This is the first book of fiction being reviewed on Bookstrapping and it is arguably about India’s answer to Elizabeth Bennet - Draupadi. How so? Because Rishi Vyasa’s famous ‘wife to five brothers’ has challenged Indian writers to re-imagine her, every bit as much as Jane Austen’s character. Author Ira Mukhoty teases the reader’s sensibilities in her novel ‘Song of Draupadi.’
One cannot but note the boldness in sentences like “Bheem’s battle-scarred hands are rough against her smooth skin,” the sensuality of which does not appertain to narratives about the Mahabharata. Perhaps because we are quick to confer some kind of a ‘holy’ status on characters in our epics.
However, the chutzpah and the graphic evocations are exactly why this book comes alive.
Here’s what stood out for me:
1. There is a sprightly section devoted to the author’s idea of Draupadi’s childhood that describes her eyes - ‘luminous, arrestingly beautiful, finely drawn and slightly upturned like a wild leopards’. There’s also a reference to Draupadi cracking open a pomegranate, its glassy seeds scattering onto the plate like rubies. Quite a lucid description.
2. The book makes a strong case for its women protagonists who are disadvantaged by their situations and yet somehow make the most of it. For example; Gandhari wasn't told that she was going to marry a blind man. Yet, she accepts his fate as her own. Satyavati’s gumption, Ganga’s sacrifice and Kunti’s ruthless pragmatism are parallel narratives in the book.
3. The focus of course is on Draupadi. When she first sees Arjuna at her Swayamvar, a man, ‘whose muscles burn and sweat trickles down his arched back’; she desires that he must fight for her. That she must belong to him alone, over his mother’s absurd command that all brothers must share her. She doesn't get her way, but then finds a solution to be wedded to just one brother at a time for a year each.
4. Draupadi’s beauty is described often in risqué terms; for instance there is an episode where she is talking to Satyabhama by the pond. Her loose hair is referred to as 'illicit, exacting virtuous disapproval from other women who braided their hair tightly'. And why does she leave her hair loose? Because she does not want the Pandavas to forget that she’s polluted, as long as Dusshasan lives on.
5. Mukhoty vividly explores the food, flora, animal life and even mundane things like breath fresheners and scents of the day in great detail. One encounter mentions roast pheasant, rice, braised fish, deer meat and even the meat of birds such as fowls and partridges as the food of the times; as also a variety of fruits.
The book embraces the idea of ‘letting go’ of life in a very non-dramatic way. ‘I am the earth, here before, forever’ is how the author frames Draupadi’s passing. Mukhoty makes the reader spare a thought for all the women - mothers, sisters and wives - waiting for news from war messengers, to know who was alive and who had been killed. Their pain was no less, even though they were far from the thundering war cries of Kurukshetra.Perhaps the book’s greatest delight is Mukhoty’s use of language, which nudges the reader to visualise her words. For example, when Draupadi asks her brother to set an impossible target that only the most valorous archer might reach - during her Swayamwar - there’s a line that says her ‘heartbreaking beauty made those who came to win her, believe the impossible.’ Go set your imagination on fire.