. But together we formed something precious and unique” (Divakaruni, p.152)
Draupadi realizes that together they are capable of doing what none of them could do alone. Draupadi now sees the reason behind Kunti’s decision of marrying her to all five brothers. Though the Pandavas did not make her heart beat wildly, she committed herself totally to the welfare of the Pandavas.
Even though she accepts the need of the Pandava brothers to have other wives. She uses her anger to keep them in check. On hearing the news of Pandava brother’s marriage to other women, Draupadi displayed her anger like locking herself in a room and throwing expensive objects around. She says that it is never a good idea to let one’s husband grow complacent. Her display of anger ensured that the number of wives remains minimum and it also kept the other wives away from the palace. This had ensured that she remained undisputed mistress of the palace.
However, when Arjuna married Krishna’s sister Subhadra, Druapadi was really shaken. She felt betrayed by Krishna and accuses him of encouraging Subhadra to snatch Arjuna. But Krishna do not pay much attention to her and says that union between Arjuna and Subhadra have a greater design, which is more important than the heartache that Draupadi sufferes.
Though married to five husbands, and infatuated with Karna and Krishna, Drupadi fantasises about a place where men do not exist. She says the if Swargloka, Brahmloka really exist, a good women would rather choose to go to the Lokas, where men were not allowed. So that finally they will be free from male demands.( Divakaruni, p.155)
The stripping episode changes the relationship of Draupadi with her husbands. She now realises that there are certain things in the lives of her husbands which they value more than her honour. They will avenge her, but when it will bring heroic fame to them. It reinforces her belief that she cannot depend entirely on them.
During the great war, Vyasa gave an unusual sight to Draupadi. With this sight she can watch any corner of the battlefield and also peep into the mind of the participants. She was shocked to see Karna participating in the killing of Abhimanyu. On the day of the final dual between Karna and Arjuna, Draupadi wishes that the sight should be taken from her.
During the dual, when Karna becomes helpless and Arjuna was about to kill him, Draupadi becomes extremely agitated and was willing to forgive the insult that he inflicted on her at the time of disrobing episode. She feels sad that Karna had died with the feeling that Draupadi hated him. But Divakaruni adds additional episode in the novel to lift the guilt from Draupadi’s mind. When Karna’s soul leaves his mortal body, it comes to Draupadi in the form of a glow and grows into great radiance around Draupadi. She realizes that Karna’s spirit knew what she never had been able to tell him.
After the great war, the Pandavas ruled over Hastinapur for thirty six years. At the end when they received the news of Krishna’s demise, Draupadi feels the world around her is crumbling apart. She hopes that he will suddenly show up and take care of everything that is troubling her.
Krishna’s death prompts the Pandavas to renounce the world and prepares for the final journey. After touring all over the country, the Panadavas along with Draupadi starts their final ascend to the Himalayas: the journey of no return. Drupadi falls first. Bhima asks Yudhishthira, why she, so virtuous and devoted to her husbands should fall? The conversation between Bhima and Yudhishthira reaches dying Draupadi. Yudhishthira says that though she was married to five brothers, she loved one man more than everyone else. When Bhima asks who that was? Yudhishthira pauses while giving answer. During this pause, Draupadi realises that Yudhishthira knew about her longing for Karna. She listens with the heart constricted. She is greatly relieved when Yudhishthira says it was Arjuna that she loved most. Draupadi in her heart knew that Yudhishthira had lied. This was probably a second lie in his life. In this lying he had selected love over truth. Draupadi’s soul leaves the mortal body with the mixed memories of her husbands, Karna and Krishna.
1. Divakaruni Chitra Banerjee, ‘The Palace of Illusion’, Picador, India, 2008.