Book Review: The Palace of Illusions

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Genre: Mythological fiction.

Published: 2008

Pages: 360

My Rating: 5/5

Summary:  

  “Be taken back to a time that is half-history, half-myth, and wholly magical…”

“Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of five Pandava brothers, The Palace of Illusions finally gives a woman’s take on the timeless tale that is Mahabharata. Tracing Panchaali’s life – from fiery birth and lonely childhood, where her beloved brother is her only true companion; through her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna; to marriage motherhood and her secret attraction to the most mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy – it’s a deeply human story about a woman born into a man’s world.”

My Review:         

 This deeply captivating tale takes us back to thousands of years in ancient India where myths and facts, religion and beliefs, love and war intermingled making the history as we know today still an enigma. Hence, when I saw this book, first of all the cover is so eye catching that I couldn’t ignore it, and read the back cover I was fascinated. I never came across a book entailing Indian Mythology and so I was intrigued. Additionally, the book is narrated by Panchaali, also known as, Draupadi. I was very curious to know her story through her point of view. Mahabharata is an epic saga and every Indian has grown up watching it on television, and so have I, but never have I ever read anything that was even remotely related to Mahabharata. Well, why should I? I know the story. I’ve watched it so many times and everyone knows what happens. But this was different. This is not just the story of how the biggest and the most devastating war occurs on Indian soil, but also the events and circumstances that lead to this war, allegedly caused by Draupadi. But this is her story, we see these events unfold through her eyes and it is so stimulating

Plot: The book is narrated by Draupadi and chronicles her life from her birth to death. The story begins with the birth of Draupadi, her forlorn childhood, and her brother Dhri, as her only companion. Sometimes she is visited by her father’s friend Krishna, who tells her stories of the world and beyond.  She cannot help but wonder about his cryptic remarks and always amused face that mystifies her. She only has her Dhai ma to comfort her. There’s also the prophecy about her having five husbands and becoming the reason for the Great War that terrifies her, but destiny is something you can’t run away from. On her swayamvar she meets a mysterious man, whom she gets attracted to, later she finds out that he is the enemy of her husbands. But little did she know that this infatuation would sustain all her life tormenting her. We get to know her peculiar marriage to five Pandava brothers and their marital arrangement, which was very interesting considering of how little I knew of it. Their brief time at Hastinapur and moving to their own palace, which Draupadi calls The Palace of Illusions. That palace becomes her home which she always dreamed of and she leads a happy life there with her husbands and children all the while ruminating over that mysterious man whom she is still attracted to. But all the good things come to an end and so it happens she loses everything, her Palace, her honor, nobility and respect but the things which stay with her are her pride and desire for vengeance for Kaurava brothers who humiliated her and her husbands, leading to the War of Kurukshetra, which ends in bloodshed and a great loss. At the end when she renounces everything and goes on her last journey with her husbands, experiencing her death, her Krishna stays with her as he has always been guiding through her life, and thinking of the man she loved all her life.

Characterization: The author not only depicted the story of Mahabharata through Draupadi, but also portrayed her as a strong and unconventional heroine. We get to know various shades of her character through these events of Mahabharata which are chronicled brilliantly throughout the novel. She has pride and defiance in her manner. She is opinionated and throws various tantrums at her husbands and also manipulates them. It was fascinating to go through her trials and tribulations with her as she fiercely battles through them. She is depicted as a woman who follows her own mind and even though she winds up regretting those decisions she stands by them. But that’s the best part, we not only have Draupadi as a strong heroine, we also have other females who are strong as well. We have Kunti who raised her five children all by herself and has very compelling nature. Gandhari, who blindfolded herself for the rest of her life because her husband was blind. These women lived their life by making their own choices. This stance that even in those times women made their own choices is very influential. The author portrayed their misfortunes as a result of their own choices and not what the society plunged them into.     Interestingly, the author’s portrayal of women parallels the values that the ancient Indian women were living by, as though the author did not want to typify the female characters as puppets to the society. This is emboldening in today’s world, where some women still do not have the luxury of making their own choices. 

What I liked:

      The events are narrated beautifully and in order with exquisite prose and just the right amount of detailing of the occurrences. The story is fluent and continuous and easy to read. It was very mesmerizing to read the Mahabharata in a novel construct. I can say that the author is an amazing storyteller because as I was reading it I felt so magical and hypnotised by the writing that I couldn’t put it down and I continued reading until I finished it. It was like another window has been opened to this enchanting tale of ancient India. I really loved it. I would recommend it to everyone.

What I disliked: There is nothing that I disliked in this book. It was a magical journey.

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