This article contains a book review of The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which happens to be one of the most popular works by this talented female author. There will be minor spoilers ahead!
The Mahābhārat, the longest epic in the world and one of the most well-known ancient epics is unrivaled in complexity and profundity.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has taken on the lofty idea of taking a major character from this epic and sharing its events in a new interpretation from Draupadi’s perspective.
It should be kept in mind that no one can ever know what truly goes on in someone’s head, and the author has taken lots of liberties in writing this first-person narrative.
This isn’t a retelling of the Mahābhārat. It’s a reimagining.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to those who are unfamiliar with the original work. It is best for those who have some knowledge of the authentic epic to then explore this book and the angle it takes. Given the epic’s vastness, I urge readers to think for themselves on this.
2. Plot Summary
This is the official plot of The Palace of Illusions, as on the author’s website:
“The novel traces Panchaali’s life, beginning with her magical birth in the fire as the daughter of a king before following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at the brothers’ sides through years of exile and terrible civil war. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her stratagems to take over control of her household from her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husband’s most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female voice in a world of warriors, gods, and ever-manipulating hands of fate.”
3. What I Liked
3.1 A Female Perspective
I agree with Chitralekha Divakaruni that history hasn’t had much space for a woman’s perspective. It has always been told from a man’s. While it did not do her valiant character the justice it merits, I love the idea of retelling it from Draupadi’s point of view. More books describing the stories of women and validating a woman’s experience of life need to be shared.
Draupadi identifies with the name Panchaali rather than the well-known name that ties her to her father, King Drupad, who she’s named after. This is closely connected to the purpose she was born for, which goes on to define her life: Drupad’s revenge.
3.2 Writing Style
“And then you were called into the world, Dhri. So that what started with milk could end one day in blood.”
Chitra Divakaruni has quite a way with words! Her writing is incredibly easy to read and forms a great flow. It never feels disjointed or confusing, even when she jumps from present to past and back to the present again.
The Palace of Illusions is riveting from start to finish. Divakaruni’s prose is beautifully written, dramatic and deft at eliciting emotions. Though the book is 360 pages long, its captivating, seamless writing makes it a rather quick read.
3.3 The Mystery Man Surprise
The star-crossed lover trope with Karna was an exciting surprise. It is what makes this novel unique – however inaccurate it is – this is one of the many liberties the author has taken. While it could be upsetting for some, creative freedom does exist, and people should be free to imagine whatever they wish, like in fanfiction.
3.4. The Ending
The Palace of Illusions is in no way a perfect book, but its ending is undeniably poignant. Born of fire and hatred, Panchaali’s life was never her own. Death brings her much-needed redemption – and freedom – about.
3.5 Relatable Character
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni creates an incredible character who ends up being relatable in this age, with her pride, temper, jealousy and blind spots. Had she narrated a story of love and peace, she wouldn’t have fulfilled her destiny.
Panchaali needed to harbour fire and resentment to set the grand chain of events in motion. In the end, all three siblings (Shikhandi, Dhrishtadhyumna and Panchaali) played their roles perfectly.
4. What I Disliked
4.1 Misleading Inaccuracies and Inconsistencies
i) Let’s start with the first: this book is filled with anachronisms.
E.g. “Besides, my throat was scraped raw from gabbling all those unpronounceable Sanskrit words.”
This immediately strikes one as odd because Sanskrit was the common language of Panchaal (like most of ancient India) in the era the Mahābhārat is set in.
ii) Chitra Banerjee’s Panchaali does not sound like a female character from the Dvāpar Yug.
“In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk-and-almond hues, this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl.”
It is highly unlikely that a woman who lived more than 5,000 years ago would be treated badly for having dark skin in a primarily dark-skinned society long before the British Era and its assumptions of Caucasian superiority even existed.
Also, on a humorous note, fish curry being mentioned a few times too many in this reimagining confirms the Bengali heritage of the author.
Instances like these make the reader question exactly whose mind we are getting a glimpse into – the author’s or the character’s?
Creative liberty is important, but the novel is filled with events that either didn’t take place or were distorted to suit to the Draupadi-Karna love story that never happened. What remains here is a far cry from the real Mahabharata but an enjoyable, exotic tale for the modern-day feminist.
