Monday, June 16, 2014

Book review: The Palace of Illusions

The Palace of Illusions is a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni which tells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's perspective. It is an insightful and enthralling account of the events that occurred during the end of the Dvapar Yug or Third Age of Man that she initiated which eventually lead to the terrible Kurukshetra battle. 

I've been fascinated with Hindu mythology ever since I was a child. Among my early childhood books were simplified versions of the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and tales of Krishna. Reading these books transported me into a magical world - a world completely alien to me where kings, queens, warriors, sages, reincarnation, boons and curses existed. A captivating realm where there was intermingling of gods, demons and men. The tales were rich, colorful and rife with grandeur, bravery, devotion, loyalty, righteousness, but also deceit, jealousy, humiliation and death. I would often spend hours, gazing at the beautiful illustrations, often tracing them in my colouring book, memorising complicated names of the characters and quizzing myself on them. I remember quite vividly the time I participated in a competition on the Mahabharatha in school and won a prize. It was something that I was extremely proud of. Back then, you could ask me absolutely anything about the epic and I would answer it correctly without batting an eyelid. To add to my burning thirst for the epics, I watched numerous mythological movies and weekend soaps on television. Even now, the world of mythology has a firm hold over me and I would never pass up an opportunity to revive those fading memories.

About the book
The book begins with the strange and unnatural way that Draupadi/Panchali comes into being. She emerges from the sacrificial fire along with her brother Dhristadyumna as a result of her father, King Draupad's attempts to appease the gods to extract vengeance over his arch enemy Drona. As a child, she is left craving for her father's attention and affection, spending desolate days in the gloomy palace which seems like a prison to her. The sparks of light in her life come from Dhai Ma, her nurse and her brother Dhri who is fiercely protective of his sister. And then there is the enigmatic Krishna with whom she has this strong and unshakable bond and whose visits she looks forward to the most.

Burdened with the prophecy made at her birth of being the cause that would change the fate of mankind, she is unsure and uneasy of what future lies ahead. As she grows older, she is increasingly made to realize of the purpose that she has to fulfill and she is mortified when she learns that her role is to bring about the biggest war that mankind has seen. Rebellious as she is, she refuses to be a pawn in the hands of fate and she is determined to live her life the way she chooses. But every time, her heart steers her away from the will of fate, circumstances put her exactly where she is supposed to be. That is how she unwillingly ends up marrying all five of the Pandavas, the sons of Pandu and princes of Hastinapur.

The epic revolves around the fierce rivalry between cousins, the Pandavas and Kauravas for the throne of Hastinapur. As the wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi is unwittingly swept into this power struggle. Although marriage gives her respite from the clutches of her father's palace, it brings with it a new set of challenges. From living in poverty to trying to prove a worthy daughter-in-law, managing five husbands, eventually being the queen of her own palace (a palace she calls the Palace of Illusions), to being humiliated by the Kauravas in open court, living in exile and finally having to witness her loved ones perishing in battle, Draupadi, goes through a myriad of life experiences. Ironically, the Palace of Illusions, the only place where she truly feels at home, is one of the major causes that leads to her delivering the terrible curse that brings the destruction of the entire Kuru clan. In the end, despite being loved by many, she dies alone, abandoned by her near and dear ones. 

My thoughts....
Divakaruni lends Draupadi a bold, honest and powerful voice. Her style of writing is simple, eloquent, humanistic and compelling. In the male-dominated Mahabharata where women were known to play only subservient roles, it is refreshing to come across an interpretation of this ancient epic from a woman's point of view.

Draupadi who has unfairly been labelled a kritya (someone who brings downfall to her clan) has a fair chance through this novel to articulate her motives behind her actions. Right from her lonely childhood, to her life as a wife, mother and queen, her innermost thoughts and feelings have been showcased beautifully. Hers is a very controversial and multifaceted character. What I found most eye-opening was her rivalry with her controlling mother-in-law Kunti, the delicate balancing act that she had to master being wife to five husbands, her inscrutable relationship with Krishna and her unrequited love for Karna. What is interesting and also surprising is that she doesn't come across as very different from the modern woman of today. She has obvious shortcomings such as being rebellious, stubborn, headstrong, insecure, egoistic and vengeful. She rebels against the boundaries society has prescribed for women. She casts aside the name of Draupadi that her father gave her for a name of her choosing - Panchali (meaning from the kingdom of Panchala). Rather than learning the typical domestic skills that women are required to be well versed in, she expresses a desire to be tutored along-side her brother. She has desires and demands and does not hesitate to voice them. She isn't the quintessential wallflower who stays in the shadows, playing the role of dutiful wife and self-sacrificing mother, unmindful of what is happening in the world around her. She advises her husbands on matters of the kingdom, showcasing good judgement and even takes active measures towards women's empowerment. Furthermore, it is not only Draupadi's life that we are given an insight into but we also are introduced to the other facets of important characters in the epic such as Vyasa, Bheeshma, Kunti, Karna and Krishna. My only complaints with the book are that I wished that the relationship between Draupadi and each of her husband's was explored further and the climax of her humiliation at the hands of Duryodhan and Dussasan at the court of Hastinapur was given more prominence. But these are just minor kinks in an otherwise exceptional novel.

I finished this book within one weekend (despite being fully aware of the story) and that says a lot about how engrossing I found it. Highly recommended!

My rating for this book is

Have you read this book? If yes, what did you think about it? I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment to let me know....


1 comment:

  1. Try "Parva" (S L Bhyrappa). Has a more humanly depiction of characters and is very intense. I believe the inspiration for this novel was also Draupadi and the topic of polyandry.


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