The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a retelling of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Imagining this epic from a woman’s point of view is an act of courage in itself. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni brings us a whole new perspective of the Mahabharata. She offers the epic through Paanchali’s (Draupadi) position – the woman who started it all.
Son of Indra (the god of rain) and the greatest bowman of his time, Prince Arjun won Draupadi in her Bachelorette or ‘Swayamvar‘ would be an accurate classic word. She was married into a royal family already in exile and was soon asked to bed all the five Pandava brothers. This was not the perfect wedding Draupadi had been dreaming of. Divakaruni here attempts to unfurl the hidden stories behind these events giving voices to the female characters.
The novel excites its readers with the first chapter itself, which is named ‘Fire’ and gives a complete and beautiful story of Draupadi’s birth. The initial chapters of this book dwell on the childhood days of Draupadi, her bond with her twin brother, her father, her dai maa, and her friendship with Lord Krishna. Reading these chapters, you get connected to the protagonist.
Draupadi’s friendship with Krishna is elegantly penned. She confides in him, asks for his advice and opinion, asks him questions that could not be asked to others. But Krishna acts in his mysterious ways. “I was fascinated by Krishna because I couldn’t decipher him. I fancied myself an astute observer of people and had already analyzed the other important people in my life. I only knew that I adored the way he laughed for no reason, quirking up an eyebrow,” writes Divakaruni elaborating their friendship.
As we go further in the novel, Draupadi becomes more of a grey character. You get angry, yet you pity her; you want to scold her but also to comfort her. In some instances, you feel like going into the novel and asking her not to do some things, not to take some decisions.
Paanchali’s feeling of jealousy toward the other female characters is very alluring to read. It gives you a sense that besides being a queen, she is also a woman who is jealous of the other women present in her husband’s lives. It’s a bit humourous of her getting jealous of Hidimba, Bheema’s demonic wife, or Subhadra, Krishna’s sister and Arjuna’s second wife. Her relationship with the queen mother Kunti is a depiction of a typical ‘Indian’ Saas-Bahu relationship. Despite all this, she adores and highly respects all the women.
Divakaruni has a beautiful writing style. She tones down the mystical elements of this epic which makes it easier yet engaging to read. The tragic events of the great war are written so elegantly that it keeps us on edge despite us knowing the entire story.
Not only the great war but also the events after the great war is detailed. The heart-wrenching end chapters with tragic happenings are vividly penned. There are some occurrences where you feel her pain, her sorrow, her helplessness.
It is a women-centric novel giving voices and power to women. “The power of a man is like a bull’s charge, while the power of a woman moves aslant, like a serpent seeking its prey. Know the particular properties of your power. Unless you use it correctly, it won’t get you what you want. His words perplexed me. Wasn’t power singular and simple? In the world that I knew, men just happened to have more of it. (I hoped to change this).” quotes Divakaruni. It tells the readers that a girl can be a princess, a queen, a wife, a lover, a friend, a mother, sometimes full of pride, sometimes arrogant, righteous and wrong, yet sacrificing and giving all in one.
The first and last chapters of this novel are titled ‘Fire’, connecting the end to the beginning. As per Hindu beliefs, the end is the new beginning. Describing Draupadi’s death scene, Divakaruni writes, “I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable—but I always was so, only I never knew it! I am beyond name and gender and the imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I’m truly Panchaali.”
The debatable thing or the thing that attracted me the most is the Karn-Draupadi love angle. Throughout the book, Draupadi is shown thinking about Karn and what would have happened if she had married Karn. “But the truth, when it’s being lived, is less glamorous than our imaginings,” writes Divakaruni.