Book Review: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

17 Jun

Genre: Historical fiction

Publisher: Picador India

Pub date: 2008

Source: Personal copy

Panchaali or Draupadi as she was better known tells the Mahabharata from her point of view. The women in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata always had secondary roles to play. The ones who had larger roles to play invariably became the cause of destruction or downfall (like Helen of Troy). The Palace of Illusions attempts to give the strong women in this epic a voice.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are Hindu epics that most Indians of my generation will be familiar with no matter their religious leanings. Made incredibly famous by Ramanand Sagar’s TV series, they had the power that IPL matches demand today – the streets would empty and the whole family would be glued to the TV sets. It was those memories that made me enthusiastic about this story and I had high expectations from it.

The Mahabharata is the story of the Pandavas (5 brothers and their wife Panchaali) and Kauravas (100 brothers) – cousins who were constantly fighting for the throne. This rivalry leads to the great war at Kurukshetra where thousands lost their lives. In simple versions of the story, the Pandavas are good and righteous and the Kaurava brothers evil. But digging even a little beneath the surface will show that good and evil are not so simple and can change depending on the story teller. The Palace of Illusions does go deep enough to show both sides of both factions. The story itself is too vast and convoluted to discuss, so I’ll try and keep it about this version. The Palace of Illusions refers to the beautiful palace that the five brothers built and the only place where Panchaali felt at home. It also refers to the Hindu concept of Maya.

For those who are not familiar with the story, the language and style make the story approachable, the prose is lyrical and beautifully descriptive and I enjoyed the story. But I didn’t read this book for just another telling of the Mahabharata. What I was looking for was for a woman’s point of view and Panchaali’s role in this great war. But there I fear it falls short. While she is brutally honest about her shortcomings and her part in bringing about this war, I didn’t feel much sympathy for her.  She comes across as whiny, selfish and sometimes very silly, bent on petty revenge. But here karma plays a role. In this telling, Draupadi and her brother Dhri were born out of their father’s desire for revenge, their raison d’etre. Panchaali was armed with foreknowledge – she knew that she would be the cause of great destruction but could do little to change the course of all their lives.

The Palace of Illusions also explores Panchaali’s lifelong secret attraction for Karna – an enemy of the Pandavas. An interesting angle since Karna is a favourite sympathetic character, but I felt the execution did not do it justice.

I think part of the problem is the first person narrative. (You might have noticed this bug bear of mine) I think very few first person narratives work and in this case it doesn’t let Panchaali redeem herself or even create enough sympathy for her plight and thwarted desires.

Not a bad starting place for someone who is not familiar with this great Indian epic. But if you’re looking for a fresh new look at the story or the characters, I don’t think you’ll be satisfied.

Rating: 3.75*

*See my Rating policy

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3 Responses to “Book Review: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni”

  1. nadia June 21, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    I bought a hardbound copy of this book last year, and have read it thrice already! I wasn’t familiar with the Mahabharata, so the contents of this book was new to me. I love Divakaruni’s writing style!


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