Pay it forward

Palace of illusions


“Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a special book for me. I read this book many years ago after reading “Indira” by Katherine Frank. Surprisingly, I found a lot of similarities in their personality traits.

I was totally bowled over by the author’s writing and the conviction with which she has written the most debated, misunderstood and controversial character in Mahabharata, and again in first person. Draupadi, the queen born from fire, married to five fiercest warriors, a queen who ruled a magical palace, one who secretly loved a man from the enemy’s camp, one who never learnt her lessons from the only man she ever trusted, Krishna, a woman obsessed about vengeance and hated by the world for having caused the death of millions in the great battle of the Mahabharata.

The novel delves into the secrets of her life, the man she loved above her five husbands, her imperfections, her likes, her feelings around dishonest people and her silent suffering against the constant insults heaped on her by the world.

Let me quote one of my favourite extract from the book,

“For men, the softer emotions are always intertwined with power and pride. That was why Karna waited for me to plead with him though he could have stopped my suffering with a single word. That was why he turned on me when I refused to ask for his pity. That was why he incited Dussasan to an action that was against the code of honor by which he lived his life. He knew he would regret it—in his fierce smile there had already been a glint of pain.

But was a woman’s heart any purer, in the end?

That was the final truth I learned. All this time I’d thought myself better than my father, better than all those men who inflicted harm on a thousand innocents in order to punish the one man who had wronged them. I’d thought myself above the cravings that drove him. But I, too, was tainted with them, vengeance encoded into my blood. When the moment came I couldn’t resist it, no more than a dog can resist chewing a bone that, splintering, makes his mouth bleed.

Already I was storing these lessons inside me. I would use them over the long years of exile to gain what I wanted, no matter what its price.

But Krishna, the slippery one, the one who had offered me a different solace, Krishna with his disappointed eyes—what was the lesson he’d tried to teach?”

I gifted this book to my friend Zeba Rizvi at my favourite bookshop Full Circle at Khan Market, in Delhi.

‪#‎PayItForward‬ #‎GiftABook‬ 23/100




Because I’m a good woman, I forgave you this time.
Would any other woman have let you off?

You follow me around like a servant,
you say humble things,
yet when I ask you to come home, you don’t.
Why do you hurt me like this?

Now I’ve got you all alone.
If I hold you prisoner in this house,
who is there to release you?

Because I’m a good woman

You hold my hands, you say nice things.
But when I ask you to get into bed,
you say, ‘I’ve taken a vow,’ and do nothing.

Now I’ve caught you.
If I tie you down to my bed,
who is there to release you?

Because I’m a good woman

Only for a bet in a game you enter my bedroom.
When I call you, ‘My handsome,
my Muvva Gopala!’ why this indifference, dear parrot
in the land of the Love God?

If I choose to make love to you now,
Who is there to stop me?

Because I’m a good woman

~ Kshetrayya, translated from Telugu by A.K.Ramanujan, V. Narayana Rao and David Shulman | Art by Keshav Venkataraghavan


Stories from far and near


All of twenty and four years into marriage, Draupadi has had three husbands and two children already. Arjun had skipped the order and Nakhula, had to take his place. Arjun had forced himself into exile in the forest, and has had three dalliances, two marriages, that included, Subhadra, sister of Krishna. Arjun, was her husband now, based on an agreement between the brothers as advised by Sage Narada.

“If he never loved me, why did he have to win me in the swayamwar? He has always kept me at a distance. I still can’t forget that night, when he unilaterally banished himself into the forest, because he accidently entered the bedroom when I was with Yud, Maybe he never loved me. It was a clever ploy to run away from me. Am I that horrible? Now he is pretending to be concentrating in a game of archery with Bheem, and avoiding me. Bheem is nowhere close to his prowess”, Draupadi ruminated.

“How I so wish he smiles and catch my eye? I am struggling hard to avoid Bheem’s stares. He is a darling, but very rustic and crude”, she continued, depressingly.

Draupadi lay back, resting on a tree, gently caressing a long lock of her hair, and watched Arjun and Bheem bowed to each other.

“Are the babies’ things packed for the travel?” reminded Kunti.

“Yes Amma, I have taken care,” she replied. She did not relax the laziness of her posture or stop looking at the men.

“Anyways I got to get things sorted out, back in the kitchen. The maid always forgets to grind shikakai with hibiscus, for Arjun’s oil bath tomorrow. Well, I only have a hold on the maids. No one listens to me anymore.” Kunti sulked, as she walked back into her private quarters.

