I made my acquaintance with Chitra Banerjee's work for the 1st time when I was nineteen and studying engineering. Even for someone who hadn't thought about marriage until then, a title by the name of "Arranged Marriage" was too much to resist.
19 was when I was just about unlearning a lot of what I'd been taught as a child (not quite as much as i unlearned in my B school days 2-3 years later, but that's fodder for a whole new post), one of those many things being the method by which I was expected to marry.
The way it had always been done in the family (for years and years, without exception) was that when I turned 23 or 24, my jaadhagam (horoscope) would be sent out into the matrimony market for perusal by the parents of eligible boys. (Why these very eligible boys weren't looking for girls themselves, was a question that never occurred to me to ask. Perhaps because marriage was a distant reality, one I hoped would never befall me. Academics and accomplishment were far easier and far more fulfilling, asserted the geek in me.).
Once the parents had ascertained a certain compatibility of families, and the matching of horoscopes had been confirmed by various permutations of vaadhiyaars i.e. priests (probability of a wrong match decreases as the number of potbellied vaadhiyaars confirming the match increases) the boy's family would come home to see me - also known in Bombayized Tamil as "ponnu paathufying". While I would have to look my prettiest and coyest best, the parents would ask me to list my talents and while the parents pretended to discuss important worldly matters, the boy and I would be gifted with a generous 20 mins to talk to each other, and make up our minds on whether or not to spend the rest of our lives together.
I shudder even as I explain the above, although much has changed since then. For one, my mother, a big fan of horoscope matches in the 90's, underwent a radical transformation of beliefs by the time the millennium descended upon us and told me to go find my own boy (Tamil or not), failing which she would put me through a friendlier version of the arranged marriage process.
There would be no need to match horoscopes, no need for ponnu paathufying to humiliate me. I could take a few months to talk to the guy on my own terms ("email, chat, phone whatever makes you comfortable, child") and the parents would only meet after we'd OKed the whole thing.
Not like this made me feel much better about the notion of marriage, given coffee with strangers has never really been my forte and knowing me over 2 months of casual meetings is very very different from knowing me with my temper and stubbornness and loving me despite it. Few people had had success in this matter so far, and mathematically, it just didn't seem probable enough that a complete stranger would succeed where I'd manage to put off so many others.
Still, the "Arranged Marriage" process as i knew it at 19 was a diametrically opposite notion to the "We'll Arrange For You To Fall In Love" process that it has now become.
And so I was drawn to a book by the name of "Arranged Marriage" since the devil was rather unfamiliar to me, but was a devil whose name was being dropped around me more often now than when I was 15. The book itself is a series of short stories, in Chitra's lyrical melancholy style. It was my 1st taste of Indian writing and I LOVED it.
Over the years, I've read Sister of my heart (one of my all time favorites), Vine of Desire (a not shabby, but not very worthy sequel to Sister of...), Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams (def not her best works).
And I thought I'd read them all until I read Palace of Illusions this weekend. Call me stupid (or call me a feminist!), but I thought the notion of retelling a story of testosterone and adrenalin through the eyes of a woman was a brilliant place to start.
It helps, also, that Chitra echoes my generation's issues with the characters in the epic. I personally always thought Yudhisthir to be an unrealistic idealist, who for all his babbling about Dharma, couldn't save his wife from being molested when push literally came to shove. Bheem has always been in my mind a caricature of a character - the classic stereotype of all brawn and no brain, and I wondered why Nakul and Sahadev were in the story at all given their poorly etched character profiles.
And to the women in the epic, I don't think I ever paid any attention at all. It's only when Chitra starts to narrate Draupadi's story, that you start to see the world through her eyes. That's when you realize that while all this while you took for granted that the women in that era would've been born compliant, they probably had as tough a time following the illogical rules they had to live with, the inane traditions that treated them as lesser beings than men. And when Draupadi resists these, you're tempted to get on her side and resist them with her. This despite her many shortcomings - her temper, her pride, her inability to forgive and her life long resistance to toeing the line (all of which now sounds like me! :O)
As is typical of me, my vote for love of her life also went to the underdog - Karna. And although the whole sub plot of how she falls for her husband's worst enemy is rather Bollywoodishly executed through the book, with glimpses into both their hearts every now and then, and a climax that would put Karan Johar to shame, I still found myself cheering for them at the end.
I'd seriously recommend the Palace of Illusions to anyone who loves reading Indian fiction and is a feminist. (Btw, if you belong to the generation that watched it every Sunday am on Doordarshan, then I promise you, you'll still be able to put a face to all the names.)
And if you walk in with no memory of the women (sidelined as they were in B.R. Chopra's version), Chitra Banerjee will make sure she gives you reason enough to remember them by after you're done with her book. :-)