Palace of Illusions

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I had the pleasure of meeting Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who was in Chicago on a book signing tour. This sari-clad author hails from Calcutta, but she came to the United States for her graduate studies, receiving a Master’s degree in English from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She is married, has 2 children and teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. She comes across as a pleasant, warm, down-to-earth, articulate woman and it was an absolute delight to meet her and listen to her talk about her books.

She is in the process of promoting her next book which is called Oleander Girl, and if you “like” her on facebook she will post previews of it. Unlike most writers, she started writing quite late, only after coming the the US. This would explain the main themes in her books which are always about women, immigration, the South Asian experience in America, mythical history, magic and the celebration of diversity. Before she attempted novels, she used to write poetry. She started with a reading of “The Garba” from her book of poems called “Black Candle”.

Having touched a chord with everyone who was even remotely Indian, she then went on to read a few paragraphs from her last book which is called “One Amazing Thing”. This is set in California during an earthquake. She told us that the inspiration for this book came to her, while observing the different characteristics that people show when under stress, while going through a similar natural disaster in Houston, TX where she lives with her family.

It seemed obvious at the question-answer session, that the book that her audience has enjoyed the most, is “The Palace of Illusions”. This is the book that I have read and that I am going to review today. She also wrote Mistress of Spices and An Arranged Marriage.

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 

Like most of us, born and living outside of India, my knowledge of the Mahabharata is limited to the television serial that my parents’ watched and re-watched religiously in the late 80s and early 90s. The Palace of Illusions is the story of the Mahabharata narrated by Draupadi (or Panchaali, the name she prefers here) from her unique perspective.

Everybody’s fascination with Draupadi stems from her being the only woman in history to have had 5 husbands. Nobody names their daughter Draupadi as she holds the stigma of the woman that brought the downfall of her clan and started the worst war ever. This book however, is sympathetic towards her. She is like a child, angry, petulant, impatient, proud, dutiful, infatuated, confused between love and duty, she makes mistakes and repents like all of us…many common references can be made to one’s life.

The book illustrates the day-to-day running of this complex household with 5 husbands and 5 different sets of egos that have to be stroked and fed (most of us are lucky if we can handle one!). It tells of her favorite amongst them, the competition between the brothers for her attention and which one of them truly loved her. Her other relationships are also well handled, like the childhood game between her and her brother Dhrishtadyumna (Dhri), where one of them starts telling a story, and the other continues it. This creates intimate scenes where their innermost fears and feelings are expressed. Her controlling mother-in-law with whom she eventually develops an understanding. Her arch-enemy Duryodhana, portrayed as a one-dimensional Hindi-film villain, which is perfectly all right, because Panchaali sees him that way. She deeply fears and loathes the man whom she blames for doing her so much harm, and has no occasion to see his good side. The Panchaali-Karna relationship, specifically their secret feelings for each other and her lifelong questioning of whether she did the right thing by humiliating him at her swayamvara. Could the war have been avoided if she had accepted Karna’s proposal? Particularly beautifully described is her relationship with Krishna, her friend, advisor and confidante. Krishna is the supreme in her life who was always there for her, like GOD is always there for us, if and when we want him.

I was intrigued at the research the author had to do for this book. If you have any interest in Hindu mythology, read this book. You will enjoy it. You will also be interested to know that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is presently embarking on a new project, which will be a retelling of the Ramayan… as you may have guessed… it will be from a female protagonist’s point of view! After her spin on Draupadi  (pun intended!), this should be a interesting read…most probably based on the life of Sita (but she is not telling!)


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