Wide Angle is our books and films segment at continnect.
This week’s book is ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. It’s a retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata 1from a different perspective. Instead of using a male character, Divakaruni chooses a woman to tell the story of Mahabharata in her book. The storyteller of ‘The Palace of Illusions’ is not any ordinary, objective character but Panchaali (also known as Draupadi), the fire-born princess.
Doubleday Copyright © 2008 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Like the epic Mahabharata, The Palace of Illusions, tells the story of the rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and the great war at Kurukshetra. A story about upholding dharma and righteousness. Unlike the Mahabharata, The Palace of Illusions is a personal story. Panchaali narrates her-story, beginning with her magical birth in fire’ and being married to five husbands. We see her grow and change through the course of the book. From a young girl who is in awe of the prophecy at her birth “for she will change the course of history” to a young bride eager to please her husband(s) and her mother-in-law to a woman who seeks revenge for her humiliation and the wrongs done to her.
Despite being faithful to the epic this Draupadi-centric interpretation has several variations from the original. Like Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna and Karna. In the book, Draupadi is also given the ‘special vision’ of seeing the important parts of the great war. She also shows that husbands even though heroic and aren’t godlike. She gives us an insight into each of her five husbands and some of their flaws. Arjun’s ‘warrior ego’, Sahdev’s pride, Nakul’s vanity,Bheem’s anger and Yudhistir’s righteousness, which leads him ‘to the ultimate loneliness: to be the only human in the court of the gods.’
Draupadi – The Persona
Draupadi hasn’t been regarded highly in the Indian society. Unlike Sita, the archetypical ideal Indian woman, Panchaali is a ‘Kritya’ a woman whose birth spells doom of her clan. She is born from the fire of revenge (raging outside and within her father Drupad). She is raised in hatred with no mother and a father who keeps his distance from her. She is a dutiful wife to her husbands, being with them through the palaces and the forests. Despite this she is a lonely woman. Her husbands take other wives, her sons are looked after by her brother Dhri and Krishna. Even in death Draupadi is lonely, cause ‘when she slips and falls down the slopes of the Himalayas; not one of her five husbands come to her rescue as her first husband, Yudhishtira, feels that having renounced the world they have to let go of all bondage’
Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions is shown as a ‘powerful, strong and independent woman’. From the very beginning she asserts herself, rejecting the name her father gave and choosing to call herself Panchaali. She tries to learn the ‘nayay shastra’ along with the education meant for girls only. There are several instances in Divakaruni’s book where Draupadi asserts herself – the swayamvar, the disrobing incident in the Kuru palace and even in her desire for Karna. And Draupadi isn’t alone.
There are other strong women we know through Draupadi. Kunti, Pandu’s wife and mother to Pandavas, is a strong woman who brings up her children on her own and ensures they get their rightful place at the throne. Gandhari, who blindfolds herself for her blind husband Dhritarashtra. She berates her sons for their wrongdoing against the Pandavas. Eventhough she is angry and heartbroken at her sons’ deaths, she knows they ‘brought their own downfall.’ Draupadi also refers to Hidimba, Bheem’s other wife, who rules her subjects alone and with a firm hand.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an Indian-American author. Born in Kolkata, she came to US for further studies. Divakaruni has a ‘Master’s degree in English from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio and a Ph.D from University of California, Berkeley’. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Divakaruni’s audience include both children and adults. Her literary works include several books and short stories including Mistress of Spices, Arranged Marriage and The Conch Bearer. Some of her works like Mistress of Spices and The Palace of Illusions have been made into movies and plays. Divakaruni has received a number of literary awards including the O’Henry Prize of Stories, and the American Book award among others.
1The Mahabharata is one of India’s two greatest epic poem, the other being Ramayana. Written in Sanskrit, the work is traditionally attributed to the sage Vyasa, who also appears in the book as the grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. ‘The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who wrote down the text to Vyasa’s dictation’. Appearing in its present form about 400 BCE, ‘the poem is made up of 100,000 couplets—about seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined’.
With inputs from