By Charumati Haran:
“The Palace of Illusions” is a novel written by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. It narrates the Mahabharata in a more modern voice, but with a twist: The novel is written from the perspective of Draupadi. While the characters in stories often seem like pawns in the hands of fate, Draupadi is one of the most controversial characters in the Mahabharata: sometimes she is called a ‘Kritya’ (jinxed one who brings down her clan), sometimes pitied for almost being disrobed in public and sometimes respected in prayers as an ideal wife (Panchakanya stuti).
The book describes how Princess Panchaali makes her transition from a tomboyish young girl to a great queen. Fact and fiction are in equal measure and merge seamlessly from one chapter to another. All the major incidents of the Mahabharata are here. Panchaali’s thoughts and opinions make the re-telling both fresh and original. For a person who lives in such a parochial and male-dominated society, Panchaali is ahead of her times. She is strong, spirited, fiery and independent. But she is not perfect and has ordinary human flaws like all of us. In many areas, the story leaves her choices in grey areas, allowing us to judge her ourselves. Simple everyday details like surviving in the forest are combined with the major triumphs and tragedies like surviving the Kurukshetra.
The good part is that this novel focuses a lot on relationships: The relationship of Panchaali with her brother Dhristadyumna, with her friend Krishna and with her mother-in-law Kunti. There’s not enough about her relationship with each of the 5 Pandava brothers, but it does share her thoughts on having 5 husbands at once. No doubt the most intriguing relationship for any reader will be her relationship with Karna. Yes you heard that right: Karna, the 6th Pandava brother who fought on the side of the Kauravas. The book takes rather a liberty in suggesting that the two were secretly in love throughout the novel. But in keeping with the honour of both, there was no illicit relationship. It is a very complicated relationship due to their being on opposite sides most of the time.
Anyone can ask why would the book have any importance today except for entertainment value? By reinterpreting the epic, the authoress has essentially questioned the basis of the role of women in society. Our epics are often treated as moral doctrines and are used to justify outdated practices. Giving a voice to a character deepens our understanding of the epic itself.
This feminist interpretation also speaks volumes about the power of women. It shows women as human, not second class citizens. They have opinions, dreams, desires, hopes and ambitions. We learn all these things through Draupadi. This is a great read for anyone who is fairly acquainted with the Mahabharata.