I said in my last post on the other blog ‘Ask if you want to know what I have been thinking’, and nobody has done so yet. So I shall go ahead and write about it anyway, for my own pleasure, and the few who I know actually love to read what I write.
Lately my mind has been full of Krishna – in spite of the fact that I have been just as busy and preoccupied as always: if not more.
In one sense it has always been, at least since I first read vaishnav padavali in teenage, around the time I wrote Natalie. Much the most important thing I read during that time, I still feel sure, though I also learnt enough science and math to qualify for engineering and medical college – passing and trifling details, much more so now, this far removed. And how interested I have been in Krishna, as distinct from things like wars and aeroplanes and money and fashion and stuff should be apparent to anyone who has read my post on the Mahabharata. My recent heightening of interest has been fired by two absolutely wonderful books, Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold (the story of Meerabai’s ‘affair of the soul’ with Krishna as told by her earthly husband) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, the story of the Mahabharata in English, told in 360 pages by Draupadi. The first I shall not discuss here. The second I have just finished reading, at my daughter’s and Nivedita’s behest, and I shall try not to repeat anything that my daughter has written on her own blog about the book. Just read it. I am a proud father when I say I have taught thousands, both boys and girls, and I can say with total conviction that I know of only one other who could have written that essay at age 17.
To start with, the book is magnificently written. The prose is radiant and mellifluous – I can definitely say about it that ‘the music in my heart I bore/long after it was heard no more’. The imagination, too is Olympian: with a book as daunting as the Mahabharat, Chitra Banerjee has still managed to make her own oeuvre a permanently valuable re-telling of the eternal classic – I wouldn’t have thought that was possible in this day and age (I am ashamed to say I have heard it has been done by a few others, but I haven’t read Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay yet. Sayantika has promised to help me rectify the defect). The book really takes you there, and I cannot think of higher praise. I also regret that though the book was written in 2008, it took me so long to read it. I believe and hope that it should be read by millions, Indians and non-Indians alike, who are too little acquainted with the glory and wonder and horror that India has been, but would like to know. And with Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth and Divakaruni alive and working, I can now confidently say that current Indian writing in English is as good as the best in the world, embarrassments like Chetan Bhagat notwithstanding.
Being narrated by one – almost wholly human – character (unlike, say, Vyas or Krishna), the book covers only a small part of the vast epic, but certainly it is the central part. It goes from Draupadi’s fiery mythic birth through her childhood, education, marriage, exaltation, dishonour, exile and the great war to her death on the mountain in the course of the Pandavas’ mahaprasthaan. Now she is one of the most powerful and absorbingly interesting women in the whole world’s literature, and even in the real world I haven’t heard of anyone quite like her. Not just because it was foretold that she was born to change history, or that she lived simultaneously with five husbands, either, though that too in no small measure. So this certainly gives the book a powerful appeal, just how Draupadi saw her own life and times, tumultuously eventful and epoch-making (or –ending) as they were. When the writer interpolates things born of her own imagination, she makes them sound not only highly plausible but most appealing. Also, even though you the reader may be a male, you deeply empathize with Draupadi, even when she is being (sometimes consciously) naughty or contrary or even perverse: and that is no mean feat. A woman in a man’s world, and what a woman! A woman who had to live so intensely, yet under the crushing grip of so many (and often so unfair) rules, and what a life she lived…
I developed a new respect and profound pity for Bheem, for he of all the Pandavas really and unabashedly loved her though she didn’t love him back the way he wanted, as much as he wanted, and he taught himself to find pleasure in being and remaining till the end her most eager helpmate. In some things the author has altered, as in turning Bheeshma into much more of a grandfather than all the other things he was, son, politician, warrior, protector, mentor and sage, she is charmingly persuasive; and in making Drona fanatical enough to be almost evil, she has my wholehearted support. In other things, she makes you think hard, and wonder. Did Draupadi, for example, really yearn like that for Karna all her life since she first set eyes on him, and did he yearn back so keenly, silently, hopelessly till the very end? – by the way, my conviction is reconfirmed that no Greek tragic hero has ever come close to Karna.
