In a male-dominated society, it is not very often that we see a story being told from a female point of view, especially an epic such as the Mahabharata, which has appealed to a wide range of people over the years. Maybe this was the inspiration for Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni to write The Palace of Illusions which is a retelling
of one of the greatest Indian epics, the Mahabharata, but not the same way as we are used to reading it, this time all the action unfurls before us from Draupadi’s (Panchaali’s) point of view.
Many of us must already be aware of the basic storyline but for those who are not, it is a story of two branches of a family, the Pandavas and Kauravas, who fight in the great war of Kurukshetra to win the throne of Hastinapur.
The Mahabharata, over the years, has become a household tale, at least in India, where almost every young boy or girl is told of Yudhishthira’s righteousness, Arjun’s bravery, Duryodhan’s evilness, and the cause of the great war at Kurukshetra: Draupadi. I was first introduced to this fascinating world by my grandmother when I was just five years old so you can imagine…
The world believes that it was only because of Draupadi’s curse that the Great War happened, I was interested in knowing what would be Draupadi’s own opinion about it and it was fascinating to see that even she blamed herself for the war but it was Vyasa, who at a crucial moment comes and tells her, ‘The seeds for this war had been sown way before you [Draupadi] were even born, she just played a part in it.’ which in my opinion was correct but Draupadi is not interested in forgiving herself.
Divakaruni has chosen Draupadi to be the narrator of the story and I really liked how relatable our protagonist was. She is a person who thinks of the future most of the time, she questions the age-old traditions of polygamy and more than anything else she behaves like any other girl her age in the present, like once she says, “When inside me a voice whispered, Karna would never have let you down like this, I did not hush it.”
She refers to the palace that she along with her husbands built-in Indra Prastha as my palace instead of our palace, which shows what change has she come across when her husbands are at the peak of their power (again a relatable trait, isn’t it?).
The Palace of Illusions sets a wonderful example of how things change when seen from a different perspective, what you thought earlier to be the lock now looks like the key, the person who was earlier the culprit is now the victim.
But still, I had a few minor concerns with the book, one of them being, how the story stumbles a little during the episode of Draupadi’s marriage and a few events after that when Divakaruni chooses to change her writing style, here, where she narrates a major event and then goes back to narrate the events leading up to that. This comes all of a sudden and then just fades away which in a way breaks the flow, though it doesn’t last for too long.
Also, I was expecting there to be rough timelines, if not very exact timelines. I was interested in know at what age certain events happened in Draupadi’s life but was left unsatisfied.
I had thought the story would be more about Draupadi and Arjun’s relationship but was later very intrigued to find that Divakaruni was more interesting in Draupadi’s equation with Karna, and it turned out very well.
But more than anything else it is the magic of The Palace of Illusions that leaves you spellbound and makes you wonder how Draupadi’s world was. And the conversation she has with Krishna during the last few pages of the book encourages you to appreciate the beauty of the magic even more.
The book answers many questions and also leaves you to ponder upon some questions, the ones I had were: What is the whole point of war? (Maybe a childish question but I don’t have the answer to this), Can your dharma be altered? And most importantly, What is evil?
That’s one thing I really liked about the book because these questions will keep coming back to you until you’ve found the answers to these, but the funny thing is, there’s no one answer! So till the day I die, I would be trying to unravel these mysteries (a challenging task, isn’t it?).
So, you should have no second thoughts while wondering what you’re going to read next, pick this book up and trust me you’ll be charmed by its magic.
I’m going with 4 stars out of 5.