Book: The Palace of Illusions
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Year: 2008

A poignant tale about a woman and her dreams

A re-telling of the famous epic of pride, love and revenge—The Mahabharata

The goings-on of a girl’s mind, a girl who always wished she was a man—Panchaali

Divakaruni gets into the psyche of Draupadi (Panchaali), a girl surrounded by riches who is terribly lonely save for her brother and her rather upfront but caring Dhai Ma. She sees the women around her, women who are shielded from public view when court is in session, women who are married off as soon as they hit puberty to old kings and knows that she is made for more. This fiery-eyed little princess knows her life shall be different and that she shall make a difference. But to whom? And what?

The author of the Mahabharata, Sage Vyas, gives himself a rather important role in his epic. He makes the unassuming little girl privy to the information that she will change the course of history and that she will be the reason her near and dear suffer. He reassures her, much to her dismay, that a difference she will definitely make, but not for the better.

Panchaali’s life continues to be different from that of every other girl she knows. She falls in love not with her future husband but with Karna, who is not allowed to

"Above us our palace waits, the only one I've ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. We rise; the shapes cluster around us in welcome, dissolving and forming again like fireflies in a summer evening.” ― Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions
“Above us our palace waits, the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. We rise; the shapes cluster around us in welcome, dissolving and forming again like fireflies in a summer evening.”
― Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions

participate in Panchaali’s swayamwar for the simple reason that he would obviously win it over the Pandav prince! As was prophesized by Vyas, Panchaali ended up marrying not only her husband but also his four brothers. In addition to the usual struggles of a daughter-in-law; adjusting to a new household, reassuring the mother-in-law of her place in her sons’ life, Panchaali had to also deal with the unusual struggles of polyandry; whose wife she would be first, for how long and how would she divide her duties for each husband. After all it wasn’t every day that a royal princess, by decree, is married to 5 people!

The Palace of Illusions, the name itself explains quite a lot, is the central theme of the story around which is woven the bloody battle of Kurukshetra. The palace, constructed with specific instructions and calculated efforts towards having an intended reaction from one and all, soon became the reason for the disturbance of peace prevailing for years. It was the embodiment of every possible indulgent materialistic thirst. It’s explained with finesse and glittered with a tangible dose of adjectives to create the intended picture into the reader’s mind of the brilliance of the metaphorical palace!

The palace plays a more than a crucial role in enticing the Kaurava king toward what he deems the ultimate possession—wealth, power and respect.

Paanchali’s life, before taking the bloody turn, is a myriad of experiences from meeting everyone in the extended family and swallowing it little by little at a time. The grandfather Bheeshma, with his flowing silver hair and quick witted charm, was an enigma for her right till his last. The cousins Kauravas and their blind father, Dhritarashtra, had her forever trying to distinguish between their blessings and curse. The cold steel wall Kunti put forward was a mystery in its own right. Which one was a defense and which one a façade?

The high point for me in this book is Draupadi (or Panchaali as she likes to be referred to) and her beautiful friendship with the endearing God, Krishna. The God wafts in, much like a fragrance, lingers on for quite a bit after he’s gone and leaves her thinking about his ambiguous words. He has his secret connection with everyone she knows, and it seems to her that He shares a special bond with everyone she thinks she knows completely. But Krishna manages to make her believe she is his dearest friend of all. He refers to her as ‘sakhi’ and better yet, ‘Krishnaa’, the female version of His own name making her believe He loves her most dearly.

No review is complete without elaborate mention of the hero of the story who, according to me, is Karna. Life is harsh to a lot of people, nay to all at some point, but Karna’s life was a whole different suffering. Draupadi’s secret attraction to her husbands’ most dangerous enemy is the silk thread that strings all the pearls of the events of the Mahabharata. Karna’s character grows from a bright-eyed suitor at Draupadi’s swayamvar, to a strong warrior, to a man whose concept of Dharma is as unshaken as Yudhishthir’s.

The story ends, as we already know, in a bloody war that kills millions at Kurukshetra. But what I found absolutely scintillating was the careful choice of words at each stage of the story, so much so, that I, knowing the Mahabharata in and out, could not wait to see how the next scene was described. Her heavy use of metaphors throughout that gave the reader a clear view into Panchaali’s stubborn, haughty, passionate, but well-meaning self is beyond beautiful.

All the times that I have read about the war at Kurukshetra, I have been absorbed into the land, the happenings, the tents, the formations, the tears and the ground soaked in blood. The Bhagavad Gita is quoted a couple of times, although I would have liked more of its presence weaved into the plot of the book.

I don’t know about other readers but I noticed a stark contradiction in the position of women throughout the book. How a princess is not given the courtesy of attending a court proceeding, but a woman’s thoughtless comment towards the son of a charioteer kick starts the greatest drama ever to have occurred on these lands. How (most) women don’t get to decide who they marry, but to avenge one woman’s dishonour and her subsequent vow of vengeance, millions picked up their swords. The Mahabharata shown to end with the 5 brothers and Panchaali taking upon themselves to attain the blessings of the Rishi on the Himalayas is another aspect all together. Heavy with drama and the magic of the pen it writes itself. The concept of dying, of living, the enigmatic Krishna’s appearance and the final understanding between him and Panchaali is an inference towards the existence of heaven and the life beyond. Yudhisthir’s inability to fall or slip is an open question to be answered by every reader separately.

This book is one that is really hard to put down once you’ve started, one that keeps you mesmerized by the way Divakaruni uses the word that would EXACTLY suit the situation at hand. A must buy for mythology buffs and anyone who sees beyond racy plots towards exceedingly wonderful story-TELLING. (The telling is capitalized for it is the telling that makes this story so much more beautiful than when we heard it lying on our Grandma’s laps on sleepy afternoons.)

Written by Bookhad Member: Anaghaa Venugopal
(22.01.2013)

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