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Book Review: The Palace Of Illusions By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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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.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book 'The Palace Of Illusions'
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book ‘The Palace Of Illusions’

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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