Well, I shouldn’t be any more of a spoiler: read the book yourself, and tell me about it. Besides, I really only wanted to talk about Krishna, didn’t I?
The way my daughter has ended her blogpost, it seems she, at such an early age, has already accepted him wholly as the God of all our longings, and is content with it. I wish her luck and give her my blessings. Me, at my age, I still only wonder, most of all. I think there was an oddly-dark skinned prince who grew up among commoners somewhere once long ago, and he was uncommonly bright and pesky and loveable and strong as a child, who had a way with the birds and beasts and the flute, and was a wonderful lover as a youth (in a way that Casanova or even Don Juan wouldn’t even begin to understand) to quite a lot of girls – and not all of them giggly teenagers either – who grew up into a very astute politician and leader of men and laughing sage for all seasons. The legends started growing and spreading even while he was alive, until some people were telling each other that he was a god, as Indians will when they see a great man, and some perhaps started whispering to themselves that he was no less than God himself, born human to correct our ways, to show us the way to the Life Eternal. Heaven knows there are countless signs, along with the miracles, and notwithstanding the Geeta, in Vyasa’s Mahabharat itself, that often he was very much ‘just’ a man: but yes, a man in a billion. Then there came all the stories that people made up and told one another over two millennia, along with the huge literature from the Bhagavat Purana to the Geeta Govindam and the charitamritas, and the lives of Meera and Chaitanya, and the legend was complete. Titans like Tagore were being fascinated right into the middle of the 20th century, as the likes of CBD and I are being today…who and what was Krishna? tnuhu kaise Madhav, kaho tnuhu moye…"We ask and ask, thou smil'st, and art still". adi anadi ka nath kahayasi/ jaga taaran bhaar tohara…
Now, despite those five exceptional husbands, despite her (alleged-) longing for Karna, it seems – CBD’s book only underlines it lyrically and movingly – she really always counted on Krishna to give her the best kind of company and advice and fish her out of the worst kind of trouble, although she doesn’t hesitate to call him ‘my exasperation’. And he was ‘always there’ for her, no matter how preoccupied he was elsewhere, no matter how many wives he had at home, no matter how godly or mundane he was being. In this passage from the episode of the quarrel among kings during the Rajasuya yagna, when all present have been traumatized by Sisupal’s attempt to kill him before being himself annihilated, Krishna soothes his Krishnaa sakhi inside her mind thus: “I said, ‘When I thought you had died, I wanted to die, too’. 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 knew. Or perhaps the loves I had known had been something different, and this alone was love. It reached past my body, my thoughts, my shaking heart, into some part of me that I hadn’t known existed. My eyes closed of their own accord. I felt myself coming apart like the braided edge of a shawl, the threads reaching everywhere. How long did I stand there? A moment or an eon? Some things can’t be measured. I know this much: I didn’t want it to end… then his voice intruded into my reverie, laughter stitched into its edges, just as I had feared. ‘You’d better not let my dear friends the Pandavas hear that! It could get me into a lot of trouble!’ ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’ I said, mortified. ‘It’s difficult,’ he said. ‘There’s so little in life that’s worth it’ ”.
In the final dialogue on the mountain, he comes back to her again as her earthly consciousness begins to fade and dissolve, though he is physically dead, and (in a scene hauntingly reminiscent of Harry’s meeting with Dumbledore at King’s Cross Station somewhere in limbo) she realizes that all her life she has found bliss only with him.
Did she ever really need anyone else, she who was loved by God? Meera knew she didn’t as a woman, Sri Chaitanya knew he didn’t, as a man. As for me, this yearning has become too great to bear, and am I looking for ‘just’ a man or woman any longer?…
[The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Doubleday/Picador 2008, ISBN 978-0-330-45853-5, Rs. 399]