palace of illusions {review}


Palace of Illusions – By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

We hear Draupadi’s voice.

It’s Draupadi’s life story, from her birth through her childhood, dreams, ambitions, and hesitations all through her decidedly sad life till the end. A fictional autobiography offering a detailed sketch of what could have been running through Draupadi’s mind as she plays a role in an epic. A role she accepts with trepidation and immense discomfort, and grows into ultimately reveling in the knowledge that such a dramatic fate is indeed her destiny.

If each of her thought and action was a pearl, then the silver cord that strings Draupadi’s life together is Karna. Not any of her husbands, not her brother [what a fine surprising character he turned out to be!] and neither is her part as a queen, but it starts with Karna very quickly in the story and ends with Karna. As huge as a surprise that came for me, I vaguely remember my grandma’s story times from a lifetime ago, when in passing she mentions Karna as suitor that Draupadi liked and had wanted as her beau, but destiny dictated that she married Arjuna and hence on. Maybe it was just a mention in the original epic, and this author ran with the thought as most writers do with a small figment that could potentially open up some grand avenues. In this case a whole 300 page novel. Or perhaps it is indeed written somewhere in the grand novel – Mahabharatha. With the sheer volume, intricate sub-plots and tales attached to each character, it is hard to keep track on the who’s and what’s where. Maybe Karna just got lost. But then again, highly improbable considering the importance he is given and a gentleman that he’s sketched out to be.

What spurred me on in the book was the style of writing reflecting the very modern thought process that Draupadi’s voice spelled. When I say “modern” I realize I use it quite loosely. There is really nothing modern or 21st century about her thoughts. Perhaps to a slight extent in the way she was expressed and not what she expressed.

Fiercely independent, strong, multi-dimensional, women characters have always stood around in our mythology. Women who stood for their husbands through loyalties and duties, women who stood against their husbands, women who ruled with their head and not their hearts and women who made a difference in the way history was shaped.

It is quite commendable to see how the author managed to squeeze in almost all of the notable small tales that are linked to the main novel. She also does an admirable job in keeping true to the theme of biography. If an event occurred without Draupadi’s presence, she’d raconte it to us in retrospect as in hearsay. Considering that Draupadi’s claim to fame is the court scene where she gets disrobed you’d think that the author would use that as a main central theme and spend a couple of chapters on describing details, but it will come as a surprise that what happens before Draupadi gets dragged off is told to us in a mere small paragraph. The emotions are vividly portrayed, but also what puzzled me was the order to disrobe and where it came from. All along in our epic and stories I’ve read and played on, it was Duryodhan who asked Dusshasan to do the needful, but here it showed Karna to utter the fateful words. Is this fiction? It should be. How else could a woman of such respect, dignity and caliber continue to yearn for such a person’s affection, and want to be an object of interest to him? Especially when she considers it to be the highest of insults and even goads Bheeshma up until the very end of his breath on why he could not prevent it, or at least condone his grand nephews.

A few situations deserving mention:
1. Draupadi and Kunti’s relationship and the typical mother-in-law, daughter-in-law tensions.
2. Her love and devotion to Krishna without understanding the whys
3. Her pride in the Palace she gets built according to her whims and fancies.
4. Loving portrayal of how Bheeshma became Bheeshma the hero, uncle and an object of envy and misunderstanding.
5. The kurukshetra and the vision she did not want.
6. Of course the grand underlying unrequited love (?) or obsession with Karna.

There are more of such little puzzles and Chitra does a fine job in filling gaps with imagination and brings in dimensional value to Draupadi. It is indeed a page-turner nevertheless, sketching a depth into Draupadi that may or may not have been there. An enjoyable read.

Posterity: Blogbharti link.


…and I met her at a recent book reading and here is proof! So Thrilled πŸ™‚


Chitra Banerjee and I


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30 replies on “palace of illusions {review}”
  1. says: Praveen

    I was really wishing u wud review the book, glad u did. Karna?? That surely came as a surprise to me too. I knw he wins the contest before Arjuna in Draupadi’s swayamwar, but isnt she the one who dismisses him calling him a ‘suta’ and weds Arjuna. Wonder what made Chitra to think that she was attracted to Karna….interesting though…

    Even in BR Chorpas Mahabharat, it is Karna who begins to insult her, watch the video.–71lLRI

    Will surely get hold of the book soon.

  2. Thanks for the review. I think I have the book here somewhere, just put it away till I finished the Bill Bryson and then forgot. Should have taken it along on my Africa trip, where I was reading the splendid, but slightly (for me) topical local newspapers and a magazine called African Woman. Really.

  3. Thanks for the review. I think I have the book here somewhere, just put it away till I finished the Bill Bryson and then forgot. Should have taken it along on my Africa trip, where I was reading the splendid, but slightly (for me) topical local newspapers and a magazine called African Woman. Really.

  4. says: munimma

    I was going to ask you about this book. good that you munthified.

    liberties taken with the story? From what I have heard about Karna, this doesn’t seem right. He was the fair guy, but he put friendship before anything else. He was not allowed to participate in a competition that arjuna would have lost if he had participated. I can’t recollect if this was the swayamvar. I think he was the sane voice when the kauravas edged dushashana in his infamous task.

    Now I am going to have to google and also read this book.

  5. says: rads

    Blogbharti eh? – oooh! Nice!

