It is many centuries, indeed many epochs, after the Kurukshetra war. The Pandavas are in heaven, along with their mother Kunti, their wife Draupadi and their aunt Gandhari, as well as the warrior princess Amba. Life is expectedly a halcyon bubble, filled with milk and honey, apsaras , music and dancing. For the men, that is. The women have, quickly enough, become quite bored with this perfect state of things. Draupadi, especially, yearns for some of the tumult that life on earth involved.
So, of course, it is the impetuous Draupadi who buttonholes the visiting Blue Lord and begs him to let the four above-mentioned head back to earth for a brief spell, just to check things out. The all-seeing, all-knowing Krishna knows just what potential for mayhem the situation presents, but his sense of impish humour piqued, agrees to the madcap plan.
And so, Draupadi, Kunti, Gandhari and Amba return to the former Indraprasta, now New Delhi, reluctantly escorted there by none other than a grumpy Narad Muni. He settles them inside a municipal loo (!) in the precincts of Delhi Zoo, which, once they enter, turns into palatial quarters as befitting princesses but unseen to the human eye. He gives them a cellphone and tells them he’ll come back for them in 30 days. And then he vanishes.
The four womenimmediately get down to the task of discovery laced with shock and awe. They visit the zoo, they go seeking Karna, who has been reincarnated as Karan, a young boy in the most dismal orphanage ever; they eat biryani with much relish, bite into a burger with much distaste, and freeze with terror when they get into a lift. They attend a shoot in a television studio. They go shopping. And that’s only the physical activity we are talking about.
On the emotional plane, Amba, aged thousand-and-something, falls in love with 26-year-old Zafar Kapoor, and has a relationship with him. Kunti works on gaining the sullen Karan’s respect and affection. Ghandari decides soon enough that she’s bored of earth and wishes to return to heaven, this despite being spotted by an effete designer at a fashion show, who, much struck by her Gandharan beauty, begs her to model his clothes. Draupadi is quite enjoying the earthly sojourn and in the aforementioned TV studio, things take an unexpected turn when she has a go at the mic; soon, she is being offered a show of her own!
A tale thus conceived could have done with a liberal injection of quirk, a little wacky humour, to leaven things, but that is sadly missing here. The book is mildly entertaining but never manages to rise to the status of a lively romp. Despite diligent attention to detail and a flawless flow, things tend to lie flat and not really come alive at any point.
The authorplays to stereotype all the way through, which helps greatly in character formatting. Draupadi is a feisty, hot-tempered beauty; Kunti bears the weight of her sorrows heavily on her frail shoulders; Gandhari continues to be aloof, stern and more than a tad prissy; Amba is sweet, vulnerable, naïve.
There is a welcome vein of feminism that makes it presence felt throughout, as evinced by Draupadi when she thinks that this world is different as she didn’t have to accept anything she didn’t want to; this is a world where she can fight for the things she believes in and make right the injustices done to her. However, when the book states that she never really liked Karna, one winces at the one-dimensional pigeon-holing.
For my money, the most interesting character in the book is Saraswati, the goddess of learning, presently in the form of the orphanage’s octogenarian caretaker Shashiben. She is possessed of wry humour, much omnipotence interlaced with understanding, a cynical tongue, and is altogether a kick-ass heroine. And a my-money moment also came when Draupadi looks at women wearing shades of brown and wonders just why (Indian) mortals insist on wearing brown clothing on brown skin. Quite like Draupadi, I have often wondered about this myself.
So, yes, the four have adventures, personal and collective, but the author keeps them on a tight leash, so the chaos doesn’t lead to actual mayhem. All too soon, the dilemma the women face is whether to stay on as earthly beings or return to their unblemished state of being in heaven. These women have their priorities right, so making their final decision doesn’t put them in too much of a quandary.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author based in Bengaluru.