How can you tell an ancient story in new light? And how can you tell it to a generation, who as children have literally grown up with this story, and as adults will have high expectations of it?
Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni has the answer in The Palace of Illusions.
The story of Mahabharata is nothing new to me. A kingdom greater than any – cousins fighting for the throne – sacrifices, promises, boons, curses – war – bereavement – atonement. An epic. The Mahabharata is an elaborate story, which can be perceived from any character’s point-of-view and still have a rich storytelling experience. So, why not tell in from a woman’s perspective?
While I was growing up, Mahabharata was always about the virtues of the brave men who went to war. There wasn’t one story about what it was to be a woman during those epic times. This book is the wonderful tale of the woman who was the cornerstone of Mahabharata. Told in first person, this tale takes us to the depth of Draupadi’s soul and shows us her views as the events of the great epic unfurl.
THE MODERN DRAUPADI
The best part about The Palace of Illusions was that, as a modern woman, I felt very connected to Draupadi. How Chitra ji manages to walk the fine line between the old and new interpretations of the character of a ‘strong woman’ is beyond me!
The author mixes the right amount of fiction into the archaic tale without taking away its original flavor. I mean, I have never heard of Draupadi’s love story in the original. The new Draupati falls in love with Karna when she sees him at her Swayamvar. Her love for him is only intensified after her marriage and she yearns for him all her life. Here’s why I think it might be true: a woman with high ambitions would see Karna as an achiever. She would find him capable and deserving of her love not only because he is wise, brave and handsome but also because he would respect her and treat her like the Queen she is. So, despite her fate, every time she sees him her heart gives a jolt. He was her one true love, until the end. Draupadi is a fire born princess with lofty goals for her life. Sadly, none of them come true when she married the Pandavas. It is only fair that she keep thinking of where things went wrong for her and wondering if she married the right guy(s).
Draupadi’s love story arc comes as a surprise because I have never imagined this possibility before! I just assumed that Draupadi accepted her life and marriage with satisfaction. The version that we have all been given has been avoiding a crucial detail about her character – Draupadi is a woman driven by resentment and regret of her own choices. How could she be happy in that miserable married life? Have we been painting Draupadi as a meek martyr when she clearly was much more?
It was a new take on Panchaali and I think it fits her perfectly. Brilliant interpretation Chitra ji! It might or might not be true. I don’t know if other interpretations tell the story the same way, but you have convinced me of your interpretation so beautifully, that now I begin to wonder if your version is the original version and if the truth somehow got diluted in the million re-tellings.
DRAUPADI – A CHARACTER SKETCH
Where do I begin? Wow.
Never have I ever read a story with a POV with such strong intentions and inner monologue. The story in The Palace of Illusions is the story of Draupadi from birth to death. She was a woman beyond her times. She was headstrong, intelligent, virtuous (in her own way), ambitious, proud and was a feminist believing that the place of a woman is not just in the back of the palace, but right next to her royal husband.
Emotionally, we see the bitterness that shapes up Panchaali from the start. We see her angry, we see her withdraw, we see her contemplate, we see her lash out in blind fury, we see her curious, we see her loving. As the story progresses, the insight into Panchaali’s inner doubts and fears become much our own. We see the princess who felt like a misfit at her own dad’s place but eventually found a home in The Palace of Illusions. My heart goes out to her.
Panchaali’s story is that of a woman so blindly confident of her unique destiny that she brought about her own misfortunes. Her pride fell. And then, she grew, learnt humility, kindness, surrender and acceptance. She grew to find a woman’s power in her. She grew to identify her devotion to Krishna, and her love for him which is beyond body and mind.
I admit it. Usually when I think of Draupati, I only think of her shame and her terrible fate at the hands of Dushasha. I was so wrong. I hadn’t given her much credit. Understanding Draupadi’s background and her character was a privilege. It was amazing. I understood the bottled-up rage and fury against her husbands, the shame that befell the pride of the Queen of the Pandavas and the surrender that sparked from desperation and her love and devotion to Krishna.
Understanding Draupadi’s background and her character was a privilege. It was amazing to fill in the emotional blanks that I had of Mahabharata when it comes to Draupadi.
Throughout the story we see other women of her age – Sudheshana, Banumati, Subadra, Uttara. None of them even compare to her. None of them even come close to The Fire Princess! Not even Kunti, who after a point accepts that it isn’t her place to rule over what the Panchali says. And that is the most inspiring part of Panchaali’s story for me.
CHITRA’S WONDERFUL STORYTELLING
The author/poet has a way with words. Her words flow like honey and read like a poem. I was completely in love with her words while reading the book.
Chitra ji’s art of storytelling comes out in the most unlikely places. Her idea to interpret Mahabharata from a new perspective is seen even in short snippets. For instance, we all know the part where Arjun and Duryodhan ask Krishna to join them in the war. In this story, this incident is told from Duryodhan’s point of view, meaning we are privy to his arrogance and utter confidence in his victory, in contrast to the third-person, moralistic tale we have been hearing so far.
While telling a tale of this magnificent scale it’s impossible to avoid villains. Sometimes, flawed characters need to remain flawed. Chitra ji’s story had the compulsive need to seek goodness in flawed characters, and that felt far-fetched. It is okay for the characters to have chinks in their armors. I felt that the reasons the author gives to justify them were mere excuses. I just feel that when writing POV, it’s okay not to idolize everyone.
Chitra ji brings out the chemistry between Panchaali and Kunti (the original Saas Bahu drama!) in a few entertaining pages. She has an ease of telling didactic incidents with a funny twist. She just told a convincing Mahabharata in less than 400 pages. I admire that. Well done!
1) A fresh viewpoint
3) Unapologetically human
4) Short, quick chapters
5) One-word chapter names (I love one-word chapter names)
6) Stays true to the original Mahabharata
1) Difficult to read as a Mahabharata virgin. Should be familiar with the original story.
2) Glorifies almost everyone
The Palace of Illusions insures a place for Mahabharata in the modern bookshelf by baring a story that is incredibly true to humanity and intensely inspiring.
For graphic novel lovers, find a similarly intense (but not quite there) Draupadi: The Fire Born Princess