It is no surprise that the Mahabharata has spawned numerous versions and retellings in different languages over the years. The world’s longest poem, this Sanskrit epic has a complex narrative structure that comprises of stories within stories within stories. It is indeed such a vast epic that no matter which version/ retelling one reads, one learns something new from it. It is a storehouse of multiple stories, all open to varied interpretations and analyses. Every story, every version makes for an interesting, almost intriguing, read. So no wonder, there are so many books based on this epic. Starting from the trusted Amar Chitra Kathas to the Devdutt Pattnaik version to the C.Rajagopalachari one, I must have read all the Mahabharata versions I have been able to lay my hands on. I haven’t read much fiction based on the Mahabharata, even though, Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya lies ignored on my bookshelf and so does S.L. Bhyrappa’s Parva. I have read The Palace of Illusions, that wonderful book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which is a retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view.
This particular book, Karna’s wife – The Outcast Queen, had caught my attention, ever since I saw it in bookstores some years back. Mainly because it was a look at Karna’s life through the eyes of his wife, Uruvi. Karna, the quintessential tragic hero, has been a fascinating character through the ages. In most books, he is seen as a humiliated and rejected son, an immensely loyal friend, a good man who knows that he is on the side of the wrong and a great but cursed warrior, and always from a male point of view.Karna is the father, son, husband, friend and King. We are exposed to the various facets of this great man. He is the epitome of righteousness, even though he made all the wrong decisions, mainly out of his loyalty to his friend, Duryodhana.
This story begins with the scandalous Swayamvara of Uruvi, the princess of Pukeya, and the foster daughter of Kunti. They want her to marry Arjuna, but her heart is set upon Karna. Uruvi, intelligent and beautiful, is warned by her near and dear ones of the implications of her choice. She is undeterred as she is passionately in love and chooses to be the Outcast’s wife.
By this time, Karna has been already humiliated twice for being a sutaputra – once at the archery tournament in Hastinapura and then at Draupadi’s swayamvara. He is also considered a part of the dushta chathushtayam (four examples of evil men, other than Shakuni, Duryodhana, and Dushasana) The Pandavas on their part have been exiled once and have now come back to claim their half of the kingdom.
The rest of Karna’s life unfolds through the eyes of Uruvi. Karna’s character is explained in much detail – we get a glimpse of the immense loneliness underlying this cursed, good man. Uruvi stands by him, tries to advise him and change his allegiance to Duryodhana. However, she is not able to. Karna understands Duryodhana’s motives, and is indebted to him, even though he does not agree with them.
Uruvi faces her biggest conflict and challenge, after the Rajasuya Yagna. She is torn between her deep love for Karna and her own sense of right and wrong. Unable to forgive Karna for his participation and role in Draupadi’s vastraharan, she leaves him for a period. This is even when everyone else, including Draupadi has forgiven him. She makes a last bid attempt to change his loyalties, but she knows he is doomed. And she finds out that he knows it too. Filled with extreme foreboding of the impending disaster, Uruvi slowly resigns herself to her fate. The battle is described, this time, from the Kaurava point of view and we see how the brave, great Karna meets his end.
The most interesting aspect of the book was the fresh perspective Kane tries to bring in this book. An invented character, Uruvi is constructed as a parallel to Draupadi. Like Draupadi, Uruvi is meant to marry Arjun. However, she exercises her own right to choose a husband and then picks the sutaputra Karna. Like Draupadi, Uruvi is fiery and outspoken, but the circumstances of her childhood were very different from Draupadi’s. Also unlike Draupadi, Uruvi is shown to be against war and she tries hard to voice her reason. She was a healer and not an instigator. Kane uses Uruvi to cover the contentious (apparently folklorish, but probably fictional) love-hate angle of the Draupadi-Karna relationship. As the sutradhar, Uruvi is conveniently placed (by making her the foster daughter of Kunti), giving her an omniscient quality.
In terms of language and narrative style, I found the dialogues bit jarring and stilted. At times, they were too simplistic for the kind of matter the story is dealing with. The entire story is anecdotal and not chronological. The chronological approach would have been better, in my opinion.
I liked the book, though I liked The Palace of Illusions more. In fact it was the constant comparison that brought out the flaws of this book much more into my focus. I would have enjoyed it more, had I not read The Palace of Illusions. However, having said that, this fresh perspective (through the eyes of an invented character) brought to this ageless and timeless story makes this book a definite enjoyable one-time read.