Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the Goddess [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

After reading The Palace of Illusions, I greatly wanted to read more works, if not all works of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. There is something about her writing that clearly and instantly connects with the readers, at least me. As we say, touches heart. There is no high tech flowery language used. It’s simple and there is a lot of emotions in the words. Before We Visit the Goddess is a soulful tale of three generation of determined mothers and daughters- Sabitri, Bela and Tara, their aspirations, struggles, failures and ultimately finding light at the end. What makes this tale compelling is the reality etched in the problems narrated- the family crisis, the societal pressure, the difference in status, the need for education, financial issues, love- everything that could happen to each one of us.

Sabitri is a young, ambitious and resolute girl. Coming from a poor family, she craves for education. Leelamoyi, an arrogant rich woman decides to sponsor Sabitri’s education. She lets her to stay in her house as neither servant nor guest. Sabitri is happy with this golden opportunity but a huge blunder results in her being thrown out by Leelamoyi and shooting a full-stop to her dream education. Filled with revenge, she makes some very tough decisions to just prove a point, to herself. She gets married to Bijan, her teacher and mothers Bela. She loves her family a lot but somewhere she is a very unhappy woman. When her past catches up, it leads to her family getting broken. A down is always followed by an up. After the death of her husband, Sabitri with the excellent culinary skills she inherited from her mother, opens her own sweet shop and earns name and fame for her integrity and her quality of sweets. All is well except her relationship with her daughter, Bela. The book begins with Bela requesting her mother to write to her daughter, Tara, who has decided to drop out of college.

Bela is a rebel from the beginning. As much as she lived with her parents, she lived a lonely life. An unexpected incident permanently damages her relationship with her mother. Probably to prove that her decisions are way better than her mother’s, she elopes with her boyfriend to the United States and begins a family there. Loneliness never ceases to exist in her life. She is never comfortable with her new life. She loves her husband and her daughter, but there is regret and guilt which forces its way to the front. She compels herself to believe her life is good. But is it? The birth of her daughter Tara doesn’t repair any of the damages. At the end, she gets divorced and turns a drunkard.

Tara is the unfortunate soul of the three. She grew up always knowing something was wrong between her mother and father. When her father decides to break the news of the divorce something flips inside her. She wants to break away from everything and everyone, run away from everything, far far away. She drops out of college, has some casual flings, no steady job, no one to turn to in her misery. She turns her life around after an accident, meets the love of her life, gets married and brings some meaning back into her life. She decides to meet her mother, take care of her during her last days. That’s when she finds her grandmother’s letter, still sealed.

What was so good about this book was the sense of optimism and courage brought in my sudden strangers- men, in each of the three women’s lives. They are the benefactors. They don’t stay in their lives for a long time, but they bring in the feeling of life in them. It’s wonderful to see how Sabitri, Bela and Tara fight their problems and emerge successful at the end. It’s also satisfying to see how the achievement takes years of determination and hardwork instead of just few months as shown in movies. Sabitri, Bela and Tara lived almost all their lives away from each other and yet there was a strong bonding between them, an invisible love and concern. Probably it’s their need for approval from each other that caused them to become estranged.

The jumping of timelines was definitely tedious as a reader. Just when I am really getting interested in Tara’s life- Bela’s section is brought in and all I cared was to get back to Tara. Out of the three- I absolutely loved reading Tara’s life. The author has written how parents’ relationship is very vital for the sane growth of the children. Off the three, I couldn’t really connect to Bela much. She never found herself attached to Sabitri and the reason wasn’t strong enough for me. May be it is just expectations. Just like parents have expectations from children, children too expect their parents to be in a certain way. Sabitri’s life laid the foundation, but we don’t really get much more into her life after Bela left.

As a whole, this book is an absolutely fantastic ride filled with determination, courage and motivation. There are really nice tender moments, endearing friendships and moments of truth which we all would have come across.

Must read! Unputdownable!

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The Palace of Illusions [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

Mythological fiction has garnered immense popularity in the last decade or so. It’s really fascinating to read our very ancient epics with a more exciting narration. I for one has always been intrigued by this genre. Mythology is like a poem. Each one can have their own interpretation. Besides, it’s just not now, these mythologies have always had hundreds of versions according to the different states and culture. Everyone has a different perspective and that’s what makes reading these mythological fiction interesting. Among all the mythologies, Mahabharat perhaps has the most number of versions and it being a controversial epic by itself, adds a lot of spark to the narration. I have read Devdutt Patnaik’s Jaya and Anand Neelakantan’s Ajaya. While the former talks about the story as a whole, as it’s always narrated to us, the latter narrates the story from the Kauravas, specifically Duryodhan’s perspective. This book The Palace of Illusions tells the same Mahabharat from the eyes of Draupadi, aka Panchaali. I am amazed how it never gets boring to read the same story when it’s told from different point of views.

