Title: The Palace of Illusions
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Mahabharata is not only one of the two most revered Indian epics but it is also a magnificent piece of story-telling. It is a vast ensemble of characters, countless re-births, karmic contracts and the part-mythical-part-factual lores, everything impressively weaved into the story to bring you closer to spiritual awakening. It is ancient, sacred and stamped by hundreds of gargantuan Gods.
Now imagine rewriting it.
Chitra Banerjee Diwakaruni is one of the most flawless writers and scene-painters there are, but even for her, the task must have been monumental. Divakaruni not only rewrites the epic story with her ‘sensible-flamboyant’ signature writing style, but she also employs the harder task of zooming out the men and zooming in on the women. She goes behind the heavy veils of patriarchal setting to comprehend a woman entangled in a man’s world, where children (boys and girls) are told of their fate probably at their first breast feed.
The author crafts a delightful narrative that you immediately connect with and find relatable in today’s world. The striking observations about the incomprehensible desires, ideas of first love, curiosity, and lost identity crisis make this novel so endearing to read. When you read the book, Draupadi becomes like the girl next door, who is going through life stuff; parental pressure, half eluded love, the annoying back and forth between rags and riches and oh, a mother-in-law. Although she isn’t my most favorite heroine, she has certainly earned my respect after reading this book. As the novel moves forward, the paradigms of jealousy, shallowness, vengeance and even that oscillating sense of duty will find an all-knowing heart tug in you.
The Draupadi-Karna tangent maybe debatable but it is the now one of my favorite love stories. The quintessential charm of an emotionally distant man, who is strong, silent and sensitive. Fire it up with a pretense of a hatred and you have a story burning on your tongue for centuries. Who knew the original Mr. Darcy was born in India. Haha! If you too have a thing for unrequited love stories, you will be completely swept off your feet with this beautifully restrained love yarn intricately knitted into the novel.
It takes a writer of Divakaruni’s intensity to unfurl a complex relationship between Krishna and Draupadi, bringing it to the humdrum of daily life yet keeping the divineness intact. As you become one with the Draupadi’s naked emotions, the spiritual lesson behind Mahabharata comes to you effortlessly.
My most favorite scene is the one in the end where she lies in the snow, near death, visited by those who have preceded her in death, all of them content with their roles. She meets Krishna, finds answers and overwhelming forgiveness for her own role in this great drama. Panchaali dies in the end to become who she truly was, “uncontainable”.
The Palace of Illusions is an engrossing and reflective read – painting Mahabharata in a relatively contemporary light. It is equal part ferocious and equal part unhurried, just at the right curves, to create a dazzling experience for spiritual learners as well as story lovers.
As much I enjoyed the fast pace story, I wished the chapters on the disrobing of Draupadi and later when she ties her hair again with Dussasana’s blood were more detailed. This is what I wanted to devour every bit of, but was disappointed not to find much on.
I am keeping this book on my top shelf.
Stars: 4 out of 5