Mentioning all these inconsistencies would make this review too long. Neither Panchaali nor her brother had a childhood. Because they were born from a yajna and not naturally, they were adults right from the start. Prishata, King Drupad’s wife, isn’t mentioned at all even though they were both parent figures to the siblings, whereas Panchaali in this book was a child when she emerged from the fire and had no mother and daddy issues.
iii) Multiple non-made-up events that would have helped drive Panchaali’s vengeance are omitted.
For example, Divakaruni creates a scenario in which the famous taunt, “the blind son of a blind father,” was said by a maid. Panchaali here cannot scold this insolent maid though she wants to. Why? Because she was too overwhelmed by Karna’s presence.
This scene alone contradicts her sharp-tongued, vengeful character: How was a powerful queen, known for always speaking harshly, not able to call a maid out for a remark she thought was low? Because of a man!
According to the ancient tale written by Sage Vyasa, Draupadi barely had any role in Duryodhan’s embarrassment at the Palace of Illusions when that remark was made.
Bheem, Arjun and the twins Nakul and Sahadeva witnessed Duryodhan fall and laughed – Draupadi was not even present.
For a woman to be so humiliatingly assaulted later for a fault that wasn’t even hers, instead of the man responsible, is, in my opinion, a much bigger reason for vengeance. Vyasa’s version makes it easier to understand why the Draupadi of the legends not only demanded payback but never trusted her husband either.
4.2 Telling, Not Showing
The legendary Draupadi was known for being razor-sharp with her remarks, curses and vows unto revenge. It was this fire that I would have loved to see more of, and yet, none of her other vows or curses made it into the book except one.
She talks about vengeance, but the incidents showing that vengeance don’t appear, and if they do, they’re all briefly described in a manner that sounds hurriedly reflective rather than narrative.
Perhaps that is the biggest problem with the entire story: it cannot possibly capture the essence of the complete story contained in the original ancient tale, which has a story within a story within it. All the details can’t fit into this book.
That is understandable, considering the number of events that needed to be squeezed within a certain number of pages, but it leaves the tale of her rage too quick and unconvincing. The Palace of Illusions is 360 pages, and that is hardly enough to call it a retelling of the world’s longest epic.
This novel is filled with statements made by the protagonist: she was devoted to her husbands, she was resentful, she loved her children, she was graceful, she was great at hiding her feelings, etc., without really giving any examples. It fails to give weightage to her character.
She claims that her husband and the five Pandava brothers asked her for advice in administration and judgement because she was good at it, but we see no instance of her administrative skills.
The only thing the novel does show is an obsession with Karna, who she barely knows. The protagonist keeps comparing her five husbands to her imagination of Karna for her entire life.
4.3 Panchaali’s Character Shortcomings
This theme of vengeance has been used commonly in retellings, but Chitralekha Divakaruni takes it to a different level so that vengeance is practically her whole personality here. Or more like talking about it.
Since some of the incidents from the epic that would’ve made a potent case for her vengeance are missing or under-described, the need for her bitterness seems overboard at times and even makes her look entitled.
Just enough “vengeance” has been left to make it seem like a retelling of the most popular events, but not enough to intimidate the reader with Draupadi’s historically known ferocity. Her character seems weakened but whitewashed at the same time.
4.3.1 No Emotional Maturity
The story covers Princess Panchaali’s life from youth to death but fails to chronicle her inner growth. She sounds the same from the beginning to the end and does not seem to mature emotionally over the years.
4.3.2 Character Inconsistency
Panchaali does not seem to value other female characters in the book, except Dhai Ma, and doesn’t form meaningful relationships with other women until it’s time for the Great War. In her mind, there’s barely any respect or sympathy for what these other women go through.
She torments Subhadra out of jealousy and gives it up only after Subhadra silently bears whatever mean behaviour Panchaali considers enough.
Any pity for those less fortunate than her does not seem to be a priority, even though she is a queen. It’s like she is immune to empathy.
4.3.3. Attention Seeking
The novel is filled with phrases such as “Leaving me behind”, “wanted to be the cause of his smile”, and “reminding me that I wasn’t forgotten”, which suggests that even after being a famous queen, Panchaali can’t get enough of the Attention.
When she nears her death:
“It would be sudden and clean, an end worthy of bard-song, my last victory over the other wives: She was the only consort that dared accompany the Pandavas on this final, fearsome adventure…How could I resist it?”
Her renouncing of the world is just an excuse to one-up the other wives.
Upon falling to her death, she wonders if the others would cry when they heard she was dead.
