One of the most popular Hindu mythologies, Mahabharata, narrates how two branches of a family fought each other over the common throne of Hastinapur. The tale dips into the humane emotions of greed, envy, loyalty, and love and paints all its characters with it. One such name was Draupadi, as she was forcefully dragged into a court full of men, supposedly her own family. Her entire life was woven around, seeking vengeance for the horrendous act committed upon her. Our book review of The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni brings you a crisp outline of this wonderful read.
Various translations and versions of Mahabharata have trivialized the depth of Draupadi’s character from the original tale. Her humiliation upon being molested, wrath at the silence of the people she trusted, disgust at being betrayed by her husbands, and strength to take revenge for it has been pushed to the background, making her seem more like a prop.
In The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Divakaruni breathes life back into the character of Draupadi. Published by Picador India in 2008, the book swiftly and efficiently takes on her perspective while changing only minor events from the original mythology. Draupadi re-emerges as the heroine she is supposed to be: a strong, inspiring woman whose purity and the attempt at tarnishing it gave birth to the epic tale of Mahabharata.
“What did I learn that day in the sabha?
All this time, I'd believed in my power over my husbands. 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, of 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. I wouldn't have cared what anyone thought. The choice they made in the moment of my need changed something in our relationship. I no longer depended on them so completely in the future. And when I took care to guard myself from hurt, it was as much from them as from our enemies.”
The author heartfeltly recites Draupadi’s perspective while keeping it close to the original version of Mahabharata. Starting with her birth out of the holy fire to her youth, when the great sage Vyasa foretold that she would have five husbands and that she would be the cause of great destruction and chaos in her kingdom. However, as a balm to her worries, he offered a simple caveat saying that she would have to control her impulses at three different times: A question at the time of her wedding, about of laughter while sitting at the peak of power, and a curse at being shamed unimaginably.
However, as humans, we err, and in that sense, Draupadi was a very realistic character. The tale follows her life as she gives in to those impulses and transcends from an unsure girl to a confident lady, and eventually to a fierce, blood-thirsty woman in a way that can only be described as one of the most impressive character developments in the history of Indian mythology.
The Palace of Illusions is a strangely modern historical book. Its characters and the relationships between them, the wisdom it offers, and the feelings it portrays are all too familiar for mythological fiction. Among its characters, the friendship of Draupadi with Krishna is beautifully described, as is her restrained, almost painful romantic chemistry with a man who was not her husband. Chitra Divakurni’s writing style is fluid and enchanting, making the words in the novel flow like poetry. Quillopia says, overall, for any person out there looking for a powerful read of a fresh perspective, The Palace of Illusions is perfect and will stay with them for a long time.
By Soumya Mukhija