Let me start by saying that I loved this book! There were so many things that I adored about this book – so be warned that this is going to be one long post! The Palace Of Illusions is supposed to be Panchaali’s Mahabharat. Now I haven’t actually read the Mahabharat, but growing up in India, one cannot help but be exposed to it. Apart from all TV channels telecasting never-ending episodes of the great epic, several stories, morals and proverbs form part of everyday life. So although I do not know the nitty-gritty of the Mahabharat, I am reasonably familiar with the story and the characters.
But as the author says, seldom have we ever viewed the Mahabharat from the female protagonist’s viewpoint. She plays such an important role in the unfolding of events, and yet one doesn’t delve into her psyche and analyze her thoughts or actions. Of course, I know that there are a few books that attempt to do the same, but I have not read any. But I did read The Palace Of Illusions – and in my opinion it is remarkably successful.
The author portrays Draupadi as an impulsive, short-tempered and strong-willed woman, whose life slowly transforms her from a naïve young girl to a mature woman. Shown in this light, it is very easy to view Draupadi as a normal woman – just like you and me – rather than a strange woman, who had no qualms about marrying five husbands or throwing a damning curse on an entire clan.
Of course, both the author as well as the reader has the benefit of hindsight while reading this book. Hence it is possible to reflect on the incidents that happen with insightful questions as the story progresses. What is admirable about the book is that though it is not possible to portray suspense - as I assume almost everyone who reads this book would already be aware of what’s going to happen next – still it was in no way boring or dragging.
The story of the Mahabharat, by itself is quite fascinating. The boundaries between divine and human isn’t too rigid, the characters are well-etched with each having a solid purpose and their lives are intertwined by destiny. But going beyond that, I admire Chitra’s language which captures the poignancy of moments beautifully. For instance, when Draupadi ponders over Karna and his unknown mother, she says, “For the rest of her life, she would wonder where her son was. Passing every handsome stranger, she’d ask herself (just as he would, walking by women he didn’t know), Could this be-? Each morning when they awoke – in the same town, or kingdoms apart – their first thoughts would be of each other. In anger and regret, they’d both wish she’d had the courage to choose another way.”
At another time, when she thinks about how the destinies of both her brother and Karna, pressed them towards tragedy, she says, “No matter how skilled they were at battle, ultimately it would not help them because they were forever defeated by their conscience. What cruel God fashioned the net of their minds this way, so they could never escape it?” How true!
She wonders, “Can our actions change our destiny? Or are they like sand piled against the breakage in a dam, merely delaying the inevitable?” Whether you believe in destiny or not, if you have ever tried to do anything which seems at loggerheads with it, this quote will surely resonate with you – it did with me.
And if you’ve ever felt vengeance in your blood even for a passing second, so will this; “Is the desire for vengeance stronger than the longing to be loved? What evil magic does it possess to draw the human heart so powerfully to it?”
When Draupadi tells us what she learnt after the shameful disrobing incident, I cannot help but agree whole-heartedly; “All this time I’d believed… that because they (her husbands) loved me they would do anything for me. But now I saw that though they did love me – as much perhaps as any man can love – there were other things they loved more. Their notions of honor, of loyalty toward each other, of reputation were more important to them than my suffering. They would avenge me later, yes, but only when they felt the circumstances would bring them heroic fame. A woman doesn’t think that way. … I wouldn’t have cared what anyone thought. The choice they made in the moment of my need changed something in our relationship. I no longer depended on them so completely in the future. And when I took care to guard myself from hurt, it was as much from them as from our enemies. For men, the softer emotions are always intertwined with power and pride.”
I am sure that any woman who has had a meaningful relationship can understand Draupadi’s sentiments here. To draw parallels to the world that we live in, even today, there are many men who will gladly help their wives with household chores – because they care about her and see nothing wrong in giving her a hand. BUT these same men, would hesitate to accept in front of their friends that yes, they do the dishes every night or that they wash their wives clothes once a week. Why? It’s because they fear that other people would think less of them, they are apprehensive that their reputation might be harmed and their pride might be hurt. They might have all the good intentions of not doing something; but if continuously taunted with “Why? Did you wife tell you not to do this?”, invariably they give in as it translates to a lack of manly power and control.
Apart from Panchaali, the character which most impacted me was of course Karna. What a cursed, cursed life and what a sad, sad death! Karna is the quintessential tragic hero - and one can never forget tragic heros, can we? And finally, when the great war ends, one does not feel any kind of triumph, jubilation or happiness. We can only feel the sorrow, the pain, the loss and the futility of it all. The Pandavas won. So what? And at what cost? Was it really worth all the trouble and sacrifice?
Although this book is from a women's point of view, I did not think it to be overly feminist. Yes several practices are questioned, but the questions could be from any modern woman of today. For example, when Sikhandi relates his story, he says that when he went back to his lover Salva as the Princess of Amba, she was turned away on the pretext that she was contaminated as Bheeshma had taken her by hand and that she belonged to him now. To this she replies, "If someone grasps my hand against my will, how does that make me his? I'm the one who decides to whom I belong." She goes on to add, "In the sandalwood days of love, I thought that if I could not have Salva, I would die. Now I discovered that a woman's life is tougher than a banyan root, which exists without soil or water."
Another incident which struck a chord with me was, when Panchaali wonders about Gandhari's vow to blindfold herself as her husband in also sightless. "... I agreed that Gandhari's sacrifice wan't particularly intelligent. If my husband couldn't see, I'd make doubly sure to keep my own eyes open..." Many a times have I thought the same thing!
Attempting to rewrite a classic epic is no mean task. Many writers say that a story ‘wrote itself’ once they began to write it. But here, that is not possible. It is afterall not your own creative story that you are writing. You cannot simply go off on a tangent, giving free reign to your imagination. You need to have the facts right and then use your imagination to interpret events and actions within the boundaries of what has already been written. And Chitra has done a fantastic job. I strongly recommend this marvellous book.