Academic journal article Gender Forum

A Palace of Her Own: Feminine Identity in the Great Indian Story

Academic journal article Gender Forum

A Palace of Her Own: Feminine Identity in the Great Indian Story

Article excerpt

1 Along with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is one of India's "great stories", and the ancient epic maintains its status as a culturally foundational text which, apart from philosophical/spiritual values, educational and religious instruction, contains and perpetuates ideas and ideals of ethical obligation (dharma), social norms and gender roles. Having inspired writers for centuries, references to the epic, its central legends or characters, are ubiquitous in literature. An explicit attempt to retell the epic in novel form is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Palace of Illusions which will be analysed in the following. The novel not only invites criticism for the ambitious attempt this poses on a formal and structural level, but allows insight into the interaction of gender and identity, particularly into the complex construction of femininity already inherent in the original text, while also challenging it from a contemporary perspective. Divakaruni retells the epic from the point of view of one of its heroines, Draupadi, thus reclaiming female agency in the famous tale of war between two families, hyper-masculine heroes and their devoted wives. The text highlights a crucial relation established between womanhood and vengeance. Moreover, it displays the struggle for identity in a mythological context, which is distinctly Indian, yet transcends cultural borders, all the while showing the illusionary nature of those imposed by history and gender.

2 Dating back to 1600 B.C. and considered to be the world's longest poem, the original epic consists of 100.000 stanzas in verse, structured into 18 books, thus exceeding by far the length of the great Western epics such as The Iliad or The Odyssey (cf. Narayan, R. vii). Although there are many different versions and uncertainties about its exact date of origin and authorship, it is commonly attributed to Ved Vyasa, who also appears as the narrator in the epic, telling the stories to his scribe, the elephant-headed God Ganesh. The structure is inherently dialogic, if controlled by an omniscient male narrator. Whereas "Maha-bharata" means "great India", the title first chosen by Vyasa was "jaya", meaning triumph or victory (Narayan, R. viii), an implication which is certainly challenged in Divakaruni's rewriting. The main plot, which like the Arabian Nights digresses from one story into another (cf. Singh 10), tells the tale of the fight for supremacy in the kingdom of Hastinapur.[1] The conflict erupts between two families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who are the progeny of two brothers, Pandu, and the blind king Dhritarashtra. The rightful heir to the throne, Yudhishtir, and his four brothers, are exiled by their jealous cousin Duryodhan. All five Pandavas are married to the beautiful and headstrong princess Draupadi after Arjun, the handsome and virile warrior, wins her hand in an archery contest. A climactic scene is the game of dice in which Yudhishtir gambles away all his possessions, his kingdom as well as Draupadi, who vows revenge for their shame. In the final battle of Kurukshetra, everybody dies except Draupadi and her husbands. After their only remaining heir, Parikshit becomes ruler over Hastinapur and peace is restored, the brothers and Draupadi embark on a final journey into the Himalayas where they find eternal redemption.

3 Just from this brief summary one can deduce why Alf Hiltebeitel, who has dedicated his scholarly life to the study of the Mahabharata[2], states that its academic reception is commonly centred on its "monstrosity" due to the text's sheer size, indeed presenting what Henry James would have called a "baggy monster" (2001, 1). The scholarship on the epic is, of course, extensive. Yet, as Hiltebeitel (2001; 1980) has argued, it has rarely been treated as a coherence fictional work, although this is changing, as recent and highly informative studies such as Brodbeck and Black's focus on gender and narrative in the epic show.[3] Principal themes are the results of vengeance and the human potential for destruction, love, sacrifice and loyalty, while problems and possibilities of rule are staged on various levels, e. …

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