The Palace of Illusions

The Palace of Illusions: A Novel
The Palace of Illusions: A Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
(The Palace Of Illusions from Flipkart.com, my user review on Amazon.com)
5 stars
Illusions - material and emotional. Divine birth, yet human frailty and failings. 
Draupadi is one of the pivotal figures in the Mahabharata. She is also one of the least written-about figures in the Mahabharata. The valor of Arjuna, the righteousness of Yudhishtra, the strength of Bheema, the cunning of Shakuni, the sacrifice of Ekalavya, the tragedy of Karna - we all know about and much has been written about these characters. But Draupadi, the woman with five husbands, the woman who would not tie her hair till they were washed with the blood of Dusshasana? What about her? This book tells Draupadi's story, in Draupadi's words, through Draupadi's eyes. This book is thus also a retelling of the Mahabharata, partly so, as seen through Panchali's eyes.

It is a strikingly successful effort on all counts. The writing is very engaging, the pace never slackens, and even though you know the story and how it will end even before you start the book, it still holds your attention and keeps you turning the pages. You look forward to the author's interpretation of events - like Draupadi's swyamwar, or her meeting Kunti after Arjuna has won the swyamwar, or the dreaded disrobing at the hall of Hastinapur, or even her meetings with the sage Vyasa.

Despite some shortcomings, I consider this a worthy addition to the recent works on the Mahabharata.

The book's title, "The Palace of Illusions", refers to the Pandavas' palace at Indraprastha, built by the asura architect Maya. The palace where Draupadi felt secure, and safe. Which turned out to be an illusion. This is also the palace that so angered the Kauravas, where Duryodhana was insulted by Draupadi, setting in motion events that would culminate in the eighteen terrible days on the dusty battlefield of Kurukshetra thirteen years later.

I have a few observations worth pointing out about some of the pivotal relationships between the central characters.

The relationship between Draupadi and Krishna is dwelt upon. That Krishna played a key role in Draupadi's swaymwar has been written about. Why he had Draupadi choose Arjuna, and not Karna, is never quite revealed. Which is just as well. The Mahabharata does not dwell on the issue, leaving it as an exercise for philosophers and the lay public alike to wonder about. While Krishna is generally portrayed in texts as having left behind his flute and his playful attitude in Vrindavan and Gokul, this book portrays Krishna as having kept some of his playfulness with him, even as he navigated the tortuous paths of the Kuru clan, towards the finale on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

The relationship between Draupadi and her mother-in-law, Kunti, could not have been simple or straightforward. That Kunti had Draupadi share herself among five husbands would not have gone down well with Draupadi. The tension between the two women forms an important thread through the narrative of this book.

Draupadi and her brother, Dhrishtadhyumna, were both born out of a holy fire, a yagya, performed by their father Drupada, to avenge his insult at the hands of the Kuru guru, Drona. The yagya is also metaphorical for the fire of revenge that burned inside Drupada over the years. Both brother and sister had a divine purpose.  This purpose also served to act as a bond between them. Brother and sister shared a deep bond of love and caring. This is yet another important thread that runs through the book.

The story of Shikhandi, one of the most mysterious figures in the Mahabharata, also figures in the narrative. He was a brother to Draupadi. Born a woman who turned into a man by the time he was grown up. Born, like so many other characters in the Mahabharata, for a reason. His being a rebirth of Amba, born to avenge her insult in a previous birth, at the hands of Bheeshma.

Among all the elders at Hastinapur, it is with the grandsire Bheeshma, Ganga-putra Devavrata, that Draupadi feels most comfortable with. It is a tragedy that the grandsire lets her down on that tragic day in the royal hall. One more tragedy in the long list of tragedies that dots the epic.

The disrobing of Draupadi, at the hands of her brother-in-law, her "devar", is possibly the most pivotal moment in the entire Mahabharata. This is the shameful episode that put the seal of finality on the fate of the entire Kuru clan. This "cheer-haran" episode has been written about by philosophers, by people debating ethics, morality, and more, and even by feminists arguing on both sides of the fence, so to say. However, in the book, this episode is hurried through. In less than three pages or so, the author is done with it. Inexplicable. The insult at the hands of the Kauravas, and at the hands of Karna, is what fueled the anger of the Pandavas for thirteen long years. But the author is somewhat reticent to dwell on those events. Maybe the sheer ugliness of this act actually repels the author. Or maybe because so much has been written about it there is nothing really to be gained by spilling more ink on it.

