All About The Palace of Illusions (2008)
“You will be remembered for causing the greatest war of your time.” – “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Can you guess which war she is talking about? You might need the next hint.
“Wait for a man to avenge your honor, and you’ll wait forever.” – “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
A woman who spoke up for her honor in front of the large gathering when it was considered taboo to do so.
I assume by now you have guessed by linking these two elements, ‘the greatest war in history and ‘a call of woman for her honor’ that this is the story of Draupadi in the style of Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Draupadi is known to be the reason for the ‘War of The Mahabharata,’ as most of us have been told from generations. The plight of women’s suffering now and in that era is not hidden.
The male-centered Epic of The Mahabharata gives an account of every tiny thing but a woman’s inner thoughts and feelings and mainly of Draupadi being the central character, though ironically.
That insight has been perfectly shown by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in her 2008 novel “The Palace of Illusions.”
Chitra has done justice to the character of Draupadi from The Mahabharata in her female-centric novel, in which she has shown how the fate of her heroine takes a turn from her palace of illusions.
Let’s take a brief tour of “The Palace of Illusions.”
This book retells the story of the Indian epic The Mahabharat from the point of view of one of its vital characters, the queen of Panchal and a victim of the ever manipulating hands of fate, Draupadi, also called Panchali.
In all its majestic description, The Palace of Illusions binds the reader with its tale of a fierce yet loyal heroine who portrays her real avatar than that proclaimed by others.
The story revolves around the life account of Panchali and reveals the findings of her inner world.
Also, about how she ended up growing a secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy.
A story that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical, and the main attraction of this book is her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, who has a crucial role to play in her life.
Think about the title- The Palace of Illusions
The title, The Palace of Illusions, has a mythical story behind it. It goes like when Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapur, gave Pandavas their equal share of the property, and it turned out to be barren land called ‘Khandavaprastha.’
Then a demon Mayasur the ‘architect of the demons’ residing in that land, makes them an illusive palace with flawless architectural abilities.
That palace became the reason for the events unfolding later in Panchali’s life.
Duryodhana visits the palace to see how Pandavas live and becomes the reason for Panchali and her maids’ mockery of slipping into an illusionary pool and vows revenge from Panchali.
Thus, the palace, which is the title, is apt because it becomes the center of the protagonist’s destiny.
Is the story of “The Palace of Illusions” real?
Well, the author pointed it out to be half historical and half-mythical. The storyline is original, and all the main actions are too.
But the character of Panchali (which has not been pointed out in the epic as her character was not centric, ironically) is the result of the author’s imagination.
Chitra has seamlessly summed up the loose details of the epic she has taken, with thoughts and inner details created by her to tell the novel’s story in just 360 words.
Suggested: 50 Incredible Must-Read Indian Stories
A bit about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
A woman born in Kolkata, India, and later on moved to America for studies, currently residing there as a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the best-selling and award-winning author of many books. Besides, she is a poet and activist too.
Her work includes books like “Sister of My Heart,” “The Mistress of Spices,” Queen of Dreams, and a collection of short stories “Arranged Marriage,” among others.
“Sister of My Heart” and “The Mistress of Spices” have been turned into movies.
In an interview with The Times of India, Chitra says about The Palace of Illusions –
“My most challenging novel was The Palace of Illusions. I had to do a lot of research on the Mahabharata to write this novel, which retold the original story from the point of view of Draupadi.”
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni believes that Panchali is a timeless character and relates with all the women. The Mahabharata epic is the timely narrative that resonates with today’s burning concerns of war and bloodshed.
Those were the reasons for depicting the heroine’s story of the Indian epic: The Mahabharat from her perspective.
Another reason the author states in the CII-IWN meet’s virtual session is that she strongly feels the need to tell the women’s stories because men always occupy the center.
That’s why she chose women as the strong and central characters in her stories. Especially, The Palace of Illusions, which is based on the epic of the Mahabharat.
The Mahabharat and Draupadi
The story of thirteen years of exile and a terrible civil war, the story of kings and their kingdoms is what the epic Mahabharata is about.
The story of a rivalry between the two sets of cousins, the Kauravas, and the Pandavas, and their quest to reclaim their birthright through the years of exile.
So what’s the role of Draupadi here in this Indian epic, the Mahabharat?
On her birth, Draupadi had been told by the heavenly voice that she would change history, and even her birth resulted from her father’s vengeful motives.
Unknowingly, she became the target of the ever manipulating hands of destiny.
She married Arjuna in the famous Swayamvar and then to all the rest of the Pandavas on their mother Kunti’s unknowing wish.
All she could do was nothing but follow all her husbands through years of exile and stand by them in their quest to reclaim their birthright.
When the eldest Yudhishthira staked her in a poker game, she was the one who seemed to have no choice of her own.
On being humiliated in the court, she cursed the Kauravas and vowed to wash her hair from Duryodhana’s blood.
This humiliation and later on Kauravas’ refusal to give even the least share of land led to the war of the Mahabharata.
The Palace of Illusions – A Review
The book’s plot is said to be interesting, telling the story of a time that is half history, half myth by the author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Below is her views on recreating the story on the Mahabharata;
“Like many Indian children, I grew up on the vast, varied, and fascinating tales of the Mahabharat. Your childhood hunger is the one that never leaves you.”
She used to imagine what it would feel like to see the story from a female perspective. As it was not shown in the epic, she decided to use her imagination to make the character of Panchali come alive for all of us.
The birth of Panchali is an event that was not supposed to happen. She was born from the sacred fire thus, the chapter is named fire and later on the queen as well.
The author reinforces the idea of today’s women’s plight by showing that Panchali was an unwanted child.
