Thursday 15 October 2020

Book Review of 'The Palace Of Illusions' by Chitra Divakaruni

Indian mythology has always held a fascination for us. It has largely contributed to the willing suspension of disbelief that we are accustomed to, while watching movies or reading stories. 

'The Palace Of Illusions' is a heady bildungsroman of multiple themes juxtaposed with myth and feminism.

The author's introduction in The Palace of Illusions describes that the story is based on Magical Realism. Though most readers have found the same genre difficult to synthesize in Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children', they have no such challenges while reading The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni. This is partly because it is a familiar story, having been part of the Indian psyche since generations. 

And yet, it is different. For the first time, we perceive the key events of the epic through the eyes of a woman - a woman who causes the infamous Kurukshetra war, and yet, has been relegated to a mere wife of the Pandavas, in the male-centric epic. 


It is refreshing to read a narrative with top-notch language and delicious vocabulary. In a reading world where authors are increasingly wary of using 'difficult' words to win over the simpleton readers (meaning lazy readers, who do not use the dictionary), Chitra Divakaruni has no qualms in penning in English that is as rich as is warranted by the epic. An old story is rendered more beloved, by the modernised, yet profuse and pristine enrichment of vocabulary.

Draupadi's life, chronicled from her birth, passing through every crucial stage of her life that changes the course of history, and finally her demise, and beyond, has been achieved with infinite finesse.  

Panchaali's voice, as the omniscient narrator, notices everything and leaves out nothing of importance. Her ironic narration is tinged with her own predominant feelings at any given point of time in the story.


One cannot touch upon all the themes of the retelling of greatest epic of the world. The novel however highlights a few key recurring motifs that the author has chosen to bring to focus in her recounting of the tale.

A perfunctory reading points out the chauvinism of the society in  general, and Paanchaali's father and husbands in particular. A careful reading, however, reveals the innumerable ironies that shape the life of women, till date. Be it a princess, queen or an ordinary woman, the female gender is invariably a toy in the hands of the men who surround her life. 

Draupadi's resentment at being sidelined by her father for her brother, is brought out right from the moment she steps out of the fire. Being named merely as Drupada's daughter, while her brother gets to be Dhrishtadhyumna sets the tone of the whole book. Yudhishtira's weakness and Kunti's manipulations of control over her sons are palpable. 

However, the story points out how even Kunti, Gandhari and all the other women are hapless victims of patriarchal maneuvers, irrespective of the social strata then are born in. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the point of view is Panchaali's attraction to Arjuna's enemy. It is as if some Karmic Justice is at play, wherein a woman, despite having five husbands finds this intriguing,  ill-fated, victimized man more attractive than the great Pandavas themselves.

The most endearing parts of the story are the episodes that involve Krishna. Panchaali's easy friendship with the divine manifestation of Lord Vishnu gives us an insight to the ancient folklore of the Vaishnavite Bhakti movement of India. 

Krishna's characterisation encapsulates the naughty, teasing buddy and the serious advisor; the omniscient companion and the absent presence; the protector-advisor and the guru, who preached the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna.

What does it mean to be a women in a patriarchal world? Does high birth and power ensure freedom from chauvinism? The story addresses these questions, and then some. Panchaali's comprehension of the world she lives in, and her enlightenment beyond the realms of perceived realities are highlighted in clear, contrasting narratives, before and after the Kurukshetra war.

Panchaali's envy of the other wives is cleverly juxtaposed with the power she still wields as the senior queen of the Pandavas.

The infamous court scene of Panchaali's shame and humiliation showcases the utter helplessness of a woman, despite being the wife of not one, but five most powerful men of the time. It brings out the irony of misplaced 'honour' and whitewashed priorities of the male psyche.

The scene where the exhausted Panchaali makes a conscious decision to use 'woman power' is high on irony. It is only when she stops to rest under a tree, with her feet stretched on the ground that the self-centred Arjuna realizes his duty as a new husband.

It brings home the truth that showing weakness at the right time and under the right circumstances is perhaps the greatest strength of a woman. Isn't this a great pointer for the woman of today who constantly strives to be a Superwoman, amidst endless commitments? 

Was Panchaali a good mother? Or a better wife? Was she a better wife because she accompanied her husbands to the forest instead of staying with her sons? The dilemma of having to choose between loved ones is not new to women.

But Panchaali's priorities are clear. Perhaps the helicopter mothers of the modern era have much to learn from the independence that Panchaali taught her sons. Then again, a healthy balancing of time does wonders to the parental relationship. The distinct foreboding that readers feel, when Panchaali decides to spend more time with her sons on the last night of the war is significant. Time, the great leveller, plays cruel games to highlight the loss that may come upon anyone, without warning or pity. There may never be second chances in life, especially not with motherhood. 

Death / Vengeance
No retelling of the greatest war of all time is possible without the shadow of death hanging over it at every turn of the page. The very circumstance of Panchaali's birth, along with her brother, reeks of vengeance, with sacrifice if required. Dhristadyumna is always aware of the destiny of revenge he was born to fulfill. 

The angst of death of loved ones like grandfather Bheeshma, Acharya Drona, Karna, and avengement with the perishing of enemies like Keechaka, Duryodhana, his brother Dushyasana and the other Kauravas is inevitably tinged with violence. Abhimanyu receives the due honour he deserves, with a poignant portrayal of his valiance. So do the deaths of Dhri, Panchaali's companion and brother. The untimely, ruthless loss of all her sons leaves a bitter taste in our psyche. 


The main storyline sticks to the events that brought about the Kurukshetra war. However, the intricate weaving of metafiction, where Vyasa Maharshi dictates to Ganesha, and offers inner vision of the war to Vidura and Panchaali, reminds us of other ancient storytelling epics such as the Panchatantra or The Arabian Nights. 

However, there are the two main reasons why this novel is different, although the story is a familiar one. 

Panchaali offers the woman's touch, as a daughter, princess, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, friend, and finally, a mother. 

Further, the most well-known events of the Mahabharata may be read as new ones altogether. This is not because they have changed, but because the woman's point of view is entirely fresh and enlightening. 

Another interesting aspect is how Panchaali keeps trying to consciously match, and come to terms with her prophesied destiny. Her innocence when she finds disparity in her life and her comprehension, bred of painful experiences is juxtaposed with acute finesse.

Risking a spoiler, I admit to have found Bheema and Karna to be real men of substance in the tale, despite the general consensus awarded to Arjuna or Yudhistira in various retellings of the epic. This is perhaps the author's conscious intention - to highlight the nuances of the generally undermined, but crucial characters (including Draupadi).


To conclude, Panchaali's narration of the epic is a must-read. I rate it 4.8 out of 5. 

Extra points are awarded for sheer initiative and drive to bring the sidelined woman into focus, in one of the greatest epics of Indian history.

Hope my review encourages you to pick up the book, if you haven't already.

Leave your comments in the section below. Happy reading and stay safe, readers. 


Book photo: Chethana Ramesh

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