Draupadi, by Pratibha Ray

I picked up "Draupadi" based on the recommendation of a fellow epic-Indian, and I must say I was not disappointed at all!! I have not had the privilege of reading the original in Oriya, but if the Hindi translation is any indication, the original should be a treat indeed. The Hindi crossover has preserved the lyrical element of narration, the de-facto style for retelling/reinterpreting an epic as old as Vedic civilization itself.

My only sour point (and I want to get it out at the onset) is that the book should actually be titled "K4" :) (Krishnaa, Krishna, Kiriti – another name for Arjuna -- and Karna), cos it’s as much their story as it is Panchali's. Ray spends a lot of time in developing the relationship between the four K’s, sometimes adding her own imagination to aid this process. That said, the book is a refreshing outlook towards the epic for its time, and provides much food for thought.

Ray develops Draupadi's relationship with Krishna in the first chapter itself. The entire book is a first person narrative in 'flashback' mode, with Draupadi talking to Krishna in the last moments of her life, lying semi-conscious at the foothills of the Himalayas. From early on, we are made aware that Draupadi’s life, like her birth, was pre-ordained to move in one direction only – the destruction of the Kurus. This is further reiterated numerous times, by Draupadi herself and by those around her. Ray's Draupadi therefore, develops into a fatalist individual, and every so often we have lines such as "And little did I know that Fate was mocking me while I enjoyed these fleeting moments of happiness". Being born a fully developed woman, she has very little notion of ‘childhood’ and ‘innocence’, and her naïve concepts are soon shattered when she is thrown headlong into the brewing political melee between the Drupads and the Kurus. Adding fuel to the fires is Karna’s humiliation at her Swayamvara, and here Ray sprinkles her highly imaginative talents for the first time, making Draupadi yearn for the fair, strong, blonde Prati-surya (like-Surya, the Sun God) Karna. Her dreams are swiftly crushed by her brother who rejects Karna on grounds of lower caste parentage. Draupadi is then won by Krishna's protégé and close friend Arjuna (Kiriti). An example of Ray’s comment on Draupadi’s plight as a woman is the realization that she has to marry Arjuna, when she longs for Karna. She accepts this quite stoically, "seeing Krishna" in Arjuna’s persona, and actually begins to like him as he takes her home to their cottage.
From here onwards, its pretty much downhill for the Princess, who is forced to marry all the brothers – Krishna himself lectures her to sacrifice her interests for the ‘greater good’, the good of the land, for she would surely have been the cause of discomfort between the Pandavas. What follows is a mini-endgame between Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Kunti and Draupadi. Ray emphasizes strongly (through Draupadi) the unfairness of such an action forced upon a woman, and argues against it. She looks at Arjuna, the rightful husband for support, but cannot find any!! Ray establishes the relationships between the husbands and the mother-in-law at this point, and the “rift” only widens as time progresses. As with most of the actual epic, and its retellings, the main players are Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Bheema (to some extent). The Madri-twins are relegated to subordinate positions and not fleshed out completely.
While Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna is that of total surrender, her relationship with Arjuna is an act of tightrope balance between loving the man who has won her, and then trying to win his heart. Arjuna never forgives Draupadi for agreeing to live with each husband for a year, and in Ray’s version, forces an exile onto himself by coming into her bedchambers whilst she is with Yudhisthira. This is his way of conveying his anger over such an arrangement. According to Ray, Arjuna and Draupadi are not fortunate enough to enjoy conjugal bliss long enough, first due to his exile, then due to his vow of abstinence till he slays Karna. While they appeal from a human perspective, the larger-than-life canvas of the epic requires a certain grandiose behavior from the characters. But Ray does convey the emotional depth of her characters aptly, through indirect means of subtlety. The most important scene in this respect is the scene (in my opinion) when (after returning from the exile if I remember correctly), Arjuna and Draupadi are alone for the first time, and he recites her poems by heart. That scene, I expect, is quite a hit with the female readers of the book.
Ray is clearly sympathetic towards Karna. She weaves her own version of Kunti-Karna-Draupadi triangle into the story. Here, Karna is the maanas-putra or ‘like-son’ of Kunti, who visits Karna’s home regularly and is friendly with Radha, his mother. Draupadi never gets over her infatuation with Karna – confessing on the eve of the war before her husbands and Krishna, her love for “all the sons of Kunti, from the eldest Pandava to the youngest”, the full meaning of which is understood only by Krishna himself. Karna is also quite fond of her, though his Kshatriya code of conduct forces him to never show it on his face, but only through behind-the-scenes actions. On her face, his exterior exudes a cool breath of revenge for the humiliation forced unto him (due to her). Ray has added incidents which depict this love-hate relationship between the two, though she maintains the boundary between mournful longing and an all-out illicit affair.
This “longing” is perhaps the strongest aspect of Draupadi’s life, not just longing for Karna, but for respect, for love from her husbands, for a simple life devoid of crafty politics and lecherous enemies. In the end, her life is just a sequence of questions, some answered, according to the norms of social status of a woman under men, and some just left unanswered because they were not noteworthy enough for the Men to take notice of. She journeys through the rise of her husbands as kings, her disrobing in the Kuru hall, and then to exile and back again, only to witness her relatives being wiped out in the most vicious war fought on the Indian soil. In some ways, her journey is the journey of women in some parts of the world even today – spent in a lifetime of efforts to just be recognized as human beings and not just objects of lust and power brokering.
Ray does not dwell on the gory part of the epic at all. The entire war is described in 3-4 sentences. The message could not be more obvious – this book is not about the Mahabharata war, it’s about Draupadi, the woman, the princess, the queen. Ray’s Draupadi is a striking insight into the heart and mind of the woman who helped shape the history of the Indian subcontinent, but has never been recognized for her true worth. Its time we paid her dues.