The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a contemporary take on the Indian epic Mahabharata, fictitious or not, is up to one to decide. Here, I will consider the great Mahabharata as a documentation of the events that have happened in our past (say the previous era) and put forward my views on the novel concerned.
The Mahabharata is one of the two most important Sanskrit epics of India, narrating the war of Kurukshetra and the fate of the royal clan between whom it was fought. The Palace of Illusions is centered on Draupadi, which I consider to be the most important character in the gigantic epic. Draupadi was a gift of the Gods to the king of Panchala, Drupad, along with her twin brother Drishtadyumna, to avenge the humiliation of their father at the hands of his once best friend Drona. As per the patriarchy that prevails in India, Draupadi was never considered to the one to avenge and was ultimately married off to the Pandava prince Arjuna when he won the swayamvar. Upon reaching home with his newly-wed bride Arjuna was asked by his mother Kunti to share whatever he has brought with his four brothers, which led to Draupadi being married to all the Panadavas and the only ever in the history to have five surviving husbands at a time.
Draupadi’s life, as shown in the book, is very relatable to the lives of women today. Her struggles to be accepted by her father, who had no interest in her what-so-ever along with the trials and tribulations she had to face in her life made her a strong-headed and adamant woman. During her swayamvar, when Karna wasn’t allowed to participate, she was left heart-broken because somewhere deep down she had wanted him to win, which he would have, had he been allowed. Later in the coming years, the insults which he threw at her during the cheer-haran rather than coming to her rescue, was his revenge which hurt them both in their own ways. Despite the hate façade they maintained, the undying craving they had for each other never let either of them stay in peace. It is only after their deaths that they are unbound by responsibilities and embrace each other.
Draupadi’s life long search for love despite having five husbands is quite disheartening. On one hand, she tries to fervently gain Arjuna’s attention while dissuading Bheem’s attempts at affection towards her. Although she bears five sons each off her five husbands, she never feels connected to any of them as she does to Karna. Do we consider this as emotional infidelity on her part despite the fact that she was the one who stood by her husbands during their most difficult time? It will be unwise to answer this and question a woman’s faithfulness when that woman has done everything and beyond her capacity to make sure her family gets what it deserves.
Another important aspect of Draupadi’s life that is brought into light is her relationship with her friend-cum-brother-in-law, Krishna. We can safely call him her constant, her go-to person, her 3 am best friend. From keeping her in control during her tamed younger years to saving her dignity when the Kauravas humiliated her in front of the entire royal clan, from helping her to understand her fate of being married to five brothers to showing her the way to heaven when the time arrives, Krishna plays a directive role in her life. He calls her Panchali affectionately, after her father’s kingdom, guiding her through life by being there when she needed him the most. The trust Panchali shows in her friend, undoubtedly makes Krishna the only person in her life with whom she is herself and not some daughter or princess or wife or queen.
The Palace of Illusions derives its name from the palace which Draupadi has her husbands build for her after the Kauravas refuse to give them a part in their kingdom. A befitting name, it is this palace that decides the fate of Draupadi – her husbands’ defeat in the game of chopat, her subsequent cheer-haran, and ultimately the war of Kurukshetra. The narrative is gripping, avoids being boring by bringing about inquisitiveness in the reader. The pages are turned effortlessly and though the end is expected and known, there is a fresh viewpoint to it as well. This book brings out the previously unthought-of characteristics of the protagonist, her weaknesses and strengths, her sorrows and happiness, her desires, and the reality she has to face. The story puts forward an illusion of all the characters – were they really like this and not as we were taught? Did they seriously do what they did? Did they have feelings like other mortals? Were they higher beings or not? The questions will always remain unanswered but one thing is for sure, this a book worth reading for all those who are willing to let go of preconceived notions about historic characters and embrace novelty.