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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Draupadi... and Krishna!

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]

7 comments:

Tanmoy said...

Dear Pupu and Suvroda

I have requested a copy of the book in our local library. Surprisingly, they have quite a few copies.

I have always been fascinated by Mahabharata and as Pupu, you have correctly pointed out; our epics (including Ramayana) tell us that life is not really “black and white”. None of the characters have consistently taken the morally correct actions and perhaps that is why these are regarded as epics. Despite telling us about characters that are one in a billion, the epics border around reality as much as they can.

I have always been fascinated by Krishna’s character and have struggled to fathom what exactly his motivations were. On one hand, his actions are godly, one who wishes for greater good, but then to achieve that goal, he takes means which are not necessarily associated with gods. Then again, it is us who expect “morally righteous” decisions from our “gods”. Our mythologies describe none of the gods as perfect. Actions by gods are not known to please everyone. Just like in life.

To me Krishna was a supremely powerful being, who appealed to one and sundry. The Pandavas and Karuavas treated him as an adviser but I don’t think till the time he decided to side with the Pandavas, even the Pandavas completely trusted him.

Draupadi on the other hand, looked up to Krishna.

I shall try and read the book and come back with more comments.

Pupu, your post was brilliant.

Kind regards
Tanmoy

Ūrṇā said...

Dear Sir,

I shall quickly go to Pupu's blogpost and read her essay on The Palace of Illusions, but first let me vent my elation on finding out how much you have enjoyed Divakaruni's book. I remember having read the book three years back and not finding a soul to share the tumult of emotions I felt after reading! It wasn't a new feeling, of course; it has often so happened that I have finished a brilliant book and felt like a fish out of water unable to make people understand what roller-coaster ride I have been on.

Your post brought back memories of the beautiful prose and the craftily structured narrative. The three people (I had typed characters in the place of people at first but I feel the term 'character' does not do justice) who stood out the brightest for me, were, of course Paanchali, Karna and Krishna. I agree wholeheartedly that Karna's tragic stature transcends that of any Greek hero. Krishna, on the other hand, is ever fascinating and attributed with greater intrigue than I thought possible. It was lovely reading your assessment of the book and great to be back reading your blog (I am doing it sneakily from the library and I am remorseless).

Love and best wishes,

Dipanwita Shome said...

Beautiful post, I must say. I will definitely read this book, but that is not the only thing I am taking away with myself from this post. This is just too beautiful. I loved it. I read the Mahabharata in College and did a seminar on it. My seminar was on the characters of Yudhishthira and Krishna. I also did Meera and Antal when I was doing my Masters, and I loved every bit of their poetry dediacted to the human Gopal and the god Krishna. By all standards, this is a beautiful post on the daunting Yajnaseni and Krishna--a breath of fresh air in life.

Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards. This blog post is so beautiful and soothing! Lord Krishna is truly the most enigmatic character in world mythology/history. I could just say this- He represented the man for all seasons. He brought together the composure of a true monk, the venerable wisdom of a sage, the mirth and glee we all felt as children- and maybe all his life was an attempt to live by his heart, in an authentic fashion. I honestly believe only an Indian epic could have such amazing depth of character, and such beauty of stories! I thank both you and Urbi for your wonderful posts. She has such amazing thought and caliber- I can only feel amazed and pray to God that she keeps on thinking and writing.

With best wishes,
Debarshi.

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for this blogpost. As usual, it gave me lots to think about, and in my current condition, that's almost vital to keep functioning.

I agree entirely that Divakaruni's book is one of the best re-tellings of the Mahabharata (though, between this and 'Cuckold', which I am glad you mentioned here, I would rate Nagarkar's novel higher, both in terms of the quality of the prose and the art of storytelling). As for Krishna, well, I am afraid my knowledge of Him is meagre (at least compared to yours); I know very little beyond the basics. So, I would restrict myself, in this comment, to only a few observations.

