The Palace of Illusions more strictly falls under the sphere of feminist writing, but being a text written by a South Asian author and one that is so easily identified with so many things Indian, I have chosen to analyse it. No one can deny that South Asian literature is flourishing like never before. Both in the native languages and through translations, it is fast becoming one of the most varied and productive genres of literature. Constantly adapting and changing the approach to the text South Asian writing speaks of truths and issues which has been buried for so long.
Before analysing any text, especially of South Asian origin, it helps to know the authors influences. More often than not, these influences play a big part in their writing. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, was born Chitralekha Banerjee, is an author of Indo-American origin whose works are largely set in India and the United States, and often focus on the experiences of South Asian immigrants. She has done immense amount of work for South Asian women everywhere. MAITRI, which she founded with the help of some friends in 1991, is a help line–the first South Asian service of its kind on the West coast. Women in situations of distress call in and talk to trained female South Asian volunteers and discuss their problems. Divakaruni claims, “I have always been interested in women’s issues and conditions, and desirous of making changes–but that isn’t true.When I lived in India, I was totally immersed in the culture, and thus totally accepting of it. I never thought of women’s rights, or their problems. If things were hard for us, I reasoned that that was just the way of the world. Wasn’t it the same everywhere?”
Her 2008 book ‘The Palace of Illusions’ speaks of the great Indian epic, Mahabaratha, through the eyes of Draupadi, who was also fondly known as Krishnaa or Paanchali. Born from the fire, it was prophesied before her birth that princess Draupadi would be the reason for the bloodiest wars in history.The Mahabharata tells us of the war that was caused by an insult to one woman and her thirsting need for revenge that eventually wipes out the third age of man. What is not told is what went through Draupadi’s mind during all these moments and events that altered history? In a world and society dominated by men, in a world where the role of the wife was just about taking care of her husband and family and their needs, Divakaruni’s book gives us a chance to take a look into the mind of the women who changed it all and in the process set the ball rolling for generations to follow.
Divakaruni’s retelling tells this story and somewhere the reader finds it easy to believe that the emotions Draupadi feels are what every woman of South Asian origin encounters in regard to her independence and will to survive.
There are certain points in the book that identify it perfectly with South Asian writing beginning with the issues she deals with. The hate and revenge that fuel Draupadi is a forerunner of what was cause for every bitter war fought for Indo-Pakistani soil. The bitterness that festered at an insult and loss drove her so much that Draupadi realises nothing but revenge can satisfy her.
Another interesting factor deals with the title of the book itself and with the feeling of identity. The Palace of Illusions, which was the beautiful palace that was built specially for the Pandavas and Draupadi by the asura Maya, is in so many ways the only place she calls home. The feeling of displacement and searching for a home is one that is very common throughout South Asian Writing. The palace, which disintegrates to when Duryodhan tries to claim it, was the only place where Draupadi, Princess of the Pandavas, was truly herself and found a sense of peace and belonging.
The colourful characters that fill the novel are what give it its brilliance. Draupadi and her emotional war are the central themes of the text but there are also the Pandavas agreeing to battle to put an end to the ruling of their bad natured cousin Duryodhan to avenge their wife. Duryodhan, who has always worried about losing Hastinapur one day to its rightful owners and was obsessed with the need to cheat his cousins out of their rights. His blind father Dirdhirashta could never get over the fact that his better brother Pandu was made King over him and ruled until he was cursed!
Kunti is a passive aggressive character who raises her sons with the sole aim of claiming back what was theirs. Mahaswetha Devi has her own rewriting of Kunti but here the chief focus is the relationship between Kunti and Draupadi. The image is of a mother who does not lose her sons to a wife. Every move that is made from the statement that causes Draupadi to be wife to five to the tough circumstances Kunti faces and triumphs shows that they hated each other’s guts and character.
Another prominent feature in the novel is Karna, the man who wanted to belong and found peace only in death. Draupadi’s guilty attraction to her husbands’most dangerous enemy cause her to live with the regret and eventually the knowledge that Karna is all that he is because of her rejection at the swayamvar where she found her husbands.
The book did not fail to mention the magic of Krishna and the special bond that he shares with Draupadi thanks to the colour of their skin, the way he uses his wits and charms to pacify even those who curse him and how he never forsakes his believers are all very aptly touched upon in the book.
The book worked for me because every character seemed to be reflected in today’s society. While the setting is an epic tale the characters and their traits are very modern and relevant. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni said once,”The art of dissolving boundaries is what living is all about.” And that is exactly what The Palace of Illusions manages to do while remaining true to all things Indian.
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. The Palace of Illusions.Picador India. 2008.
Holmstrom, Lakshmi. The Inner Courtyard Stories by IndianWoman. Rupa and Co. 2002.
Moveover, men!. Rumina Sethi. The Tribune. Sunday, September 19, 2010.