4.4 Alienation from Ancient India
Panchaali is detached from the society she’s living in, as if she isn’t part of it at all or is above it, as if from another era.
And interestingly, while she does not revere any of the male gods in the Hindu pantheon, the goddesses are equally non-existent, maybe because they don’t contribute to the tale.
The story is filled with preaching and virtue-signalling from the main character. Any problem the author seems to have had with Indian culture has found a way here through Panchaali’s complaints.
Which would’ve been great in a modern setting, but these hardly apply to ancient Indian culture, which was vastly different from the watered-down and corrupted version it is seen as today. What this results in is a book that might as well have been describing India a few hundred years back instead of an entire five thousand.
4.4.1 Panchaali and Lord Krishna
Lord Krishna is Panchaali’s dearest and only friend. Their bond seems vague at best from Panchaali’s end. The beginning uses it for an introductory backdrop.
While Mahābhārat’s Draupadi was an ardent devotee, Chitra’s Panchaali doesn’t think her friend is divine, only weird. For example, she is hardly grateful to Krishna for saving her dignity in court and thinks it was caused by her not caring whether she was stripped or not.
I wish there had been more Draupadi-Krishna moments, showing some depth of their legendary Sakhā-Sakhi relationship, but those tender moments between them are briefly mentioned only towards the end of the story.
4.5 What’s with the Names?
A lot of names in this book of exclusively Indian concepts are not mentioned in their native Sanskrit forms. These things native to ancient India, to Hinduism, are instead spoken of in loosely translated English that does not get their meaning – and impact – across.
Never once is the palace of illusions called “Maya-mahal” or “Maya-Sabha“. ‘Janeu‘ is simply referred to as a holy thread (any Indian would wonder which one?), ‘Sindhur‘ is called a “good luck mark”.
Devaloka/Swargaloka, Paatal Lok, Ksheer-Sagar, Amrit-Manthan find mention but not by their Indian names.
Instead, we read of war, gods, heaven, the underworld, and the court of gods, making it sound like a Greek myth or a typical medieval fantasy. This takes the authenticity, the innate Indianness of the ancient epic, away from Divakaruni’s story.
The angel-like creatures and her castle of clouds at the end of the story seem more Bible-inspired. No Hindu afterlife or what happens after death, according to Hindu scriptures, is mentioned.
The Panchaali in the book wants a more heroic name (not Draupadi), so ‘celestial victor’ or ‘light of the universe’ are ideas she fantasizes about. But what would these names be called in her language?
4.6 No Other Characters Have Voices
Other characters don’t exist in this book. Dialogue happens rarely, and the entire novel is essentially a long monologue.
I was looking forward to seeing the dynamic between different characters from the ancient epic, particularly between Panchaali and the Pāndavas, from Panchaali’s perspective. What I find particularly disappointing is that her husband doesn’t seem to have any personality.
It was as if everyone else had to be shown as bland for Panchaali to shine – as if she didn’t already do that!
The twins Nakul and Sāhadev are mentioned a couple of times as a reminder they exist. They are already overshadowed by the elder three in popular lore, and it would have been interesting to see what kind of relationship Panchaali had with them and what they were to her. Still, it’s like she has only three husbands.
5. Quotes from The Palace of Illusions
As stated previously, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a gifted storyteller – there is no doubt about it. Here are some memorable quotes from The Palace of Illusions:
“Wait for a man to avenge your honour, and you’ll wait forever.”
“I thought that if lokas existed at all, good women would surely go to one where men were not allowed so that they could be finally free of male demands. However, I prudently kept this theory to myself.”
“Aren’t we all pawns in the hands of Time, the greatest player of them all?”
“Because ultimately only the witness – and not the actors – knows the truth.”
“...this time, I didn’t launch into my usual tirade. Was it a memory of Krishna, the cool silence with which he countered disagreement, that stopped me? I saw something I hadn’t realized before words wasted energy.”
6. About the Author
Chitralekha Banerjee Divakaruni (born 1956) is an America-based author and poet born in Kolkata, India. She graduated with her B. A. from Calcutta University and earned her master’s degree from Wright State University in the United States. Divakaruni currently lives with her family in Houston, Texas. Famous works by her include Arranged Marriage: Stories, The Palace of Illusions, The Last Queen and many more books. Her stories focus on themes such as women, the South Asian experience, feminism, etc.
Check out her website http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/ for more information.
(Please note that the views mentioned in the book review above are the author’s own and do not represent the company’s.)