Of palace and illusions

>After having ranted more than what this book probably deserves, here is my review of The Palace Of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni

There were significant reasons for picking up this book, in particular, when I bought it from Crosswords. Firstly, the (ostensible?) subject of the book is the most intriguing epic ever written: The Mahabharata. Secondly, it is a woman’s perspective on a male-dominated epic. By male-dominated, I do not mean to say that there are only male characters in an epic that has given women characters far lesser space. In fact, The Mahabharata has some very significant and strong women characters (Draupadi being one of them). And, Devakaruni chooses to re-tell the epic from Draupadi’s perspective.

Cleverly, the author has chosen a complex epic like The Mahabharata which can almost always work, no matter what you do with it. Also, to re-tell an epic in someone else’s voice is no joke. The story telling is thoroughly exhaustive. So much so that the second half, particularly the details of the Kurukshetra war, narrowly escapes becoming a drag.

Told in a first person narrative, this is her story entirely. What she feels, what she felt and what she always wanted to but couldn’t because of reasons she tries to make sense of over the course of the journey of her life is what this novel is all about.

Renuka Narayanan, in her review of the book published in Hindustan Times, makes a significant point. “Almost nobody names their daughter Draupadi – unless it’s for an upaay, an astrologer’s trick to stave off the hostile fates by pre-empting their ordained malice with such an ‘unlucky’ name for the child.”

In terms of the plot, Devakaruni has largely stuck to the original, except for a few significant changes. One case in point is the relationship angle that she tries to explore between Paanchali and Karna. As a young girl, when I used to listen to stories from the epic from my mother and grandmother, I used to visualize this remote possibility too. But I dismissed it sincerely believing that one cannot play with what has already been divinely written. Devakaruni takes full advantage of fiction writing and uses it to weave a plot between two characters who have largely been victims of oppression—one of gender and the other of caste. Interestingly, it’s an untold love story of sorts.

The novel begins on a very fast and compelling note where you want to know what Draupadi secretly desired and wished for, as she was systematically denied all that her brother (Dhrishtidyumna) enjoyed, owing to her gender. Her anger, annoyance and questioning nature paves way for the way her personality develops as she grows into a woman who is identified with vengeance, rebel and pride. The journey of her marriage, her life as a queen, her quest for ‘love’ that always seems so elusive and her dogged insistence on war fuelled by revenge is narrated well by the author. However, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at the author’s almost casual mention of the Cheerharan episode. For me, it’s a crucial turning point of the epic that changes the course of the entire story. The humiliation that she undergoes in the Sabha had a lot of potential for an author like Devakaruni who is attempting to fictionalize a tale so well-known to the audience. But the way the episode is dealt with leaves you wanting for more. It somehow seemed incomplete.

The story almost becomes a drag when the war-fare is described, possibly because Draupadi now simply plays the role of a distanced story-teller giving us details about the happenings of the war.

All in all, the book left me wanting for more. Its promising start had somehow convinced me that this was a real page-turner, which, frankly, it isn’t. But for all who are interested in and charmed by the great old epic, it’s definitely worth your time and money.

You can read more about this book’s review here and here


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