An ancient story of drama, intrigue, skullduggery, passion, violence, lust – there’s a lot to mine from the Mahabharata, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does it with gusto in the novel “The Palace of Illusions,” the story from the perspective of “Paanchali,” aka Draupadi. I have always wondered how a story of war and revenge could be considered a worthy spiritual text. It certainly is a very difficult premise to sell to the American public. Much harder is to eke romance out of polyandry. Even in India, Draupadi’s relationship with her five husbands has long been the subject of bawdy jokes. But Divakaruni manages to pull it off, even if at times, put in the framework of a novel, it’s a little hard to swallow – one can see how book critics would not be able to buy the whole idea. However, she does manage to skillfully portray a delicate, forbidden romance between Paanchali and Karna.
The novel is a little weak in its setting. Maybe because there is so much of plot to convey, we get very little of a sense of place. She doesn’t seem to have done much historical research about the life and times of people in the story, and it appears to be mostly based on the epic.
Where the book works, though, is in showing the transformation of Draupadi from an innocent child to a vindictive woman. A fresh new viewpoint is the concept of Draupadi herself as the architect of a devastating war, how her own desire for revenge led to a cascade of events that destroyed her life. The relationship between Krishna and Draupadi is another strong theme that runs through the story. We see Draupadi learn lessons from a man whom she suspects to be a divine being. We see her evolve, and ultimately transcend the world of form.
Some of it is a little preachy and sermonizing – italicized excerpts from the Bhagvad Gita are scattered randomly through some of the chapters. But that has always been Divakaruni’s style, and a common criticism of her writing. Her cause used to be the support of abused women, now her goal appears to promote the spiritual concepts of Hinduism, (she is an active member of the Chinmayananda Mission, and invited members to her book reading). This book is also not exempt from a streak of feminism. Draupadi comes out quite superior to all her husbands, and Arjuna is mostly a non-player in the story.
Reviewers often find fault with Indian historical fiction. For instance, Indu Sundaresan, author of the book “The Twentieth Wife,” about Nur Jahan, faced criticism with respect to the character development of her protagonist even though the author was constrained by the facts. A review in the Oregonian also complained about the archaic nature of the language in Divakaruni’s new book, but a reader familiar with Indian mythology would not notice it.
The bottom line though, is that Divakaruni is a seasoned storyteller. She distills the Mahabharata into an enjoyable beach-read for the average person – quite an accomplishment in itself. You clearly see the universality of human nature. If the Iraq war is any indication, it is obvious that mankind is still capable of being involved in a pointless war. People discover the folly of being lost in the material world of power and prestige in the Mahabharata, but the lessons have still not been absorbed by modern man. This book is a pretty good attempt to bring those lessons home, and who knows, maybe Divakaruni will succeed in spreading her message. At least it is a good one.
Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan