For the first time, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes about Indian mythology rather than just characters influenced by it or stories inspired by mythology.
In the genre of speculative fiction, she retells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view. Draupadi plays an essential role in the epic. If not for her, perhaps the Pandavas might not have lusted for revenge against their cousins as much.
Divakaruni takes the commonly known episodes of Draupadi's life, starting with her "birth" from the fire with Drishtadyumna and the prophecy at her arrival, her swayamvar and subsequent marriage to five husbands, her laughter when Duryodhana accidently falls into a pool in her palace at Indraprastha, her being staked and lost in a game of dice and the attempt to disrobe her in front of Dritarashtra's entire court and the miracle by Krishna, Krishna's assistance at the time when Durvasa and his numerous sages arrive at the Pandava's residence during vanvas, Kechakas infatuation with her and his death at the hands of Bhima during their year of being incognito, the loss of her 5 sons in the war and her being the first to fall by the wayside when she and the Pandavas begin their trek towards the heavens.
With this framework, Divakaruni fills in the blanks. What did Draupadi think about being the "girl who will change history"? What was her relationship with her father, her brother, her mother-in-law, her 5 husbands?
The introduction of the character of her nurse - Dhai Ma - helps to bring in a lot of background and history, which are narrated as stories. Divakaruni's Draupadi is an immature, impatient feminist who is filled with anger and the desire for vengeance (against Drona on behalf of her father and then the Kauravas).
She paints Kunti as a controlling mother who did not want to let go of her hold over her sons hearts and the obedience she commanded from them. Kunti in "The Palace of Illusions" constantly tests Draupadi and chastises her often.
The feminist Draupadi bemoans her empowerment of being granted 5 husbands yet having to follow an arrangement which has rules made by men. - 1 year in turn with each husband while attempting to put the others out of her head completely. She says "instead of a boon which turns me into a virgin before I begin my year with the next husband, I would have much preferred to be given the boon of forgetfullness - being able to forget the time I spent with the other 4 while I am with my current husband".
While the Mahabharatha has many strong female characters, Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Amba, Subhadra they do not have much of a voice. Divakaruni attempts to give that voice at least to Draupadi.
This is a brilliant work of fiction and definitely worth a read.
Also published on desicritics.org