The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – Book Review


A retelling of the timeless Indian epic, the Mahabharata with a modern twist The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half-history, half-myth, and wholly magical; narrated by Panchali, the wife of the five Pandava brothers, we are finally given a woman’s take on the timeless tale that is the Mahabharata Tracing Panchali’s life from fiery birth and lonely childhood, where her beloved brother is her only true companion; through her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna; to marriage, motherhood and Panchali’s secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. The Palace of Illusions is a deeply human novel about a woman born into a man’s world, a world of warriors, gods and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.

Book Review:

Though I had read this book a couple of years back, I was saving it to find the correct words to present this detailed review before you. I am so glad that I discovered this book. In fact the book was suggested by one of my colleagues after a careful observation of my personality, interests and choice of books. All I can state is that I am totally in AWE of the creation even after 3 years of reading it! The ecstatic feeling has still not left me that I experienced after reading the book.

Well now over to the review. “The Palace of Illusions” is a majestic, awe inspiring and soul searching tale behind the war of the Mahabharata; being retold from Draupadi’s point of view.

I was totally swept over by the language, which is a poetry in itself, and mesmerized by the conviction with which the author writes the story of one of the most complex characters of Mahabharata, that too, in first person.  The author has done a tremendous job of capturing the essence of the epic in the form of a story.

Bursting with vivid imagery of the bygone era, the narration is powerful which tells the life and travails of Draupadi, the woman who was born out of fire, married to five of the fiercest warriors of her time (the Pandavas), the queen who ruled one of the most magical of palaces, one who refused to learn the lessons her friend, Krishna, a God incarnate, taught her, a woman who was obsessed with vengeance, and spurned by the world for having been the cause of the great battle of Mahabharata, the battle that saw clans obliterated, and millions dead.

The characters have been cleverly crafted by the author where she fearlessly portrays the character of Draupadi along with her strengths, faults and imperfections, likes and dislikes, loves and hates just as us humans. The novel not only captures the inner turmoil beautifully that the central character Panchali undergoes through, but it also succeeds in capturing the insecurities and internal conflicts of the Pandavas, Karna, Kunti and Bhishma. The author had bereft the characters of divine, virtuous status and made them very real and human, which makes it very easy to follow, despite the complexities in the leading characters.

Although some of the instances quoted in the book seem to be factually contradicting with the original epic (I will not go into the details of the dissimilarities here) but to enjoy the essence of the book you need to keep an open mind and enjoy reading. We also need to consider the fact that this is a work of fiction where the whole political, relational and emotional scenario is being depicted through the eyes of Draupadi, or Panchali as she is mentioned in the book, or more so from the eyes of a ‘woman’ of that era, I would say.

The climax or the ending of the book is a masterpiece. It justifies the title “The Palace of Illusions” in a true sense where the soul of Draupadi is release to merge with the eternal being. The title of the book at first instance gives you an  impression that Draupadi was mourning for her special palace created by Maya Danava that was presented to her by her husbands. But my perception of the title is:

“it was not the palace of illusions created by Maya Danava but her body that was holding her (Panchali) back. All the while she was alive, she was entangled in the threads of worldly matters, caught in her own palace of illusions. Once this palace is destroyed and her soul is released, did she find eternal peace for which she longed throughout her life.

Here is the excerpt from the last chapter of the book that describes and explains the title wonderfully:

“I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable – but I always was so, only I never knew it! I am beyond name and gender and the imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I am truly Panchali. Above us our palace waits, the only one I have ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere.”  

Overall, highly intriguing and soul stirring novel. The story is beautiful, the characters are strong and well-shaped, the prose is gorgeous, the setting is truly magical and the climax is tragic that twisted at my heart.

With so much soul, emotion, internal turmoil and conflicts, everything crafted together, it is near impossible not to fall in love with the book.

Highly recommended for all historical / mythological, literary novel, women’s fiction lovers.

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