Divakaruni (Queen of Dreams, 2005, etc.) offers a quasi-feminist retelling of the great Hindu text known as the Mahabharata.
Among the world’s longest epic poems and dated to the 5th century BCE, the Mahabharata traces the dynasty of the Pandava brothers, from the circumstances of their birth to the great war fought for the honor of Panchaali to their last days in search of spiritual peace. Gods intervene, divine weapons waylay whole battalions, a fantastical palace inspires a war, yet Divakaruni manages to keep the story human and relevant, also about a woman, her marriage, her mother-in-law. The plot remains essentially true to the original, but here the story is narrated by Panchaali, born out of fire to avenge her father. It is decreed that she will change history, and she certainly begins well when she marries all five of the Pandava brothers (by a strange bit of misunderstanding, the brothers’ mother insists that the brothers must share all of their good fortune). Panchaali becomes queen and builds for herself the Palace of Illusions, the most magnificent dwelling on earth, made of marble and magic. But Panchaali’s worldly triumphs are paired with her spiritual failings: her pride, her need for vengeance and the secret love she holds for Karna, her husbands’ greatest enemy. When her husband Yudhisthir loses their kingdom gambling, Panchaali and her husbands are forced into forest exile for 12 years, and when they re-emerge, they begin the war that will pit all the kings of India against each other, and will fulfill the prophesy of Panchaali’s birth. Throughout the story, there is one constant in Panchaali’s life—the benevolent presence of Krishna, her greatest friend (she vaguely suspects he is divine) and ally. Occasionally the novel falls flat—decades and events flash by with mere mention, one suspects a result of compressing such a rich work into such a small space—but Divakaruni mostly succeeds in creating an intimate, feminine portrait that is both contemporary and timeless.
An ambitious project effectively executed.