The basic plot very simply is the story of the five Pandava brothers who go up against their 100 Kaurava cousins to win back their kingdom of Hastinapur, with the divine intervention of one of the most popular reincarnations of Lord Vishnu, Krishna. Along the way Lord Krishna recites the 700- verse Bhagavad Gita which is often described as “a concise guide to Hindu Philosophy”.
Though she was destined to change the course of history, even as she arose from the sacred fire and smoke, Draupadi, one of the main characters in this tale and the wife of the five Pandava brothers, is traditionally left playing a supporting character role. What Chitra Divakaruni has done in her latest novel “Palace of Illusions” is to skillfully narrate this story from Draupadi’s point of view, and more significantly a woman’s perspective.
“When I was fourteen, I gathered up enough courage to ask Krishna if he thought that a princess afflicted with a skin so dark that people termed it blue was capable of changing history. He smiled. That was how he often answered my questions, with an enigmatic smile that forced me to do my own thinking. But this time he must have sensed my confused distress, for he added a few words. A problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself.”
With this lyrical interpretation of the Mahabharath, she transports us back to a time that is part history, semi myth, and altogether enchanting. From princess Draupadi’s magical birth, to her rebellious girlhood and the portentous forecast made by a sorceress, to her swayamvar, which would win her, her five powerful husbands, the Mahabharath is a fantastic story which takes us through one of the most devastating wars of all times.
“As you see, the sorceress said, “women contribute to the worlds problems in a hundred insidious ways. And you, who will be more powerful than most, could wreak greater havoc if you aren’t careful. I’ve taught you some better alternatives - if only you can keep them in mind and not get swept away by passion.”After living in a small grass hut with her husbands, who are in exile at the time of her wedding, and then moving into one of the most magnificent and sought after palaces ever built, Draupadi and the Pandavas are then forced back into exile after Yudhishthir, the oldest of the five brothers loses everything in a game of dice.
Panchaali, a name that has been given to Draupadi after her wedding, is humiliated in a court where the Kaurava brothers disrobe her. Panchaali’s wrath is instrumental in bringing about the Mahabharath war where a great many lives are lost and families and cities are obliterated.
“Vyasa writes: “As the two flames coursed along the sky, oceans began to dry up and mountains to crumble. Men and beasts screamed their terror, for the fabric of the world was about to be ripped apart. Watching from the edge of the tale, I was forced to intervene, though that is not my preference. I stepped out between the flames and raised my hands. By the power of my penances, for a moment the astras were rendered immobile. I chided the two warriors for forgetting themselves and their responsibilities toward the earth-goddess. I demanded that they recall their weapons.”The war is interpreted from Darupadi’s perspective as well. This unusual version throws light upon the women of royalty and their role during the war, which is often overlooked.
Draupadi’s character also has many shortcomings including her short temper, a manipulative sentiment, and a haughty temperament. A surprise element is her attraction for a mysterious enemy prince, whose identity is revealed later on in the story.
Traditionally many perceive Draupadi’s character as one of a villainess, but Chitra Divakaruni has deliberately and masterfully crafted Draupadi’s character as one that deserves tremendous empathy and compassion.
Divakaruni, with her expressive prose, has succeeded in rewriting this story of the enmity between two sets of cousins, into the story of a woman who changed history.
Sub-plots and new characters are sometimes left hanging, and could have used more storytelling to flow better from one scene to the other. It almost seems like the author was worried about the number of pages in the novel, and cut short some of the more important stories in this saga. In this particular case, more would have been better than less.
A strength of this novel, is the profound thinking that is woven into the main story.
“Duryodhan’s last words to Yudhishthir echoed in my ears: I’m going to heaven to enjoy all it’s pleasures with my friends. You’ll rule a kingdom peopled with widows and orphans and wake each morning to the grief of loss. Who’s the real winner, then, and who the loser?”
Advise arising directly from the presence of Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita add value and depth to this setting, and are interwoven cleverly into the dialogs and scenes.
“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.”
The Palace of Illusions is a gripping, entertaining, invigorating and stimulating novel, one that transcends genres. This is one of Divakaruni’s best works yet.
Book Description: Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to the time of the Indian epic The Mahabharat—a time that is half-history, half-myth, and wholly magical. Through her narrator Panchaali, the wife of the legendary five Pandavas brothers, Divakaruni gives us a rare feminist interpretation of an epic story.
The novel traces Panchaali’s life, beginning with her magical birth in fire as the daughter of a king before following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at the brothers’ sides through years of exile and a terrible civil war. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her stratagems to take over control of her household from her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husband’s most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female voice in a world of warriors, gods, and ever-manipulating hands of fate.
More about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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