In the present day, epics like Mahabharatha have been brought to censure. New age novelists are bringing out perspectives that have made readers question the truths presented in the epic. Mahabharatha brings to light a volley of subjects, which act like subplots and merge well with the main plot that deals with the Kurukshetra war and the fates of the two warring families, Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s ‘Palace Of Illusions’ is a contemporary take on the Mahabharata and most importantly it is from Draupadi’s perspective. Divakurni has portrayed her strengths and her flaws, making her character believable to the reader. She is said to be one of the causing factors of the ‘Great War’ and Rishi Vyaas predicts that her flaws like temper, pride and vengefulness will speed up the journey to this war.
Certain beliefs have been negated in this novel. Draupadi was also known as ‘Panchali’ as she was the spirit of Panchal, not because she had five husbands.
The novel is written in first person. This allows the reader to get a glimpse into Panchali’s mind. The title, ‘Palace Of Illusions’ comes from the palace where Draupadi lived with her husbands and children in Indraprastha. It is her home in the truest sense. The chapters in the novel are not numbered and are named as ‘Blue’, ‘Snow’ et al. All the titles are relevant to the story being conveyed in the respective chapter.
The novel begins with Draupadi’s birth; she was born with her brother Dhrishtyadhrum from a fire. Divakurni brings out the intimate bond between Draupadi and Dhrishtyadhrum. In a clever way, she fills the gaps in the narrative through a game which both of them play wherein one of them tells a story about a particular character and the other continues it:
“Were the stories we told each other true? Who knows? At the best of times, a story is a slippery thing. We’d had to cobble this one together from rumors and lies, dark hints Dhai Ma let fall, and our own agitated imaginings. Perhaps that was why it changed with each telling. Or is that the nature of all stories, the reason for their power?”
The novel explores the relationship that Panchali shared with her husbands. Her bond with each one is unique. In the novel, Divakurni states that after Panchali’s marriage, she was given a boon. Its power ensured that after she spent a year with a brother and went on to the next, she will be chaste and pure. In a way, this boon was designed more for the conveniences of the Pandavas than for her. Divakurni writes that Panchali wished her memories of her year with a brother also get erased before she went to the next brother.
Divakurni does make certain statements in the novel, which not many may wish to agree with. The novel also hints at Draupadi’s love for someone else other than the Pandavas. It makes the reader realize that in spite of her personal wishes and desires, she is tied down by her fate.
The descriptions of the loss in the war grip the reader’s heart: “My father, his mouth drawn back in a grimace of disappointment, for he did not live to see the vengeance he had spent his entire life planning…the blood-encrusted face of Duryodhana’s son Lakshman Kumar, his eyes wide with surprise as though he hadn’t expected death to win this game of tag, blurred into the face of one of my boys.”
Divakurni’s portrayal of certain characters is surprising. Karna has not been portrayed completely in a negative light; his humane side is brought out well with phrases like, “the one with ancient eyes.”
‘Palace of Illusions’ is a must read as it is a breather of fresh air. It questions the conventional story and new angles are brought out due to Panchali’s perspective. It lets the reader view the entire epic in a different light. Reviews from prestigious publications have showered acclaim on this work. According to India today, ‘Palace of Illusions’ is “Simple, lucid, each word carefully considered as the heroine unfolds the different layers of the Mahabharat through conversations, stories and dreams.”