“Palace of illusions” is a 2008 novel by award-winning novelist and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. It is a retelling of the Hindu epic Mahabharata based on Draupadi’s (Paanchali’s) perspective, namely, that of a woman living in a patriarchal society. The book touches on themes like feminism, patriarchy, and marginalization. It tells the story of Draupadi’s courage, determination, and power.
The Mahabharta Epic has been immortalizing Indian legends for centuries, and every Indian household is familiar with it. Despite the passage of time, it still remains relevant today. Throughout this mythological tale, there are countless characters, scenes, and segments from all different epochs.
This book particularly focuses on the rendition of Draupadi’s story. Draupadi was the daughter of King Drupada, king of Panchalas kingdom. Being a princess of the Panchalas kingdom, she was also addressed as Panchaali. She had a twin brother named Dhristadhyumna, and a sister turned brother named Shikhandi. As king Drupad never wanted a girl child, Draupadi was aware of her father’s disdain for her. Growing up, she craved attention from her father and his approbation. While being stuck in a chaotic world of constant oppression, she found peace and solace in her dear friend, Lord Krishna, the King of Dwarka. He wasn’t just a mere friend, but also a confidante, a well wisher, and a savior in times of need.
Draupadi is described as a young rebel. She grew up questioning and battling patriarchal expectations. Her effrontery didn’t meet with any fortuitous results as she had to bow down to the higher values instilled in her. She lived in an era where values like protecting the family’s honor or choosing the kingdom’s greater good were lauded at the expense of vitiating a woman’s dignity. Draupadi was truly stuck in a “man’s world”.
The book begins with Draupadi’s childhood and goes back and forth providing flashbacks as the plot evolves, getting the reader acquainted with the characters. When Draupadi attains the age to be married off, King Drupad holds a Swayamwar for his daughter. Draupadi is perpetually subjected to capitulate her own heart’s desire for the betterment of those around her. The concatenation of compromises starts with the Swayamvar, where she had to choose Arjuna over Karna, whom she admired. Later, her mother in law, Kunti, asks Draupadi to marry all five of her sons. This culpable decision made by Kunti was under the pretext of keeping all her sons together for eternity; but it was at the expense of Draupadi’s well being. The book doesn’t change the narrative or the course of Mahabharta. It further underlines the myriad sacrifices that Draupadi had to make in order to live up to the axiomatic definition of an ideal wife as well as a good daughter in law. Draupadi is constantly struggling to find love and freedom. Although she was coerced to be quite submissive at first, she later created an austere image of herself and gained respect in everyone’s eyes, especially her husbands’.
Contrary to the original story of Mahabharta, ‘Palace of Illusions’ establishes that Draupadi secretly loved and admired Karna. The author proficiently interlaces the original stories from Mahabharata, while adding her own subtle twists to events.
Overall, this book portrays the beautiful journey of Draupadi evolving from being a young, rebellious girl to a glorious queen of all times.