Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The book review trilogy: 'THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS'

At first, I almost dismissed it as yet another book on the Mahabharata. I have read quite a few of those and did not really look forward to discovering anything new in Chitra Banerjee Divakurni's 'The Palace of Illusions'. But then,a small caption on the cover said 'Panchali's Mahabharat' and that got me hooked. Draupadi has always been an enigmatic character in the epic, and yet, I believe, has been sidelined as far as popular literature on the subject is concerned (considering that most major characters have their own interpretations of the Mahabharata). In fact, that seems to have been one of the reasons for the author to write this book. As she admits in her preface that she was 'left unsatisfied' by the portrayal of the women of the epic, though the women were 'powerful and complex characters that affected the action in major ways'. And so, Chitra Banerjee delves into the mind and heart of Draupadi, probably one of the most powerful characters in the story. And some might say, may be even the driver of the entire epic itself !!

The story begins with Draupadi's birth from the ceremonial fire along with her brother Drishtaduymna ('she was as dark as he was fair'). As soon as she emerged from the fire, she was destined to change the course of history. The book is a decent journey through Panchaali's life, from her swayamvar  (where she was specifically told by her brother and Krishna to reject Karna), going on to describe her life with her five husbands, the incident where Duryodhan falls in the pond thinking its solid marble (interestingly, the book claims that it was not Draupadi, but one of her maids, that said those fateful words :'a blind man's son will be blind'). the the disgraceful events during the game of dice at Hastinapur and finally, culminating in the terrible massacre at Kurukshetra. Each of these events are well described from Draupadi's view and her, the author is faithful to the generally-accepted version of the Mahabharata. There are not too many factual deviations.

However, it is not the factual events, but the inter-personal relationships that Draupadi had, that enliven the book. Firstly, Draupadi's relationship with Kunti comes across as a typical saas-bahu relationship, both trying to hold their own against each other with an undercurrent of tension beneath. The book does not talk much about the Pandavas and how Draupadi regarded each of them. Krishna is shown as her friend, philosopher and guide, always there for her, not least during the vastra-haran. But the sauciest portions of the book are reserved for Draupadi's fascination for Karna. That is probably the only genuine new insight that the book gives us. Draupadi's longing for the eldest Pandava is always spoken of in hushed tones in popular literature, but here, Banerjee portrays Draupadi as being almost head-over-heels in love with Karna. As Draupadi says in the book of her five husbands : '"I see that I didn't love any of my husbands in that way... even during the best of times, I never gave it (her heart) fully to them. How do I know it ? Because none of them (her husbands) had the power to agitate me the way the mere memory of Karna did". Throughout, the book is littered with examples of Draupadi's longing for Karna. And towards the end, Karna too confesses to Bhishma on his bed of arrows, that while the promise of the throne and power never tempted him to switch sides and join the Pandavas, when Kunti offered him Draupadi as almost a bait, he was truly tempted and had to use all of his famed willpower to keep him from deserting Duryodhan !!. All in all, this is one heck of a fascinating relationship, and just for this one, the book is well worth a read !!

So finally, what does one make of Draupadi after reading the book ? Apart from her extra-marital longing for Karna, Draupadi is portrayed as mostly a character bounded by her destiny ('to change the course of history') and most of her actions are portrayed as a natural outcome of the way her destiny plays out. Probably the only issue that one might have with Banerjee's Draupadi is that she is portrayed in lighter shades of grey than probably what is popularly imagined.



Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The book review trilogy: 'OPEN'

Most sports autobiographies that I have read belong to one of two categories (and that, I suspect, is true of most books in this genre). On the one hand you have books that chronicle the life and times of the sportsman, without really giving good insights into the finer aspects like his/her personality, eccentricities etc. On the other hand, there are those autobiographies that are a delight to read, either because of the personal circumstances surrounding the athlete (Lance Armstrong) or because the biographer/athlete has taken that extra step in going beyond mere recounting of public facts to presenting a very different face of the subject to the readers. Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘OPEN’ belongs to this category. To put it in a few words, ‘OPEN’ is not to be missed, especially if you are a sports buff. Agassi fans, of course, would need no invitation.

‘OPEN’ begins with Andre lying on his back in the change room, receiving medical treatment after winning a tough five-setter against Marcos Baghdatis at the 2006 US Open (his last grand slam). Andre then takes readers to his childhood, dominated by his almost-dictatorial father and the tennis court he had built for his children in their backyard, in the middle of the Vegas desert. His father had one ambition of his children, to become No.1 in the sport. And the methods he adopted to ensuring this (forcing hours of practice on the Agassi kids) took their toll. Andre survived this, but his brother quit, no longer able to withstand his father’s incessant pressure. From here, Andre moved to the Nick Bolleteri academy at age thirteen (‘a glorified prison camp’). This is where the rebellious streak, that came to symbolize much of his playing career, set in. The book is refreshingly open on many aspects of Andre’s personal and professional life. For example, he admits candidly that when he saw one of his contemporaries during junior days (he was a star even then), he openly declared that the boy would not even make it to top-notch tennis. That boy, of course, turned out to be Pete Sampras, later to be Agassi’s principle nemesis. Another rival that is prominent in the narrative is Boris Becker, with whom Agassi shared a particularly personal and venomous rivalry. In fact, Andre admits to having tanked a semi-final match so that he would not need to play Becker in the final (he was not at his fittest then). His playing days are otherwise well chronicled and his special moments, like winning his first slam at Wimbledon 1992 are well recreated, almost giving the reader a court-side view of the action. The book also talks at length of the relationship Andre shared with people close to him, especially his physical trainer Gil Reyes (who almost comes across as the father figure Andre wished to have) and his long-time coach Brad Gilbert.

And of course, who can forget his two high-profile romances ? ‘OPEN’ dwells at length on the Agassi-Brooke Shields relationship, both during its rise (on how they exchanged faxes across continents – no cellphones then- during their courtship) and then, during its fall (on how they drifted apart after marriage, not able to handle the stress arising from dual celebrity lives). And then comes Steffi Graf into his life (a pity that she makes her entry with three-fourths of the book done). Rather, it’s the other way around. Andre again goes into detail on how he wooed the supposedly ice-cold Ms. Graf, finally culminating in a dream marriage. Ten years on, and with two children in tow, it has indeed become a dream marriage.

On the whole, ‘OPEN’ stood out for me for being candid and for describing Andre’s journey from just another Vegas kid to the holder of all four slams. That it does so without ever resorting to self-flattery and excess glorification is indeed commendable. Credit of course, goes to Andre’s collaborator JR Moehringer, who does a great job of converting endless taped transcripts into a near 400 pages of smooth prose. Andre was not my favourite during his playing days, but after having read ‘OPEN’, I have to admit a new-found respect for the man. What more could one ask for from his memoirs ?


PS: You might ask, why a book review trilogy ? Well, simply because I have read two more fascinating books, and hope to review them next. So stay tuned…..