Introduction attempts to register the silenced and absent

Introduction

            The women characters that people the
mythological world have all been realized into being by the creative genius of
the male writers. Be it Valmiki’s Sita, Urmila, Shurpanaka, Mandodari or
Vyasa’s pantheon of women in The
Mahabharata like Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi and many more appear to be
incomplete and wanting in their delineation. They are cast as per the whims of
their creators and their underlying motives and intentions defy logical and
realistic explanations. The real sensibilities, motives and desires of women
per se have remained unexpressed for centuries together. As attempts to
register the silenced and absent voices of women, many women writers of the
present century are rewriting these mythological narratives foregrounding the women’s
perspectives. Taking cues from the feminist theorists like Helene Cixous who advocates
that a woman must, “write her self” and “put herself into the text—as into the
world and into history—by her own movement,” they have refigured the major
mythological women capturing the finer shades of their versatile personalities.

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            Among such writers, emerges Chitra
Banerjee Divakaruni who very early in her life had decided that if, ever, she
got a chance to write a book she would make her women characters voice
themselves fully and freely. She writes:

“I would place the women in the forefront of the
action. I would uncover the story that lay invisible between the lines of the
men’s exploits.”      (Divakaruni
xiv-xv)

            True to her resolve
to pen women-centered writings, Divakaruni has in her novel The Palace of Illusions, attempted to rediscover
the character of Paanchali by rescripting The
Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. Although the actions of Draupadi in
most crucial junctures of Vyasa’s Mahabharata
trigger the major happenings in the epic, the underlying reasons and motives
for those seemingly impulsive actions of her have remained unconvincing in it. In
The Palace of Illusions plausible
answers to many of the pestering questions are evoked by recreating Panchaali
and her thought processes. Her soliloquies, introspections and ponderings at
many critical junctures in the course of action have brought out her innate dilemmas,
deeper desires, and sense of self which unfold her as a strong woman with an independent
mind yet with her human failings. She emerges not a passive recipient of
happenings around her but wields a subjective position trying to shape the
occurrences in her own way.

Divakaruni’s Panchaali:

 

          Divakaruni’s Panchaali
is found to be obsessed with the story of her unnatural birth i.e. her
emergence from the sacrificial fire, which makes her pester her care taker Dai
Ma to recount to her often. She is quizzed about why she is born though it was
only for the birth of her brother Dhristadyumna that king Drupad had held the
month long sacrificial worship. She knew that her birth as the twin sister was
not expected and she was always unwelcome. This initial feeling of rejection by
her father and family leaves her hungry for love but makes her self-reliant and
continuously trying to create her own identity. Her dissatisfaction with her
name as ‘Draupadi,’ which means daughter of king ‘Drupad’ reflects her keenness
to have her self-identity and not be an appendage  to the ever pervasive nuances of patriarchy.
She says,

 “… couldn’t my father have come up with a
name something a little less egoistic?”                                   (p. 5).

            When
she realizes that her birth also has a marked importance as a woman who is
going to affect history itself, she feels that she must bear a heroic name
–something like “Off-spring of Vengeance, or the Unexpected One”. And true to
her intuition, she later on comes to be addressed famously as ‘Panchaali’,
which she was proud of. When Vyasa’s propheses that she will be known by the
name ‘Panchaali’ she is elated –

“Princess
Panchaali. A name strong like the after the land, a name that knew how to
endure. It was what I had been waiting for.”
(p. 42)

          That Panchaali is keen
about learning is evident in her attempts to gain permission from the unwilling
Drupad through the intervention of her friend Krishna. Her quick witted answers
to the questions put to her brother Dhri by his tutor testify her sharp
intellect. She clearly rebels against the notions of femininity imposed on her.
When Dhri’s tutor tries to chastise her by commenting that-

“A Kshatriya woman’s highest purpose in life is to
support the warriors in her life: her father, brother, husband and sons….” (p. 26)

She retorts-

“And who decided
that a woman’s highest purpose was to support men . . . A man, I would wager!
Myself, I plan on doing other things with my life. (p. 26)

 

          Divakaruni has pictured
her as a strong woman desirous of shaping her own personality not according to
feminine graces befitting a princess, but those essential for a brave warrior
and statesman. However, the thirst for heroic arts and knowledge of
statesmanship do not overshadow her love of peace, harmony and values of
coexistence. When Dhri tells her that she should like the kshatriya woman pray
for his glorious death in battlefield, she ponders over the necessity of war
itself. She muses to herself-

“And why was a battle necessary at all? Surely there
were other ways to glory, even for men? I’d teach them to search for those.”(p. 26)

            Again, when her father terminates
her lessons, and insists that she develop more feminine interests and is forced
to be in the company of women of the court, she expresses her annoyance about
the other women’s attitude to life. Her thoughts-

“They murmured gossip, chewed betel leaf to redden
their lips, exchanged recipes for love potions, pouted, giggled without reason,
and emitted suitably feminine shrieks if a bee orbited too close.” She ignored
them and read a book on ‘Nyaya Shasta’ as she was determined to learn what a
king was supposed to know. She thinks-“How else could I aspire to be different
from these giddy girls, or from my father’s wives, who spent their days vying
for his favours? How else could I be powerful in myself? (p. 53-54)

Through
these thoughts of Panchaali, Divakaruni further paints her in juxtaposition to
other women, revealing her unique traits of independence and self-reliance.