The author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has a very simple but effective style of writing. It was really easy to get into the mind of Draupadi, to live her life in this book. The book begins with Draupadi’s birth and childhood, and the prophecy that is born along with her, that she will change the course of history. She is burdened by the prophecy and is equally curious for answers. She yearns for her father’s love but his focus is always on his son, Dhrishtyudaman. She has a beautiful and a strong bond with her brother, which is her inspiration to live her otherwise jailed life. She protests against discrimination and wants to learn everything that her brother is taught. This part shows how women’s fight for her rights started so many ages back. She adores Krishna and looks forward to spending time with him. At a point, she even wonders her feelings for him.

When she meets a sage to know her future, Sage Vyasa warns her of three significant moments in her life which she needs to be careful about. He warns her to hold back her question in the first instance, hold back her laughter in the second, and hold back her curse in the final. We all know what happened. Draupadi failed to control her emotions on all the three occurrences leading to the success of her prophecy.

Draupadi grows up as any other normal girl. She has dreams and ambitions. She wants to be loved and cared. She wants to be married to the man of her dreams, live an exquisite life in an enchanting palace. There are some very beautiful chapters which focuses on Draupadi’s expectations from her life. When she sees Karna for the first time, she is floored by him. She realizes within that he is the one for her. But when the moment arises, when she has to defend her brother over Karna, she does it without any qualms. She feels guilty doing it, she feels horrible for insulting Karna in front of everyone, but she sees no other option. The entire book shows glimpses of Draupadi’s dilemma over her feelings for Karna. She could never let it go till the end. She, at a point, realizes it was disloyalty on her part to think of another man. But it is first love for her.

Expectations Vs Reality. Draupadi is so excited to learn that Arjun is the one who won her swayamvar. She knows all about Arjun and is very happy to marrying him. But when Kunti orders all her sons to marry Draupadi and when the Pandavas don’t retort, she is surprised and angry. She feels humiliated to be shared by five husbands, and who won’t be. She feels her husbands are spineless not to go against their mother. After the marriage “arrangements” are made, Draupadi’s next challenge is to impress Kunti. The Kunti-Draupadi relationship is like the ones they show on Indian TV, typical. May be, Kunti-Draupadi are the inspiration for the saas-bahu shows now, I don’t know. Nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy this part much.

The story then moves on to the most crucial moment in history. Draupadi always feels uneasy over her first husband’s, Yudhistir’s gambling habits. All the more nervous when Duryodhan invites them to Hastinapur. She senses something is wrong. When Yudhistir loses everything in the dice game, including his fortunes, kingdom, his brothers and then his wife, Draupadi’s strength is tested. She is dragged by her hair to the hall by Dushasan, and is humiliated terribly. Her agony increases when she sees her husbands standing as mute spectators. When her sari is being removed, she thinks about the one person who stood by her all the time- Krishna. Now is the point where I wondered how much thoughts about Krishna and Karna kept the lady going. She was never really happy with her husbands and was just obeying the rituals. When Krishna saves her, she curses the Kauravas. From then on, we see a very different Draupadi- a determined woman filled with vengeance.

I know I am probably recounting the actual story of Mahabharat here, but this book shows how much Draupadi influences all the situations and actions of this historical epic. She makes sure her husbands feel her anger and her pain all through the 13 years. She doesn’t want her husbands to forget her humiliation. She belittles them whenever possible, wherever possible. She makes sure the Pandavas get revenge on her behalf, acquires justice for the wrongdoings. The young innocent girl from Kampilya is transformed into a strong willed woman. She struggles to maintain her anger. She feels guilty for the curse as she cannot back down now. She could see the numerous lives that would be lost because of her and the war. She still ponders over her feelings for Karna and cannot stand him being angry with her. We see a wonderful overview of Draupadi, as a character, and her feelings towards Pandavas, Krishna, Karna and Kurukshetra.

The war is shown through her eyes. Her fear for her loved ones, her restlessness is wonderfully written by the author. I have always believed the fact and truth that Draupadi was instrumental in bringing about the war. This book beautifully narrates how important this war was for her and her dignity. This book has made me respect this character even more than before. Kudos to the author on that front.

The rest of the significant characters make their due appearances. I loved the part between Draupadi and Bheeshma and her confusion over understanding the stalwart. Draupadi’s dream palace- The Palace of Illusions- the entire track over the building of the palace and the subsequent incidents are very interestingly written.

Isn’t it interesting how the war was fought by the men but created by the women? Like they were the reasons? If Kunti had come out with the truth about Karna, would the war had ever happened? If Satyavati hadn’t blackmailed Shantanu, Bheeshma would have never taken the vow of celibacy for his father. If Draupadi hadn’t cursed and vowed for revenge, the war wouldn’t have initiated. I guess there are many more instances too.

I guess, it’s time for me to stop writing and recommend this wonderful book to you all. Do read it to have a very different insight of this historic epic.