This is a retelling of the Mahabharata
from Panchaali's point of view (in this text, she prefers "Panchaali" to "Draupadi"). It starts from her youth in Drupad's palace, where she's largely dissatisfied by the traditional feminine trappings of her upbringing and longs to break out of gender roles to fulfill the prophecy that she will change the course of history. Then it continues through her marriage to the Pandava brothers and, of course, the great battle of Kurukshetra.
Generally, I like to know a reader's context while I'm reading their reactions to a book, and moreso when the book is a retelling of a familiar story. So: I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Sneha Mathan. I've read Ramesh Menon's retelling of the Mahabharata
, but I'm not as familiar with it in the way someone who grew up hearing the stories would be, and furthermore, it's not a story from my own religious or cultural backgrounds. It was also interesting "reading" a book for the first time as an audiobook; I tend to like something familiar with audiobooks, so almost everything I've listened to before this has been a reread. Also, I read fan fiction.
I didn't feel very lost in the book, despite not being entirely familiar with the source; I'd forgotten about Drupad and Drona's rivalry, as well as Panchaali's brother Dhrishtadyumna's role in it, but Divakaruni
drops in backstory and things outside of Panchaali's knowledge fairly nicely.
Anyway, back to the book! I liked the early parts about Panchaali's childhood the most; in a way, it feels like the story stops after her swayamvara because Divakaruni stops adding as much to the text. It's almost as though the first part is Divakaruni writing fic of Panchaali's backstory, but once Panchaali meets the Pandavas, Divakaruni's narrative becomes more a straight retelling from Panchaali's point of view.
I wasn't particularly fond of Panchaali's desires for a less traditionally feminine life, largely because the way it was expressed felt very modern and Western and out of place. Also, Divakaruni sometimes follows up on it, but not always, so my impression was more that it was something younger Panchaali felt but older Panchaali did not think as much about, without a narrative of how that change took place. That said, I do like the first part for fleshing out Panchaali and Dhrishtadyumna's sibling relationship.
My main issue, though, is how Divakaruni portrays Panchaali's relationship with the Pandavas. Here, she is bound to them by duty, not love, and though Panchaali is fond enough of the brothers, her passion is reserved for Karna. Except... she only talks to Karna maybe twice in the book, whereas the entire second half is spent with the Pandavas. So there's a lot of longing in her thoughts about Karna, but no actual action, and when she's with the Pandavas, the narration largely consists of how she feels obligated to them but no real emotional attachment. This did not make for the most scintillating reading. She does rage at the Pandavas at times, particularly Yudhisthir post-dice-game, but the narration always feels a bit removed emotionally. Panchaali will think about how angry she is, or how betrayed she feels, but then she will immediately counter herself by saying that the Pandavas are not bad husbands, that Yudhisthir has his good points, etc., so that there's not much emotional progression. She begins marriage to the Pandavas with very similar feelings that she ends the book with, and while there are a few highs and lows, the Panchaali-Pandava relationship largely remains the same.
That said, my favorite bits are probably the ones that flesh out Bheem and Panchaali's relationship a bit, since I'm fond of them.
I was also a bit irritated to read Divakaruni's piece linked below, in which she talks about how none of the women in the epics she grew up on get to interact with each other that much. Panchaali does interact with a few women in the book, particularly with her mother-in-law Kunti, but there's very little about her and the other Pandava wives. I was somewhat disappointed to find that her relationship with Kunti was very antagonistic, the both of them fighting over the Pandava brothers' affections. I think if Divakaruni had wanted to portray the relationship differently, she could have, and interpreting it as the antagonistic mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law wasn't particularly interesting to me. The other main female relationship Panchaali has is with Dhai Ma, her childhood nurse, but here too, Divakaruni doesn't really step out of the stereotype. Dhai Ma is lower class, earthy, more blunt, and somewhat gender policing, and though Divakaruni keeps telling us that Panchaali is very fond of Dhai Ma, we don't see that much of it in her actions.
Much as I understand Panchaali's attraction to Karna's story, I'm not sure how well it worked for the novel. There's too much of Panchaali thinking about Karna without interaction between the two, and the little interaction there is wasn't fleshed out enough for me. I felt the same way about Panchaali's love for her palace in Indraprastha; Divakaruni writes a lot on how much Panchaali loves it and feels at home there, but the ten years spent there are glossed over in a few pages, so there's never that much depth to it.
The book reads as though Divakaruni was caught between wanting to do a reimagining of the Mahabharata
and a straight retelling, and I'm not sure it quite succeeds at either. I think my reaction is very colored by what I expect from fanfic, though, and I'm not sure how fair that is. I especially wish she had spent more time on Panchaali's relationships with the five Pandavas, since that takes up so much of the book and because so much of the book rests on the Karna vs. Pandavas comparisons that Panchaali keeps making. And, strangely enough for a book that ends with Kurukshetra, the book read as too introspective to me, without enough of Panchaali interacting with other people in dialogue vs. thinking about them.
Audiobook-wise, I liked the reader and especially being able to hear the pronunciations of names more accurately than the pronunciation in my head. Mathan has somewhat of a British or more Western-sounding accent in her narration (I think... not great at identifying accents), but the lower-class characters, especially Dhai Ma, are voiced with a much stronger Indian accent. The nobler characters, like Krishna, Arjun, Kunti, and etc., have less of the Indian accent, and I think Panchaali's spoken accent is the same as Mathan's accent in narration; i.e. it reads more as "invisible." I particularly didn't like how this marks Dhai Ma even more, though the novel itself definitely supports the somewhat stereotyped lower-class nurse take. Also, in audio, Divakaruni's textual quirk of having Panchaali ask several rhetorical questions in a row gets very, very old, very, very quickly.Links:
- "What Women Share
," by Divakaruni (published before she wrote Palace of Illusions