    Munimma: Yeah, it’s quite the nicely done fictional piece. Almost believable.
    Yes, Bheeshma managed to say something if am not mistaken, but Karna egging Duryodha was a little far fetched. Am gonna check with our Sunday guru this weekend. Of course asking him about Draupadi-Karna would probably risk me getting thrown out quickly, but I am going to have to take my chances, now won’t I? This is like a bug nondufying me.. πŸ˜€

    Naren: Am as usual lost when it comes to such tangential comments, and so will refrain from further analyses.
    Yes, you oughta read the book. Would make some fun review, by you :-p

    Praveen: Yes, you areright. he almost wins, until she asks about his lineage. Which pretty much seals that avenue.
    Re BR Chopra’s – well, see, am questioning the authenticity of such a claim. Bollywood is bollywod, as fiction is fiction. Coming close to the truth isn’t the truth. πŸ™‚

    BR Chopra could’ve done his research and as history always has shown us again and again, since none of us were eyewitnesses, no one really knows the exact truth. Mahabharata’s an epic, so am hoping to check with the noblese this weekend. Hopefully I survive πŸ™‚

  6. says: Praveen

    Do let us knw abt ur findings this weekend. I was referring to BR Choras coz his series was ‘supposed’ to have been well researched.
    Yah I agree “Coming close to the truth isn’t the truth”.
    We all like to beleive that Hanuman was a bachelor and never looked upon any women, but some versions of Ramayan say he had a wife called Nang Benyagai. Even Radha being Krishnas aunt was quitely brushed under the carpet, and we just knw she was his muse. Mythology!!!!

  7. says: Silvara

    the story sounds so interesting – I’m trying to find it in my local library but while I’m waiting I’m looking at her other books. I don’t actually know too much of the original sotry (yes – shock! – I don’t know my Mahabharata) but maybe I might learn something too…thanks for this πŸ™‚

  8. says: rads

    Silvara: lol, well I don’t suppose anyone’s really read it read it you know. It’s a bundle of stories you hear from sources. That aside, yes, it’s one entertainer. Beats modern day soap operas πŸ˜‰

    Praveen: Absolutely agree.

  9. says: sangeeta

    Loved the book! A page turner indeed. I was suprised about the Draupadi-Karna angle. A few years ago, a book by Pratibha Ray talked about Draupadi’s obsession with Karna. Apparently, it is also mentioned in a Maharashtrian folklore. I guess we should just tale it as Chitra’s creative liberty. Loved the post war chapters. Very well written as most people never talk about what happened after the war? I have a feeling Chitra really doesn’t care for Arjun, the otherwise most notable character from the epic. Overall, definitely worth a read. Very well written-almost poetic!

  10. says: rads

    Sangeeta: Yeah? It’s good to know someone else did the same. Ray eh? Maybe Bengali folklore had that angle? πŸ™‚
    Thanks for your input.

    Praveen: lol@wandering souls. πŸ™‚

    TAAMom: But of course! Birthdays are special πŸ™‚

  11. says: sushma

    Good Review.. you made me want to read the book.. it truly is an intriguing idea and I heard this version too.. somewhere but I cant recollect exactly.. thanks for introducing me to this one.

  12. says: rads

    Sushma: Please do read. Chaala bagundi! πŸ™‚

    Sangeeta: Ah okay. Ray, Roy, Sen, banerjee – thought for the most part they are from Orissa-Bengal areas.

  13. says: rads

    Sangeeta: I tried her Conch bearer and didn’t really like it. This is the only one of hers Ive completed and liked. Will see if I can get more now.

  14. says: Broom

    I had sworn off CDB’s books after Mistress of Spices.
    I had LOVED Sister of my heart. Vine of Desires was also quite disappointing, but not as spectacularly bad as Mistress of Spices.
    But I love fiction based on popular myths or History, so will probably get this one!
    Thanks for the review (which I just skimmed through to be honest, so that I didn’t have any idea what the story is like!)
    I would highly recommend Indu Sunderesan’s “Twentieth Wife” & “Feast of roses”. Gazillion times better than watching “Jodha Akbar”!

  15. says: rads

    Broom: You read my mind. I quit Mistress of Spices halfway. Cosnidering how everyone else raved about her, I chalked it to a period of overdose of Indian authors then.

    I just got Indu’s books over the weekend. waiting to start πŸ™‚

  16. Hi! Thanks for your thoughtful review of my novel. Many commenters wondered about the Karna-Draupadi angle–much of it comes from the Bengali Mahabharat by Kashiram Das; it is also mentioned by Kamala Subramaniam in her detailed Mahabharat–especially the detail that Karna tells Dussasan to remove Draupadi’s clothes. And yes, I was also influenced/inspired by Pratibha Ray. Ultimately, of course, it is my imagination based on the facts that the Mahabharat gives us, especially that for a while just before the swayamvar, Draupadi believes that the Pandavas are dead & Karna is the only one who can win the archery contest.

  17. says: Nupur Barua

    Thank you for a great review. I just read the book, and I loved it. To be honest, I always thought Draupadi as a character was very arrogant, but the Draupadi in this book I loved. As for Karna, well, he was always my favourite (after Shakuni), and this book just re-enforces that.

    Thank you, Ms Devakaruni.

  18. says: Sangeetha

    Ah… most thoughts match mine πŸ™‚ And loved the way you analyzed the whole book. I felt Karna’s part would scandalize many, but I’ve read about this angle in a couple of other versions – one being Irawati Karve’s Yuganta.

    1. says: rads

      Am sure many feel that way about Karna-Draupadi, but somehow it surprised me just a bit. Mahabharata as we know it in modern day is fll of scandalous relationships. 21st century soap opera if u will. Unless seen from the view of when it was written, don’t many make sense to us.
      I should read more mythology based books..

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