“Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one that I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.”
And thus begins the story of Princess Panchaali, born out of fire , as it was prophesied, she would be responsible to change the course of history, and oh man how excited was she to hear all about it over and over again. This beautiful dark skinned princess was none other than Draupadi. As we all know her as the wife of the legendary Pandava brothers, the only women to have five husbands all at the same time.
I have read the Mahabharata a couple of times, and a couple of versions of the epic have surfaced before my eyes and through these very hands. Each time I have added something new to my existing knowledge , and each time I have read a new version by a different author, it keeps on getting better. From my early childhood days I have wondered that how ever all the Pandava characters have been given much importance in the epic, but not much has been talked about Draupadi, apart from the very fact being that she was responsible for the downfall of the Kauravas.
A story becomes powerful with every retelling, and so has been the case with The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. An enchanting retelling of an epic that is truly powerful. This book while painting a vivid picture of events leading up to the war at Kurukshetra also sinks in the realization of the imperfections of human nature.
The palace of illusions is a very different approach to the Mahabharata. It is narrated by Panchaali. It is Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi. From the time she was born until the end, its her take on the entire situation, and on the journey she mentions about her thoughts, her insecurities , her desires, her anger, lust, love, responsibility and her portrayal of courage.
Courage of-course. Courage to have five husbands. Courage to face shame in an assembly full of her husbands and their brothers. Courage to have Krishna as her best friend and comrade and courage to let go of her love, the person she admired the most, with whom she always wanted to be. As the author rightly mentions –
“Love comes like lightning, and disappears the same way. If you are lucky, it strikes you right. If not, you’ll spend your life yearning for a man you can’t have.”
The highlight for me has been the conversations between Draupadi and Krishna. How subtly Krishna explains Panchaali about things beyond her understanding. The way Krishna always talks in riddles, and how behind every conversation there is a deep meaning to the entire context.
One of my favourite quotes from the book, again a conversation between the duo, wherein Krishna says –
“Just as we cast off worn clothes and wear new ones, when the time arrives, the soul cast of the body and finds a new one to work out its karma. Therefore the wise never grieve for the living or the dead”
Draupadi’s character has been discussed in depth.To what lengths she can go to have her way, how she often dreams of living in huge palaces, and get adorned with the finest jewelry and be pampered at all times. Her character is buoyant, expansive and uncontainable, a side of hers which lot of people are not aware of.
The book is written in a very gripping way. Its simple yet beautiful. Its vivid and colourful. The details are very picturesque and the whole saga has been depicted in a very quaint style. I loved the book, and was hooked to it completely. It definitely features in my ‘Top 5 picks of all time’.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has done complete justice to the concept of this half mythical half fictional tale, which has turned out to be completely magical.