The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions

Rating – 2.5 stars

I had watched Mistress of Spices, a movie starring Aishwarya Rai & Dylan McDermott – an adaptation of Divakaruni ‘ short story by the same name, prior to reading this book – a movie which to be honest I could not make the head or tail of; seriously it was that bad – even McDermott could not salvage it for me seeing as he was the reason I watched it in the first place; being his fan – hence cannot claim I am new to her work, though this is the first time I have read something by her.

Though sorta scarred by my previous experience, regarding the content I was intrigued enough to give this one a shot. Reason. Its based on Mahabharat.

Growing up in an era that can claim, it has witnessed the pinnacle of Indian TV, Mahabharat was a must watch show those days. In fact, it was so popular people would usually not be out on the streets if it could be helped during the 1 hour and woke up early on a Sunday expressly for the purpose of watching the show.

It wasn’t the technical grandiose affair or the lavishness of the scale of the show (considering the time – around late 80’s) that pulled people in, nope it was solely the content and the amazing cast that carried the weight of the show on its shoulders that did it.  Directed by the brilliant Mr. B.R.Chopra – Mahabharat was the second show after the hugely popular Ramayana, the only two shows which have enjoyed the kind of popularity they did.

The main draw at the time for the show was it brought to life one of the biggest epics ever written. Not everyone can read Sanskrit or has the time or inclination to read the mammoth volumes of Mahabharata or Geeta. Even the translated versions. But everyone can surely watch a show, was the thought that reigned supreme during the making of the show. And it proved right.

So, whatever I do know of Mahabharat is majorly based on the adaptation I saw during my childhood, which to date remains my favorite. Others have come and gone – there have been technical enhancements, garish costumes have made way for better ones, sets have been constructed to display even more grandeur and of course stunning VFX, however no other cast has had the talent to lure people in, as that of the 80’s did.

My favorite character of the show and of the epic happens to be Karna – the noble yet somehow tainted warrior, who brought doom upon himself owing to his mistakes, which got him cursed and his own generosity.

This book is written from the point of view of Draupadi, also known as Panchaali and by various other epithets, the woman whose dishonor led to the greatest battle ever fought as per Hindu Scriptures in Kurukshetra. 

It traces her origins, as the princess, borne of fire by a father who seeked revenge to the woman who has 5 husbands – being married to 5 Pandava brothers at the same time – to her death.

It explores the various relationships of her life and her thoughts and feelings with regards to each and every one of them.Right from her peculiar upbringing where Panchaali describes herself being  venerated, mostly out of fear by the wives of her father and her loving relationship with her twin brother,  Dhrishtadyumna who it seems was the only one who treated her with anything resembling normalcy even if he was overprotective of her, in her own family. Her maid who is entrusted with the responsibility of raising her and eventually the relationships she shares with her spouses and in-laws.

How she loathes her mom-in-law at times, even while respecting her and mildly being in awe of her all the same. How she finds a difference in the level of love and affection her husbands feel for her as she does the same too.  Arjun, the one she first married of the five, holds the major portion of her heart but does not treat her  or make her feel special enough. The affection comes only when it is the year when she has to share his bed and is permitted to have conjugal relations only with him – while the other brothers retain a cordial distance from her. When on the other hand Bhima, her other husband, the second eldest of the brothers loves her freely and generously, willing to do anything that makes her happy – though she cannot find it within her to return the feelings with the same level. She does love Bhima, in her own way but he is not her first choice. 

It delves into her friendship with Krishna – whom she considers as her closest friend.

But more than anything this book is based on a supposition – a major What If.

What if Draupadi was attracted to Karna, in the first place,  even while she rejects him in the swayamvara owing to his supposed low-birth though he had risen to the station of a king. 

What if that attraction lasts forever, all the while when her paths cross with Karna at different points of time in their lives. But are forever strewn over with misunderstandings and bitter memories, bad judgements and harsh words. 

This book to summarize it in a single word is a huge work of fan-fiction based on the epic that is considered a sacred scripture in India. 

I don’t want to comment on the supposition here, simply because all my life I have come to look at these characters in a certain light and hence have my opinions on them in a certain way that is set almost in stone. But I would like to comment on the writing and it was good.

A word of advice –  people reading this book well versed with the story of Mahabharat should keep an open mind and remember this is fiction. Also those unknown to the facts and the history should not make assumptions based on this book and form opinions to speculate on the possibilities that it explores or implies.

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