The Palace of Illusions


Author – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I received this book as birthday gift from a dear friend. Having read a lot of good reviews about the book, I was eager to read it. First of all I would like to applaud the writer, C.B. Divakaruni, for just coming out with the idea of a book on the epic, the Mahabharata, from the viewpoint of the most important woman in the story- Draupadi / Panchaali. Now Mahabharata is an integral part of Indian culture and history for thousands of years. Grandpas and Grandmas love to quote incidents from this epic to teach their grandchildren how good always prevail over evil (the great war of Kurukshetra, which is the setting for the most religious of Hindu scriptures- the Bhagwad Gita). I have fond memories of watching the serial (huddling in front of the TV on Sundays) as well as reading comics & books, on this epic.

In the epic, though substantial importance to women is given, the roles of the men are more glorified, specially the Pandavas. The Palace of Illusions deviates from this and tries to tell the story from the viewpoint of Panchaali, who is one of the most mysterious characters in the grand epic. She and her brother were born out of a hunger for revenge and to satiate their father’s ego – King Draupad. She had a tricky marriage to five men, the five Pandava brothers & was passed around from brother to brother, every year.

In the book, Divakaruni portrays Panchaali, in spite of all the odds, as a powerful, strong, and independent woman, with an opinion of her own on matters & subjects around her. She presents Panchali’s life as a series of choices made by Panchaali, and not the people around her, giving her a voice in the overwhelmingly patriarchal society that was ancient India.

Though Panchali was never raped, she received more than enough of her share of unwanted advances by men, a phenomenon that seems to be prevalent even in today’s society. While reading the novel, it was easy to relate to such events in Panchaali’s life, and while she was courageous enough to fight off her offenders, nowadays such instances are so common that most women’s instincts are to ignore such advances or silently endure it. Though numerous years and generations separate contemporary life from Panchaali’s, her life’s events are surprisingly similar to the many trials and tribulations faced by today’s women.

In the book, though the focus is on Panchali’s life, Divakaruni is careful to include the stories of the other strong female characters, not just as Panchaali’s rivals, but also as strong role-models (for Panchaali and others alike). Divakaruni portrays, at length, the story of Kunti, Panchali’s mother-in-law, who devoted her life to the upbringing of her own sons and the sons of her husband’s second wife, making sure to treat them all equally, and grooming them to become kings. She also mentions the story of Gandhari, the wife of the blind king Dhritarashtra, who blindfolds herself at her marriage, choosing to live as an equal to her husband, surrendering her power as a queen and mother. Divakaruni portrays the stories of all these women as conscious choices made by them, not as roles handed to them by society or by the men in their lives. These women chose the lives that they lived, and did not simply walk into them.

I was quite mesmerized about the unspoken love between Panchaali & Karna. Panchaali was attracted to Karna since the day of her Swayamvar & might have chosen him if not for Krishna & her brother’s words. This angle has not been focused in the original epic and kept me wondering – is it possible that this was true? I can only wonder. :/

Also, the beautiful friendship of Panchaali & Krishna was something I enjoyed in the book. Krishna came in at every important point of her life, giving her advice & solace too, and often his ambiguous words kept her thinking long after he was gone. He had his secret connection with everyone she knew, and it seemed to her that He shared a special bond with everyone she thought she knew completely. But Krishna managed to make her believe she was his dearest friend of all. He referred to her as ‘sakhi’ and better yet, ‘Krishnaa’, the female version of His own name making her believe He loved her most dearly.

The greatest strength of the book is that it does not consist of kings, demi-gods or princes. It provides a humanistic touch to the epic, making it more realistic, more relatable, and more personal.

It’s said that only a woman can understand another woman’s feelings, pains and sorrow, and I think, after finishing the book, it’s true with me and Panchaali’s story. A must read.

Some lines of the book I loved:-

  • 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 ~ Panchaali
  • A problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself. ~ Krishna
  • And the mother, who through all the years of her hardship had never shed a tear, wept at his trust and her deception.
  • In the sandalwood days of love I had thought that if I could not have Salva, I would die. Now I discovered that a woman’s life is tougher than a banyan root, which exists without soil or water ~ Sikhandi
  • …….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 wont get you what you want. ~ Sikhandi.
  • ………Distance is a great promoter of harmony: a fact that women who find themselves in situations similar to mine should keep in mind ~ Panchaali
  • A situation in itself, he said is neither happy nor unhappy. It’s only your response to it that causes to your sorrow……….. ~ Krishna
  • Trying to show u something. The stick (half burned) – it scared you, right? It may even have hurt you, if you hadn’t been so quick. But look – in trying to burn you, its consuming itself. That’s what happens to a heart-…………………… ~ Krishna
  • What is more numerous than the grass? – The thoughts that rise in the mind of man.Who is truly wealthy? – That man to whom the agreeable and disagreeable, wealth & woe, past and future, are the same.What is the most wondrous thing on earth? – Each day countless humans enter the Temple of death, yet the ones left behind continue to live as though they were immortal. ~ Yudhisthir
  • Just as we cast off worn clothes and wear new ones, when the time arrives, the soul casts off the body and finds a new one to work out its karma. Therefore the wise grieve neither for the living nor the dead. ~ Krishna
  • When Arjun asked why man found himself driven to wrongdoing in spite of good intentions, Krishna replied, Because of anger and desire, our two direst enemies.
  • I wasn’t ready to let go of my life. How amazing it seemed to me with its victories, its adventures, its moments of glory. Even the shame that had struck like hot iron, branding revenge into my brain, seemed suddenly precious in its uniqueness. I wanted to live it all again – with more wisdom this time! ~ Panchaali

This review has been submitted as a part of my Indian Quills Challenge 2013 (read about the challenge here)