“Each day I thought less and less like the women around
me. Each day I moved further from them into a dusky solitude” (p. 26)

            Her
awareness about her imminent destiny, even when clearly spelled out by Vyasa,
does not dampen her spirit of shaping her own future. In turn she is
introspective of her own desires and wishes to rise above the ordinariness of
women’s existence of mere marriage and bearing children. She reflects-

 

 “I
understood, suddenly, the unspoken questions the spirits had answered: Who
would I marry? Would I ever be mistress of my own home? Would I find love? Were
these the kinds of desires hidden in my heart? How puerile they were, things my
maids might have wanted! Was I then no better than the women who surrounded me,
wrapped in the cocoons of their unimaginative lives, not even knowing enough to
want to escape? (p. 42-43)

            Even when many others also
repetitively disclose her life’s purpose which is already ordained, Panchaali does
not accept the happenings uncritically. For instance when Shikandi, her sister
who comes visiting Panchaali after her return from penance also tells her
enigmatically that

“You’ll
bring about the Great War where I’ll meet Bheeshma and kill him”
and begs her pardon for “all the
humiliation you’ll suffer before the war, and all the sorrow afterward” (p.
52) thereby forecasting Panchaali’s role in the imminent war, she does not
passively resign to her fate. Her excitement at the prospect of taking
decisions on her own is evident when she hears that she will get to exercise
her choice in selecting her life- companion at the swayamwar that is arranged.
But soon she is disappointed to find that everything had been maneuvered so
that she would wed the Pandava prince Arjuna, the test being so devised that he
alone could win the complicated test and win her. Panchaali asks Dhri-

 “Why even call it a swayamwar, then? Why make
a spectacle of me before all those kings? It’s my father, not I, who gets to
decide whom I’ll marry.” (p. 56) 

                When she realizes that her
marriage to Arjuna was just a political ploy to ally him to King Drupad against
Drona, she is hurt and thinks –

“How
foolish I’d been, dreaming of love when I was nothing but a worm dangled at the
end of a fishing pole”. (p. 57)

                But even when Krishna, her
greatest friend whom she trusted more than anyone else said, “Aren’t we all pawns in the hands of Time,
the greatest player of them all?” (p. 58) thereby making her aware of her
role in the larger political design that would affect the fate of Bharata, she
still does not resign herself completely to the predicament in which she is
placed. She thinks-

“No
matter what my father’s intention, I could still make Arjun’s heart beat
faster. I could still influence how he thought. Perhaps Time was the master
player. But within the limits allowed to humans in this world the sages called
unreal, I would be a player, too.”(p. 59)

                It is this constant fight with
destiny, her invincible spirit trying to wrest the control of her actions from
it that makes her a heroic character in the novel.

                Yet again when Panchaali is
trained by a sorceress in mundane but most essential skills that she may
require in her impending journey of life full of great upheavals, she is
hopeful about having control over her life. When the sorceress warns her that
she should not be swept away by passion, she assures herself-

“I
knew enough to control passion. I visualized myself as a great queen,
dispensing wisdom and love. Panchaali the peacemaker, people would call me.”(p. 66)

                At the Swayamvar, the one
competitor who could match the prowess of Arjuna, i.e. Karna, towards whom Panchaali
was irresistibly attracted and fell in love instantly, was prevented from
participating in the test. In fact, it is she who on the pretext of asking his
parentage prevents Karna from attempting to take the test and thereby inspite
of her will, acts as a chosen agent of destiny to bring about the fateful
happenings. Her act was not motivated because of her haughtiness, as often she
is misunderstood, but out of love for her brother Dhri, who would have been killed
by Karna for stopping him from contesting the test. Hence, although she had set
her heart on Karna and yearns for him for the rest of her life, she ends up
garlanding Arjuna who in Brahmin’s disguise successfully clears the test. Ultimately
she ends up becoming the victim of Kunti’s ploy and gets married to all the
five Pandavas much against her wish, but as prophesied by sage Vyasa.

             And from then on, there
was no looking back for Panchaali. She was just lead from one situation to
another like a leaf flung in the wind. She goes to Hastinapur, then moves to
Khandav, participates in making it Indraprasta, gets Maya build her Palace of Illusions,
lives like a majestic Queen and bears five children- one for each of her
husband till succumbing to the desire of showing off their prosperity to the
other rulers of the land under the pretext of holding a Rajasuya Yajna to
propitiate their forefathers. This culminates into an incident which ultimately
sets off the most disturbing events leading to the eighteen days war of the
Mahabharata.  Although at the time of
Rajasuya sacrifice, Panchaali tries to erase the hurt of old insult from
Karna’s memory by treating him with all the respect due to a king, she is once
again caught in the throes of destiny that further damages his impression about
her which costs her dearly only a little later. 
Her words make it clear-

 “I created occasions where I could be
hospitable to him. I was determined to erase through graciousness, my past
insult.”(p.
161)

                 But she soon realized that Karna would not give
any chance for her retribution. She noticed that –

 “Whenever a private gathering was arranged,
Karna excused himself. If by chance we passed each other along a palace path,
he responded with correctness and nothing else. Slowly it came to me, with a
sinking of the heart that he was not going to allow me to redeem myself. ” (p. 161)

             As ordained the ominous
day on which Duryodhana enters the garden in the Palace and falls into the
illusionary pond, invoking the laughter and comments of one of the maids of Panchaali,
the events that were to follow became completely unwieldy and would cause
unimaginable humiliation to her at Hastinapur. Even when she had a chance to
smoothen her relations with Karna at the party that Duryodhana had arranged,
she failed to capitalize on it and her cold gestures to him only angered him
further. She expresses her helplessness-

 “I’d ruined everything! And yet what else
could I have done? What ill star shone on us that made the wrong things happen-
things I never intended- every time we met? Now he’d never forgive me.”(p. 187)

                The final turning point for Panchaali
from a love-seeker to becoming vengeful and blood thirsty arrives when
Yudhistir is tricked by Duryodhana and Shakuni to a game of dice, in which he
loses his entire kingdom, his brothers, himself and also Panchaali. When she is
forcibly brought to the court and stripped, she curses the complete destruction
of the Kauravas. Her soliloquy later on reveals how her own interest was now
merged into what the destiny ordained. She says-

“All
this time I’d thought myself 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.” (p. 195)

             Again her willful
nursing of her revenge for twelve years during their banishment into forest at
last leads to the large scale destruction as destined already erasing off her
earlier thoughts of becoming famed as a peace-maker. She reveals-

“Each
dawn when I arose, sweaty with restlessness, I pictured our revenge: a fire-strewn
battlefield, the air grim with vultures, the mangled bodies of the Kauravas and
their allies- the way I would transform history.”(p. 199)

             It is only towards the
end that Panchaali realizes that she had only trodden the path that had already
been laid out and she had not actually caused the war. As Vyasa before the
beginning of the war came to her to bless her with a special vision so that she
could watch the happenings of the war for eighteen days till its end, he tells
her-

“The
seeds of this war were sown long before you were born, though perhaps you did
nudge it along a bit.”(p. 254)               

             However, it strikes her
only at the end of her life that her whole life has been one long play and she
also was meant to enact her own role for which she had been sent on the Earth.
The last scene when she is deserted by all her five husbands on their journey
to heaven, and she is numb with icy coldness, that Krishna comes to reveal how
she was chosen as an instrument of divinity to bring about a certain course of
actions, and hence she is not a sinner or a saint. He says-

“Try
to remember that you are the instrument and I the doer. If you can hold on to
this, no sin can touch you.” (p. 357).

                Panchaali then realizes how she
had met Krishna even before her birth and was sent by Him with Dhri to emerge
out of the sacrificial fire. She formulates a thought-

“That
was the yajna fire out of which I came into this world! Were you there with me
even then, before I took on this birth? I feel him smile. He’s glad that I made
the connection in time.”(p. 358)         

                When Krishna assures her that
she played her part perfectly, she still wants to be assured if she has not
been bad sometimes: She asks-

“Even
when I got furious? When I held hatred in my heart? Loved the wrong man?
Tortured the ones closest to me? Harmed so many people? (p. 358)

                Krishna reassured her that she
has only done what she was meant to do. Finally she is led into the folds of
eternity blissful as she recognizes the souls of all who were victims of the
Great War, which now she is relieved to know that it has not been caused by her
as she had come to believe. She recognizes a soul with gold glittering chest,
all blissful stretching arms towards her, who was none other than Karna and she
joins him happily.

Conclusion:

 

             Thus Divakaruni’s
Panchaali realizes her journey from illusion to the ultimate reality, where the
question of her own agency is dealt in all its complexities. Her death appears
as liberation and resolve of the continuous fight to be herself despite all
that was pre-decided about her cast in the history. Divakaruni has absolved
Panchaali of all the responsibilities heaped on her for causing the war by
justifying her acts as not willed by vicious interests, but that even trying to
become Panchaali-the Peace maker, she could not change the course of actions.
She too was just acting out a role that was meant for her. But, that she tried
to trod the path of righteousness, humility and truth as revealed in her
intentions behind her actions makes her indeed a heroic character, a woman of
substance.

References

Cixous Helene, Keith Cohen,
Paula Cohen. ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, “Signs”, Vol. 1, No. 4 (summer,
1976), pp. 875-893.The University of Chicago Press.

Divakaruni, C. B. The Palace
of Illusions. London: Picador. 2008

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