There are retellings a-plenty of all the well-loved epics in the world. Mythological epics lend themselves brilliantly to myriad forms and their content, to countless interpretations.
The Mahabharata, by Ved Vyas, is one such epic that has seen innumerable retellings and interpretations not just in the country of its origin, but all over the world. One of the more recent versions is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, a feminist retelling of the beloved epic, narrated by Draupadi herself.
Draupadi: Born of fire; of her father’s thirst for revenge. Of such exceptional beauty that men would do anything to have her; to avenge her. She, of the five husbands, yet so alone and unprotected at her most vulnerable time. She, who craved blood and destruction. And got it. And paid for it too.
I won’t delve too much into the craftsmanship of the book. It’s by Divakaruni. She is a gifted storyteller. Of that there is no doubt, no contest.
As a book, a story, The Mahabharata had captured my imagination from my very first reading of it as a little girl. It is to my mind, without a doubt, the greatest story ever told and I read many, many versions. The BR Chopra mega-serial cemented the love further. And it was this love that spurred me towards Divakaruni’s rendering.
Draupadi always fascinated me. Everything about her, from the circumstances of her birth, to her swayamvar, to her polyandrous marriage, to her humiliation and thirst for revenge. How a queen lived in the forest and then as a servant to another queen. Who did she love best? How did she know who fathered her children? How could she stand it? Where did she get her strength? Was revenge worth it in the end?
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to catch one of the last few performances of theatre doyenne Saoli Mitra’s acclaimed Natboti Anatboti, a dramatic account of Draupadi’s life, in Draupadi’s voice. I never looked at Bheem or Arjun in quite the same way again.
And it is thanks to this book that I will never look at the relationship between Krishna and Draupadi in the manner that I used to; simply put, as that between Protector and ‘protectee’.
Krishna. The Eternal Lover. The Eternal Protector. The Eternal Guide, Guard and Guardian. The Eternal Friend. Chirosakhaa.
He was Draupadi’s one true North. Her guiding star, her companion, her moral compass. He was her sounding board and shoulder to cry on. He was, in plain and simple, modern day terms, her BFF. Best. Friend. Forever.
“When I thought myself abandoned, he was busy supporting me – but so subtly that I often didn’t notice. He loved me even when I behaved in a most unlovable manner. And his love was totally different from every other love in my life. Unlike them, it didn’t expect me to behave in a certain way. It didn’t change into displeasure or anger or even hatred if I didn’t comply. It healed me…Krishna’s love was a balm, moonlight over a parched landscape.”
While the idea of this friendship is both beautiful and very plausible to me, it’s also very sad.
It’s sad how a woman with five husbands couldn’t make a connection with any of them beyond that of husband and wife. Their ties were dictated and governed by the laws of marriage. However, so it is for us all. After the garlands, the rings, the pandits, priests and maulvis; after the holy fire, the witnesses, the pronouncements; after the finery and the first night…then it all becomes about the two people involved (okay, in Draupadi’s case it was little more complicated). But my point is, after the rituals and the diktats, what you make of your marriage is dependent upon you and your spouse. If there is a jostling for the higher and lower status from the beginning, there will be one person with the upper hand right from the get-go too. If there is a feeling of, “Well, we did this for our parents, we might as well make the best of it” right from the start, the marriage is going to lead to one lacklustre, loveless lifetime. But, if the marriage is one of equals, then the joys it will give are manifold – intimacy, companionship, playfulness and friendship. For Draupadi, who had five husbands, it wasn’t.
Everyone needs that one 3 a.m. person they can call in an emergency. Who knows that this time, vodka won’t do the trick, but a big bar of milk chocolate will. That you can confess your deepest self to. Who will kick your butt when it needs to be kicked, yet have your back when the whole world has turned on you.
Not everyone can say that their spouse is their ‘Person’, their BFF. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we all need someone to be.
For Draupadi, it was Krishna.
May we all be so lucky.