Finally, Karna. The one truly tragic figure in the Mahabharata who suffered a raw deal at the hands of everyone in his life. From birth to death. Honest in his life. Cheated by everyone. The eldest Pandava. Denied his lineage, abandoned by his mother, taunted by his brothers, cursed by his guru, insulted by the woman who should have been his wife, and cheated even on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. In Devdutt Pattnaik's retelling of the Mahabharata - Jaya (see my blog post), Draupadi admits to being secretly in love with Karna, and knows and believes that a husband like Karna would not have gambled her away in a game of dice like Yudhishtra did, and would not have allowed her to be shared among four brothers, like Arjuna did. Yet it was Draupadi who refused to let Karna participate in her swaymwar by calling into question his birth. Karna returned the insult by calling her a vaishya in the Kuru hall. Yet, this relationship that never was, is the longest and deepest thread that runs through the book.

To add one point of contention: in the epic, or at least in all the translations and re-renderings I have come across, it is Draupadi who laughs and remarks, "the blind's son is also blind" (andhe ka andha - अंधे का अँधा), when Duryodhana falls into a pool of water at Indraprastha. In the author's rendering, it is a maid that says this, with Draupadi admonishing the maid. Seemingly minor, but I think totally uncalled for. Drauapdi does not become a lesser or greater person for this failing. 

While at a couple of occasions the narrative turns a bit too much like a Mills and Boon romantic tale of unrequited love, this angst ridden relationship is indeed what forms the backbone of this book.

There are some reviews that describe the Mahabharata as a male-oriented tale. While that may be true from some points of view, it is wrong to paint it as being entirely male-dominated. There are innumerable instances where the female protagonists play pivotal roles in the epic. Draupadi is one for instance. Gandhari, the Kaurava mother is another: by refusing to bless her son with victory during the battle in Kurukshetra, she deprives Duryodhana of victory over his cousins. Amba, who vows to kill Bheeshma, is reborn as Shikhandi, and fulfills that vow on the tenth day day of battle. And so on...

Some other posts on the holy town of Kurukshetra from my blog:
Book Resources



 

Kindle Excerpt:


Footnote:
I could not get my review to post on Amazon.com. I kept making edits and I kept getting an automated response from Amazon.com that said, "...Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form..." I took out words like "disrobing", "blood", "cursed", etc... but to no avail. I finally truncated the review as much as I could. This below, is the version of  the review that finally made it to Amazon.com, though I really can't imagine how you can write about Draupadi and the Mahabharata without using these words, which are really quite germane to the text.

Draupadi is one of the pivotal figures in the Mahabharata. She is also one of the least written-about figures in the Mahabharata. The valor of Arjuna, the righteousness of Yudhishtra, the strength of Bheema, the cunning of Shakuni, the sacrifice of Ekalavya, the tragedy of Karna - we all know about and much has been written about these characters. But Draupadi? This book tells Draupadi's story, in Draupadi's words, through Draupadi's eyes. This book is thus also a retelling of the Mahabharata, partly so, as seen through Panchali's eyes.

It is a strikingly successful effort on all counts. The writing is very engaging, the pace never slackens, and even though you know the story and how it will end even before you start the book, it still holds your attention and keeps you turning the pages. You look forward to the author's interpretation of events and her take on the complex relationships between the characters in the book.

Despite some shortcomings, I consider this a worthy addition to the recent works on the Mahabharata.

The book's title, "The Palace of Illusions", refers to the Pandavas' palace at Indraprastha, built by the architect Maya. The palace where Draupadi felt secure, and safe. Which turned out to be an illusion. This is also the palace that so angered the Kauravas, and Duryodhana, setting in motion events that would culminate in the eighteen terrible days on the dusty battlefield of Kurukshetra thirteen years later.


© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.