The Palace Of Illusions-Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


Publisher : Picador

Pages : 360

Price : RM17.90 (only at Book Xcess)

The year was 1989. The city was London. I sat transfixed in front of the television for 5 straight hours watching Peter Brooks’ “The Mahabharata”. It was riveting and fascinating, never mind that most of the cast seemed to be of non-Indian origin.

Years before 1989 when I wasn’t even in my teens, I’d been introduced to The Mahabharata via comic strips. In retrospect, it’s almost unseemly to have learnt about such a classic of epic proportions through comic strips but there were comic books about Indian as well as Chinese mythology (the Monkey God was one of them) and that’s where I gained my knowledge on the pantheon of Hindu Gods.

It’s impossible to summarise The Mahabharata since it’s a Sanskrit epic approximately 10 times the length of Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad combined. Before picking up Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “The Palace Of Illusions”, I remembered bits and pieces of what I’d read so far on The Mahabharata from the past.

The sage, Vyasa was credited with having written The Mahabharata in the Third Age of Man, circa 400BC. It is about the 2 families that make up the Kuru clan, the Kauravas and Pandavas. The Kauravas reign in the Kingdom of Hastinapur although the throne rightly belongs to the Pandavas.

Into this age of mythology, Draupadi is born from the fire, daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal. Vyasa who has a recurring role in the story, has predicted that she will enter into a polyandrous marriage and this she does with the 5 Pandava brothers whom she takes turns with a year at a time.

The 3rd Pandava brother, Arjun wins her hand at her swayamvar (ceremony for choosing a husband), brings her home and the Pandavas’ mother (not seeing what Arjun has brought home) tells the brothers to share whatever Arjun has brought back.

In “The Palace Of Illusions”, Draupadi is the narrator of the story. We see how The Mahabharata unfolds through her eyes. She sticks with her husbands through thick and thin. She becomes Queen of a prosperous kingdom, Indra Prastha and rules from the most beautiful palace anywhere as it was built by magic.

Despite all that a woman could possibly want, Draupadi remains discontented as she thinks constantly of the man whom she turned away at her swayamvar. Is it possible to have everything one could possibly want in life and yet be discontented? In Draupadi’s case, apparently so.

The Pandavas lose their kingdom and even Draupadi is wagered in a game of dice with the Kauravas. It’s a game of deceit and the Pandavas spend 12 years in exile and a further year in hiding. During this time, a bitter and disappointed Draupadi longs for vengeance and goads her husbands towards taking revenge and retaliate against the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the Kauravas.

The most interesting relationship Draupadi has is with Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna was the head of the Yadu clan and also ruler of the Kingdom of Dwarka. Krishna appears at Draupadi’s side whenever she needs help or advice. All she had to do was think of him in her most dire hour of need or desperate moment and she’d be saved.

The climax of The Mahabharata is the Battle of Kurukshetra, a war between blood relations. The Pandavas are guided by Krishna who refuses to take an active role in the battle but agrees to be Arjun’s charioteer. Nevertheless, with such divine intervention, there’s no prize for guessing which side won.

Still, victory doesn’t guarantee or bring happiness. There are a lot of regrets and Draupadi doesn’t come out unscathed. She lost many loved ones in the war and till the end, she yearns to be with the one she loved the most. Will she finally end up with him?

It’s a gripping story and a very worthwhile read. Told through one of the main protagonists, we see it from a woman’s angle, a woman who was instrumental in bringing about the Battle of Kurukshetra. One wonders how many casualties there were in that battle compared to the 10 years of the Trojan War.

Other than the normal war weapons of that age, the combatants of the Battle of Kurukshetra were equipped with astras, divine weapons which are supernaturally powerful incantations or invocations which can wipe out thousands of warriors.

The conclusion of “The Palace Of Illusions” is poignant, it makes one wonder who are the true heroes of The Mahabharata. Are they the victors or the vanquished of the Battle of Kurukshetra? Certain codes of conduct had to be observed in the battle and by violating those codes, even victors would be cursed with everlasting shame while losers could gain everlasting glory and fame. It’s quite ironic.