The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni | A Book Review

Pix Courtesy : The Hindu

(Originally published in the Indian Blog World in their October 2009 edition)

Very few people would name their daughters Draupadi. Draupadi, the dark skinned, doe-eyed beauty with flowing hair has always been bad news in the bastion of mythology. After all, she was born with a natal chart that said she would change history. And she did it, being our own Helen of Troy, or Cleopatra, perhaps?

She wanted to marry one guy, got married to another, and then eventually had to live with the entire clan of brothers. It was for her that the Great War of Mahabharata was fought. And it almost wiped out two families, including her own one; all for her beauty, and all because of her arrogance. Or that is what the interpreters say and it goes down into mind-sets too in our households. I remember my grandmother admonishing me when I go round with open hair, ‘Tie that up at once, you Panchali!”

I had just completed my second read of Prathibha Rai’s novel ‘Draupadi’, of course in translation. And I have been Divakaruni’s fan ever since I read her cross-cultural and contemporary novels starting with ‘Arranged Marriage.’ I don’t know if the name of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni or the character Draupadi made me buy the novel ‘The Palace of Illusions’. Perhaps it is both?

Divakaruni weaves a fine tapestry of emotions and incidents in the book blending magic, fiction and myth.  I loved the way she handled Panchali’s relationship with Krishna. At once lover and friend in need to so many folks, he is the eternal essence of what a man ought to be. But one can’t say the same about the Pandavas. Perhaps that is intentional, colours shine by contrast too! The character of Draupadi is etched well with considerable skill, the negatives balanced neatly with the positives without alienating the reader at all. The portrayal of Draupadi as a woman comes across as sensitive; her inner wars between emotion and reason are fully justified in the retelling.

The story flows well, the interpretation she has of the Mahabharata is lyrical to the last word. We, as readers who are familiar with the epic are allowed to sustain the interest in reading on a story which we know by-heart by the feminist portrayal which the character Draupadi has been long-deserving. After all her fate was a mere toss in the hands of Gods, her men and the stars.

But I wonder why she rushes through important scenes in some places? Divakaruni has made a fair attempt at the mythological angle. But a number of minor characters have no role to play. They should be in here ideally because they have a role, or at least as backdrops in a vast canvas and not because they are in the Mahabharata anyway. Plus, the ending falls flat was my impression. I read breathlessly through and was so disappointed when she went on describing the war over several pages. Perhaps if she had mentioned the effects from the POV of the household of the men who fell over the days of the war, it would have been more readable.

On the whole, an interesting read, I would say. You can read an extract on the Amazon page. The book is published by Picador in India and priced at Rs.395/ although the book selling sites have lower special rates on offer.

Novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni visits Google’s Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss her book, “The Palace of Illusions.” This event took place on March 6, 2009, as part of the Authors@Google series.


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