My thoughts on ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

As the feminist re-telling of the Mahabharata, Divakaruni’s work stands out distinctly  amongst the scores of adaptations and renditions of the ancient Hindu epic.

Set in a deeply patriarchal society, this is the story of Drapuadi – a fiery, outspoken and fearless princess who, despite all her virtues and achievements, was known and remembered only for her vengeful and manipulative nature.

The Mahabharata is complex, with characters, episodes and incidences that overlap and/or stretch for over decades together, but Divakaruni’s story-telling is masterful. Her writing flows beautifully and effortlessly, allowing the reader to absorb, pause and reflect.

Draupadi’s perspective unfolds in a way that the reader is fully invested in her cause and immersed in her narrative.

Draupadi (or Panchaali, her favoured name), is by no means someone who can be defined or described in a sentence. Divakaruni urges the reader to empathise with this character’s multi-layered persona – even her pride, and her all-consuming thirst for revenge. Panchaali, is strong-wiled and isn’t afraid to put her needs and desires first – qualities that may not be necessarily likeable, but are certainly relatable, especially for the modern woman.

In a society where polygamy was the norm and royals or noblemen were accustomed to taking many wives, Panchaali was constantly chastised for marrying the Pandava brothers. This, despite the fact that it was never her own choice or intention.

In the ‘PG-rated’ version of the televised Mahabharata in the 80’s (which I watched as a child), I always thought of Panchaali’s character as only the victim of dubious situations – such as her mother-in-law declaring that she must marry all five of her sons instead of one, or her husbands ‘losing her’ to the villains in a wager of chess. It was only now, I realized that Panchaali was made to take turns to live with each brother for two years as a wife and repeat this cycle for the rest of her life. Little wonder then, she was never in love with any of her husbands.

As cringe-worthy this situation may be, I realized where some of her motivations came from and why she was considered to be cold-hearted. Could I blame her, after being passed around by all the brothers, each of whom had wives and children of their own, on the side? It was unfair that she was made to live such a strange and loveless existence, as ordered by her mother-in-law.

The antagonists, Duryodhan and Karna, had their ego bruised by Panchaali in public, which why they took the first opportunity to humiliate her. The public disrobing and shaming of Panchaali is the crux of the story of Mahabharat, making her the all-important character in the great epic.

After her public humiliation, she used her position as wife to five of the greatest warriors in history, to rally them against those who insulted her. She made sure the fires of vengeance burned brightly in them for twelve long years, in exile. She appealed to their sense of duty and justice, reminded them that her dishonour was theirs too and systematically propelled them towards the greatest war that mankind had ever witnessed. Manipulative? I call it being human.

Divakaruni makes the reader root heavily for Panchaali right till then end, when she is finally united with her soul-mate – Karna, in after-life. Her inexplicable draw towards Karna, her husbands’ half-brother and arch enemy, made for one of the most compelling and intriguing parts of the book.

The book ends in the aftermath of the war, where Panchaali was repentant for the war, having lost her beloved brother and her own sons in battle. As she ascends the mountains along with the Pandavas on their Final Journey, Divakaruni pens some poignant words which stay with the reader long after finishing the book – those of duty, sacrifice, family and vengeance but most of all, of love.

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When I found the exact spot which was used for the cover of the book, at Jaipur City Palace, Rajasthan

An American Marriage: Book Review

Tayari Jones’ story begins by putting us in the middle of an intense dialogue between a newly- married African American couple, Roy and Celestial. 

A few more pages into the book, the plot takes a wildly unexpected turn, which disrupts the lives of the couple. 

Rape. An unfair trial. Incarceration. A miscarriage, both literal and figurative. 

The intimacy and intensity of their relationship unfolds beautifully in the form of letters to each other.  Roy writes from behind prison bars, clinging to visions of his former life and Celestial writes from the free world, where she’s living her dream of a successful artist-entrepreneur. 

This epistolary narrative, for me, was the most compelling portion of the book. The letters show the passage of time and their wavering emotions so poignantly and so evocatively, that I simply couldn’t put the book down. 

However, roughly mid-way through the book, the story slowed down and the plot came a bit loose. The narrative became plagued with too many distracting details and the story seemed unwilling to move forward.

But the book wrapped up nicely in the last few chapters, cleaning up well after itself. I was happy with the ending, although with all those distractions in the middle of the book, I had managed to think up a very creative (and decidedly twisted) end to the book. I was relieved it didn’t go my way.

Overall, I think it’s a very readable novel, with the three flawed and relatable protagonists, supported by some beautifully etched secondary characters. The book is high on emotion and drama, vivid in its portrayal of small-town African American life and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a refreshing take on love, marriage and intimacy. 

Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction 2019.

Milk Teeth By Amrita Mahale: Book review

I thought about why the book is named, ‘Milk teeth’. 

Is it a reference to earstwhile Bombay’s shedding of it’s post-industrial era greasepaint, into a shiny new coat of cosmopolitan, glitzy, ‘Mumbai’? Or is about the people that constitute the great metropolis, shedding their migrant ideologies, old habits and ethos to survive in the city of dreams? 

Perhaps its about how the central characters, Ira Kamat and Kartik Kini, two childhood friends, grow into their respective adult lives in post- liberalized India – in ways that are vastly different from what is expected out of them.

This was a time when satellite channels were beamed on television sets, the telephone had just arrived at home, cars had suddenly become more accessible- harbingers of permanent change. So was the rapidly changing skyline of Mumbai, from the comfortable chaos of Matunga’s network of crumbling old buildings to neat squares of sparkling new high-rises, grudgingly rubbing shoulders.

The story follows the life of a city reporter in Mumbai in the late 90’s. Ira Kamat is a third-generation daughter of working-class immigrants from the Konkan coast – a Goud Saraswat Brahmin (something she’s keenly reminded of, in her firmly casteist, bourgeois family). Her family’s tussle with their building’s landlord and a builder who want to drive out all the ‘tenants’ who’ve been occupying the building for generations, is intertwined with her childhood friendship and consequent courtship with Kartik Kini, who hails from a fellow high-caste ‘bourgie’ family.

A certain secret, forbidden love-affair exposes a glaring contrast to the protagonist’s middle-class values and manner of life.

As Kartik and Ira’s lives unfold, the story exposes the acrid class, caste and religious divides amongst the people of 90’s Bombay. The characters are vulnerable at times, irreverent at others- giving us an intimate glimpse into their lives and an insight into the motivations of millions of middle- class Indians living in the city.

I liked how my feelings for the three central characters were made to oscillate wildly throughout the book. Just when I started to hate one of them, Mahale carved a soft corner for him in my heart. Likewise, just when I stared to feel terrible for another character, she made him do something so vile, I recoiled in horror. I liked this ebb and flow of emotion- it kept me engaged and made sure I wasn’t partial to a particular character. It gave me objectivity as a reader, which was crucial to the story.

The exhaustive, everyday race for a better life is so poignantly put in words, the rich architectural heritage of south Bombay so intricately described, and the gaping class divide so sharply dissected, that it turns ‘Milk Teeth’ into a slick, sharp-tongued tour guide, offering a rare, voyeuristic view of the city.

I would’ve probably written the last page of the book differently, though. There was ample closure for the central character, Ira but I felt like there was something amiss – something huge. Apart from this, and the over-use of the word ‘acquiescence’ (four times in the second half of the book. Why? It’s not even a particularly good word), I relished the novel, page by page. 

A beautifully written and thought-provoking debut.