- I realized, as I was recalling the life of Krishna, that it has startling similarities with that of Moses. The following blogpost does a good job of pointing them out, so I shall simply post the link to it rather than say it all myself.

http://sualehabhatti.blogspot.in/2011/10/moses-krishna-different-religions.html

What do you think accounts for this? What could be the reasons behind such strong similarities between two prophets from religions that, apparently, don't have much in common?

- If you write a part two of this post--which I am hoping you would--could you please speak a little on the friendship between Krishna and Arjun? I think they comprise one of the most dynamic duos in world mythology, and I would be interested in what you have to say about this sublime saga of male bonding.

- What do you think of the destruction of the 'Yaduvansh', Krishna's clan, owing to Gandhari's curse? If Krishna waged the battle of Kurukshetra to establish the victory of the good over evil--and that the Kauravas represent evil is not in doubt--then why should He pay for it so dearly? Or does the fate of the Yaduvansh convey the message that no matter what the reason might be behind a bloodshed, He who perpetrates it must suffer the consequences?

- Most Hindu gods have 'vahanas' that are creatures of this earth. Krishna/Vishnu is the only one, as far as I remember, who has a mythical beast (Garuda) as his vahana. Is there any particular reason behind this?

I hope I have been able to keep my observations and questions relevant to this blogpost. Thanks again for writing this.

With regards,
Abhirup Mascharak.

ananya mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
The Palace Of Illusions which retells the Mahabharat from Panchaali's point of view is indeed a splendid book because it made me realize that it is very diffcult to draw a line between good and bad or right and wrong and that there are no clear cut villains in this world and most of the time it is due to some unfavorable circumstances or because of their own weaknesses people are coerced to commit grave follies. Initially I simply despised Yudhistir for being so blind to others' feelings and emotions, for always giving the first priority to his duties and conducts but then we must also pause to consider that Yudhistir led a very lonely life and as Panchaali said that righteousness was his nature and therefore h couldn't help it. Similarly it is true that Kunti abandoned Karna when he was an infant which was certainly a cruel act but then it is also undeniable that she suffered and endured a lot and sacrificed her personal aspirations for the sake of greater good.And throughout the story it was for Karna who despite being endowed with extraordinary abilities was denied every opportunity that my heart really reached out and I completely agree with you that no Greek hero can match even remotely up to Karna. And I have mixed feelings for Draupadi who was born in a man's world to change history and hence had to lead an intense life right from her birth- she was despised by most people in the palace because she was devoid of the so called feminine interests and womanly virtues,denied every opportunity because she was a victim of the patriarchal society and had a desire to go beyond the known boundaries and explore the world, desired yet rebuked by men throughout her life and what not. However her realization at the end of her journey to heaven proved the transience of the earthly things and also reiterated the truth that only God is eternal and that we have to return to him ultimately.
Finally this book also made me realize that so little has changed since the time of the Mahabharat and also took me to a fascinating world of romance and adventure where many things could actually take place under the influence of a strange boon or curse. Thak you for this post Sir.I will definitely go through Pupu's post and read the books mentioned here as soon as possible.

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

Rereading the blog made me feel very happy: happy that I have read the book and that I own a copy which I can read again and lend to others who might be interested. The lines you quoted and the last scene you mentioned towards the end of the post do really highlight the relationship between Draupadi and Krishna.

The author wrote the story so well and made sure she covered a lot of the important scenes from the great epic that Draupadi wasn't witness to. I hadn't known that Bheem loved her so dearly and that there was anything between Karna and Draupadi. You'd told us once in class that Karna and Bheeshma are the only characters in the Mahabharatha for whom you feel sorry for they were subject to injustices throughout their lives. What I came to know about Karna from the book has surely put Mrityunjay on my list. The version of Maharbharatha by Bhyrappa is called Parva. It's been translated from Kannada to many Indian languages and English. Though I haven't read it yet, I would highly recommend it. I have asked Ankan to bring me a copy from India (couldn't find it here anywhere).

I'd like to thank both you and Pupu for writing about the book.

Sincerely
Nishant.