Most of you who know me well, will know that I am a strong advocate of feminism – not the bra burning kind but of the kind that will seethe in rage at the blind acceptance of patriarchy. Patriarchal systems are so ingrained in the cultural norms of India that it will take more than a few hundred generations to eradicate. I won’t go into elaborate examples here because that is not the point of this post. However, The Palace of Illusions serves to challenge the manner in which the Mahabharata, one of India’s greatest mythological epics is narrated; this time, from a woman’s perspective. Yes, the Mahabharata here is presented to us from the eyes of Panchaali or Draupadi as she is more popularly referred to.
Divakaruni takes us through Draupadi’s journey from when she was born into the lap of luxury as a Princess to her doting father King Drupad to her many struggles as ‘wife’ to her 5 husbands – The Pandavas. The book is half myth, half fiction but is entirely enchanting. Whilst Draupadi plays the role of wife to her 5 husbands with great finesse, the author doesn’t let you forget Draupadi’s romantic desires where she secretly admires her husbands’ most potent enemy ‘Karna’ – how dangerous could this be? to what extent is Draupadi willing to go and how harmful could the consequences be?
Draupadi’s close friendship with Lord Krishna is heartwarming and reaffirms certain foundations of solid friendships – constant companionship, good humour and shared interests. In contrast, through Draupadi’s interactions with her mother in law, Divakaruni also reminds us of the often complicated relationship a daughter in law shares with her mother in law.
The famous scene of Draupadi’s ‘vastraharan’ (disrobement) as her husbands mindlessly gamble away their kingdom to the ‘Kauravas’ is narrated so poignantly by Divakaruni that it provides insight into Draupadi’s thoughts and feelings during such a disgraceful experience.
The build up to the battle of Kurukshetra preceded by years of exile, again from Draupadi’s perspective, is a refreshing deviation from the episodes of The Mahabharata that I remember watching as a child.
I would highly recommend this book as it attempts to provide us with a different outlook on the narration of an Indian Epic so deep seated in patriarchy that it needs appreciation for this very initiative!