Book Review: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

palace of illusions

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A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of an amazing woman.
Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.
The novel traces the princess Panchaali’s life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.

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It’s been years since the first time I read this book and was completely blown away. It was a time when I didn’t know what retellings meant and I don’t think I’d read any (atleast not Indian ones). So, I just thought this would be the same story of the Mahabharata told through the eyes of Draupadi, but I didn’t realize it would totally change the way I thought of this beloved epic. I had never expressed my thoughts about this amazing book before but I recently listened to the audiobook, and I just had to talk about it.

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My love for Mahabharata is as old as myself. The TV show aired when I was too little but my mother insists I loved the title song and would even hum it as a toddler. I got the kid’s version of the book as a six year old and immersed myself in the story. I watched the TV show again and countless other Telugu movies made about it. It’s an epic that’s very intertwined with my life as a whole – it’s an essential part of my reading life, a basis for my faith and spirituality and put simply, an amazing cache of life lessons. But I just took the lessons that I learnt through this epic or what I gleaned from discussions with my family as granted and never really questioned them. I also truly didn’t realize that it’s mostly a tale that revolves around the men of the epic, and the women usually have cautionary tales attached to them. This book completely upended my worldview and made me rethink everything I knew about the Mahabharata.

The writing in this book is just stellar and I frankly have no adjectives to describe it. The author gives us a Draupadi who is well rounded, passionate, resilient, sometimes selfish, impulsive, calculating – ultimately a dynamic but flawed woman. As a product of the times, she doesn’t get to make many choices but she makes most of the options she has. And many times, she has to bear the brunt of the consequences of actions taken by others – whether it be her marriage to the Pandavas, her utter violation in the Kuru court or the 13 years of exile which lead to more humiliations. We are so used to hailing the Pandavas for their heroics and obviously, they are heroes for being on the dharmic side of the war, but we whitewash a lot of their flaws. This book really opens our eyes to their faults, seeing them as more than just their heroic acts through the eyes of Draupadi. A recurrent theme of the book is her feelings about Karna, and while I was initially skeptical about this storyline because I’d never read something like it before, I accepted it as artistic license. It’s also such a sensitive portrayal of Draupadi’s unrequited and mostly confusing feelings that I couldn’t help but completely immerse myself in the author’s version of the story. However, the best part of the book for me was the exploration of her relationship with Krishna. The bond they share is full of love and immense trust and so many unexplainable things, it’s just utterly beautiful. I could have read a book about just the both of them and be completely satisfied because that’s the kind of eternal bond they share.

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There is nothing I can really say about this magical book other than go ahead and pick it up. If you love the Mahabharata, then I would call this one an essential reading. It really makes the epic feel much more human, and gives a well rounded nuanced portrait of all the characters who make up this epic, especially Draupadi. Just pick up this book and be prepared to be mesmerized by the beautiful writing.

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