She had been noticing a sudden change in Kunti, from a mother who held her sons on a tight leash, to a graying old lady, loathing with self-pity. Her hair had whitened quite a lot and the change had been very sudden. She also noticed a change in herself, her attitude towards Kunti and other elders, or for that matter her multiple husbands. She started respecting herself, but that did not mean she stopped respecting others. She was increasingly getting tired of pleasing every one and seemed to get things done better in this state of increased self-confidence. And indeed, what did it matter if these people thought any less of her.

“What are you thinking?” she quickly turned her head to check who was talking to her.

“Sorry to have scared you, didn’t mean to interrupt your solitude”, Sahadev took a rough patch and sat a feet next to her.

“No you did not. I was just thinking if Amma was suddenly looking older. I have been having that feeling for some time now. Have you noticed it?” she wondered.

Sahadev smiled in return and paused, “time flies isn’t it? Hasn’t it been four years since you came?”

“Yeah, in the fourth year”, she paused and thought of Arjun. “Next year I would be staying with you.”

Sahadev smirked at the thought.

Draupadi was irritated at his body language, “what, don’t tell me you don’t like me?” visibly angry.

“No, no I was not being rude,” Sahadev was quick. He was aware that Draupadi was prone to short temper. “I was only wondering how this rotation arrangement has been for you?”

“Finally, someone did ask my opinion. Congratulations Sahadev!” she clapped her hands in a manner of being contempt.

“Well, jokes apart, I have started enjoying and making the most of it,” she laughed out loud looking at the horrific expression on Sahadev’s face. “Now don’t look shocked, otherwise I would have to pretend that I was shocked too, and it doesn’t suit me. Well, life has thrown a challenge. I could either embrace it or be frustrated. Being depressed and mopping over what did not happen, doesn’t suit me.”

Sahadeva paused as if he was trying to say something very difficult. Draupadi turned towards the fighting men who were now working up a fine sweat trying to displace each other.

“Bravo, my Lord, bravo! You are the best warrior to fight using the gada (maze)”, she was addressing Arjun, and that left Bheem amused and Arjun confused.

“Draupadi”, started Sahadev, “I distinctly remember the day when you stepped into the hut at Ekachakra with Krishna after the swayamwar, before Amma unmindful of what had happened, asked us to share among us equally, as if you were some kind of eatable. You were brimming with happiness, pride, spunk and youthful spirit. Much had changed after, which we believed, you concurred and was happy. But for all your talk of enjoyment, I can sense that you are unhappy. I know that you are angry with Krishna for getting Arjun married to Subhadra. And now you are talking like this. This kind of cynicism doesn’t suit you”.

Draupadi took a deep breath and paused. She was looking at the grass with her eyebrows raised. “What would you want me to do Sahadev? But let me warn you, that I am increasingly getting tired of people who advise me.” She looked at him, “didn’t mean to be rude. The friend, whom I most trust, Krishna, knowing me so well, has done this to me. As if I don’t exist anymore. You brothers will make your choices, even including who would sleep with me for the year, and I have to obey, as if I had nothing to do with the act,” she paused.

“Krishna was the one person I thought who would look out for my happiness, but that is not true. It looks like the only person who has to be responsible for my happiness, is myself – not you, Krishna, Yud, Bheem, my brother or Arjun,” tears rolled down as she tried to compose herself. “I am neither cynical nor bitter. I am just trying to be realistic”.

“But I want you to be happy Draupadi” said Sahadev.

“Sahadev, you expect me to be happy! What have you or your brothers done, to understand, what I really wanted? How do you expect me to be happy?” she was agitated. “My marriage with you all, was just for convenience. All my father cares is defeating Drona, his arch-rival. Now that he has not one, but five sons-in-law to do his bidding. I hear that he is a happy, happy man. His daughter, of course, is the pawn traded in the process. To preserve unity between all of you, I had to marry not one man, but five.”

“I have two children now. While all of you have other wives and colourfull affairs, I try being happy with what I have.”

Sahadev remained silent.

Draupadhi looked at the men silently.

“Look at the way Bheem threw Arjun on the ground”, she roared in laughter.

Draupadi relaxed again and smiled, “so tell me something?” she paused.

“Go on Panchali”, insisted Sahadev.

“Have you ever thought of me, when I was with your brothers?” she smiled coyly.

“No,” Sahadev was firm, “I don’t think I am sufficiently in love with you, yet.”

“Well let me see what we can do about that next year,” Draupadi giggled.

Before Sahadeva could respond, Bheem let out a huge roar as Arjuna again, fell to the ground panting.

“Are you hurt honey?” Draupadi rushed to Arjun’s rescue with towels and water, while Sahadev smiled, seemingly aware of the events that were about to unfold.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.