As Panchali grows up, she is asked to learn all the arts that all the women of the kingdoms are supposed to learn, but she doesn’t seem to be interested.
“In the sixty-four arts that noble ladies must know. I was given lessons in singing, dancing, and playing music. (The lessons were painful, both for my teachers and me, for I was not musically inclined, nor deft on my feet.).” – says Panchali in The Palace of Illusions.
She wants to learn that her twin brother, who was born from the same fire, learns and acts rebellious when being discriminated against.
Through this, the author presents the rebellious nature of Panchali and the bias against women in general.
Relationship with Krishna
The book also emphasizes Panchali’s revolt uniquely when she questions God, which does not align with the traditional character of Panchali as shown in the Mahabharata.
It is where we see the creativity of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at play. Panchali’s relationship with Lord Krishna is different as she shares everything with him, asks his advice in need, and does not fear questioning him.
Panchali was revolutionary as she was going to change ‘the course of history’ and Krishna, as the author puts it –
“But Krishna was a chameleon.”
That reveals her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna.
Moreover, as her savior, Krishna came to her rescue when she needed him the most, on her mistreatment in the court.
Secret attraction to the Mysterious man
Next comes the most intriguing point of the book where Panchali is shown to have a secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni clarifies that she read many versions of the Mahabharata. In one Bengali version, she found a mythical story where Panchali confesses her secret attraction for the mysterious man.
But she didn’t include that story because it didn’t fit.
Although the love between the two is nowhere mentioned in the Indian epic; the Mahabharat, this became controversial.
The author Chitra Banerjee conveys, by her imagination, the free will of the protagonist, to whom she wants to love no matter whether she gets to marry him or not.
Proud VS Humble
In many versions, Panchali is shown as a proud woman who insults Karna in the Swayamvar by asking his lineage in the court to stop him from winning the contest.
But Chitra Banerjee showed the other motive of Panchali by portraying her caring for her brother, whose life would be in danger if Panchali had not stopped Karna by insulting him.
Panchali has to marry all the five Pandavas on Kunti’s wish. How she manages to balance her responsibility can be understood by the following excerpt from the book;
“To keep me chaste and foster harmony in the Pandava household, Vyasa designed a special code of marital conduct for us. I would be wife to each brother for a year at a time, from oldest to youngest, consecutively.”
In a postscript, he added that he would give me a boon to balance the one that had landed me with five spouses. Each time I went to a new brother, I’d be a virgin again.” – The Palace of Illusions.
Chitra Banerjee showed in the book how Panchali would feel while being the wife of one man then turns to the others.
Her inner thoughts, which were unconventional, have been recorded in this book to give justice to the character.
The Palace of Illusions most resonates with today’s world when Panchali is shown to feel jealous of the other wives of her husbands.
Although Panchali is all respectable towards them, but couldn’t help having human feelings.
In the book, Vyasa advises Panchali to do three things. First, not speak a word in her Swayamvar, but she does.
Second, not to laugh when needed, but she does laugh at Duryodhana when he visits the palace of illusions.
Third, not to curse anyone or do something in anger. So, according to Vyas, if she does any of these things, she will have to face the worst. Again she defies.
She is dragged to the court by her hair when Pandavas lost her in a game. She had been humiliated and insulted in front of the elders.
Chitra portrays her inner thoughts in the following words which she speaks in the court;
“What did I learn that day in the sabha?”
“All this time, I’d believed in my power over my husband. I’d believed that because they loved me, they would do anything for me. But now I saw that though they did love me—as much perhaps as any man can love—there were other things they loved more.
Their notions of honor, loyalty toward each other, of reputation were more important to them than my suffering. They would avenge me later, yes, but only when they felt the circumstances would bring them heroic fame.
A woman doesn’t think that way. I would have thrown myself forward to save them if it had been in my power that day.”
Those were her thoughts which Panchali would have spoken. By the palace of illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gives voice to Panchali.
Also, by cursing the Kauravas, Panchali shows by her rebellion that she is not a meek woman who would not stand for herself in the face of injustice.
Kauravas paid the price of humiliating a woman as the war of the Mahabharata ensued, destroying the Kauravas.
The Palace of Illusions in Present Context
Although there is no palace of illusion built by any demon and can change a woman’s destiny, the story of this book has something to convey.
It has relevance in this era. That’s why Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni chose it to be the story of her novel with a twist – from the point of view of the main character of the Mahabharata, Panchali.
Panchali was at the center of the epic, and her birth was not natural. Her marriage was not natural, so was her fate; everything seemed to revolve around her.
Regardless, the irony is that she had no control over her fate. She was considered the reason for the Mahabharat war and seen as a proud woman.
This resonates with the current situation of women. They give birth, nurture, and suffer, but they are considered the reason for every problem.
A girl child seems unwanted like Panchali. Women have to face discrimination whether they are equally capable or not. Panchali faced discrimination against her brother just because he was a man and an heir of the kingdom thus wanted.
Exceptionally few women choose to marry a man they love as Panchali had no right to choose her husband, but it had to be decided by a contest.
Being a fierce and determined woman as she was, Panchali was supposed to bear children and serve her husbands in their thick and thin, like today’s women.
She is known to marry five Pandavas for her Swayamvar and her disrobing in the court, but her true identity, which is often misinterpreted by some, makes her character true in the present context.
What would be the most appropriate way to end this review than to end it with Chitra’s words from the book itself?
“Because ultimately only the witness — and not the actors — knows the truth.” (Vyasa to Draupadi) from the palace of illusions.
Cheers to Chitra Banerjee on her successful attempt to raise females’ concerns from a female perspective.
Do let us know your thoughts on this book.