Recently I got my hands on this masterpiece by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and was quickly branded feminist by some of my colleagues as the package arrived at work from Flipkart and I explained the theme of the book that had piqued my interest in the first place. Riding on the wave of the deconstruction of our oldest mythological tales and epics is The Palace of Illusions, the story of Mahabharata as told by Draupadi- the Queen of Queens, the woman married five times over to the five sons of Kunti, the Pandavas. Obviously, since the Mahabharata has been handed down to us through generations and brought to us in popular culture from an essentially male perspective, where women were either shown as characters to be avenged, sympathized with or gambled in a game of dice, Divakaruni’s tale is a hit from the maiden chapter as the ambitious Draupadi is growing up in the confines of her powerful father, possessed and driven by revenge alone. She yearns for and fantasies about living her destiny and life outside her father’s fortress, a palace of her own and a loving husband- dreams of an ordinary girl, spinning her own palace of illusions. The book then slowly, like the slant and soft power of a woman shatters the illusions of a naive Draupadi one brick at a time.
Devkaruni gives voice to the woman who had a crucial role to play in shaping the course of the greatest tale of our continent but not before carrying us through her journey from an ordinary woman of desires harboring a secret and possibly only true love for an unsung hero she could have never had. What is most fascinating is the author’s touching upon the life of a princess with the concerns of a run-of-the-mill marital life-power struggles with her mother-in-law, craving love of the only husband who had rightfully won her, but never truly loved her or jealousy over her husbands taking other wives. The book zooms into the loneliness of the woman with five husbands who were only truly married to a life of duty, leaving her no real companion but her place in history.
What is most refreshing is that the tale is relieved from the responsibility of narrating all the facts or establishing good vs. evil (that the Mahabharata is fundamentally referenced for), as the characters of the Pandava brothers take a back seat, while the more intriguing human sides of the supporting casts are brought to life and how! Thus you soak in easily, the casual tone in which the author narrates her chosen sub-plots picked carefully out of the vast ocean of knowledge and lessons that are rife in the original story by Vyasa.
If you haven’t yet, pick this one up and you won’t regret it. I suspect that you would be as drawn into the drum-roll towards the biggest battle in history, empathizing with Paanchali (as Draupadi is also known as), ignoring the Black-and-White world of the Pandavas, and just like the protagonist falling deeply in love with the enigmatic and unfortunate Karna.