Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee

In my tryst of experimenting with various Indian authors, I came across Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Sister of My Heart’. It was a simple tale but expressed beautifully and in a gripping way that moved my heart. Her style of writing impressed me so much that I wanted to read other books by her. And just then I bought another marvellous piece of writing by her, ‘Palace of Illusions’. It is her interpretation of the great epic ‘Mahabharata’ that itself has been told and retold time and again. The great and interesting story of Mahabharata has enthralled readers of all ages. And in this book, Chitra Banerjee has chosen none other than the much controversial Pandava queen, Draupadi as the narrator of her book.

The basic plot of this great epic is simple and well known to us; the five Pandava brothers wronged by their cousins Kauravas, go up against them to win back the kingdom of Hastinapur with the help of Lord Krishna. This book starts with the magical birth of Draupadi from sacred fire and smoke and takes us through her rebellious girlhood, prophecy by a sibyl that she would change the course of history, three cautious advices by Sage Vyasa in order to stop great destruction, her swayamvar where she had set her eyes upon Panadava’s arch rival, Karana but gets married to Arjuna, her turmoil of having five husbands, her strong, dominating and egoistic character and various other events in her life and how she led to one of the most devastating wars of all times.

The story artistically portrays the bond that Draupadi shared with her loving friend, Krishna who is also her guide at all times. From living in a palace and being used to royal treatments all her life, she is straight away transported to a small hut with her husbands after her marriage where she tries to cook also in order to impress her mother-in-law. But soon after she becomes the queen of one of the most magnificent palaces ever built but only to lose it to the Kauravas who had won it from Yudhishthir in a game of dice. This wasn’t the end of her woes as the Kauravas humiliate her by trying to disrobe her in the royal court. Though Krishna saves her, but her wrath knew no bounds and it is where the first brick is laid for the great war where many lives were lost and many families and cities were annihilated.

Now what makes this simple and known tale great? Firstly, Chitra Divakaruni has entrancingly with her expressive prose brought out the character of Draupadi. Her character has many shortcomings; short temper, haughty temperament, and manipulative. Many have considered Draupadi as the cause of the war and have hence, believed her to be the villainess of the story. But here Chitra Divakaruni masterfully weaves her words that the readers are forced to empathise with her and offer her their compassion. Draupadi is shown as a strong willed person with a never-say-die attitude. Be it forcing her father to let her study with her brother, living in the exile, serving as a maid to another queen, trying to be the only wife to her five husbands, maintaining a cordial relationship with her mother-in-law Kunti or trying to rebuild the city of Hastinapur after the war; she always seemed to have a plan for everything and willing to take upon all roles that came her way.

This is not only a story of a princess, it is a story of a woman who had to choose between following her true desires or making history. The kings and princes have always been in the limelight in various books, but Palace of Illusions is a book that throws light on one of the most famous queens, Draupadi or Panchaali as she was popularly called after her marriage. It is a gripping tale with exquisite expressions and with a poetic flow. The book is a sure winner and is one of her greatest works. In my opinion, go for this one and read the story of the Mahabharata with a twist!

Shikha Tandon

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