Sunday, June 5, 2011

Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

What can I say? Palace of Illusions is so beautiful, I am lost for words.

The Palace of Illusions: A Novel

Its not like I wasnt expecting it to be amazing. I was. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of those authors I pick up when I see on a bookshelf, no questions asked. Her books are magical and mystical, written in a lyrical style quite different from most authors. Her writing is mature and beautiful - she crafts worlds that I and my mother, women of two different generations, can enjoy and love. What I admire most is how well she takes certain concepts, and manipulates them into something beautiful. She takes fantasy and she brings it into India. And in Palace of Illusions, she does something even more difficult - she takes one of the oldest tales in the world (the Mahabharata) and she re-tells it so beautifully that she can make the heart break with pure awe. Because she does something that I've always wanted to see done - she portrays the Mahabharata from a woman's point of view - and not just any woman, the most pivotal woman of all - Draupadi, Panchaali, the woman with five husbands, the cursed and the destined. 

 First things first - the characterization is spot-on. Read this book, and you will fall in love with Draupadi, no matter what problems you had with her before. I for one never thought of her as a villain, but I recommend this book to anyone who doesnt share my view - and everyone who does. But its not just Draupadi who shines as a character. Divakaruni manages to make almost all the characters real for me - from Bheem and Karna (both of whom I hadnt thought much of before reading this book, and fell in love with both of them by the end), Yudhishtir (he saved himself in my eyes by the final thing he does in the book) to Arjun (who I didnt like as much, but who was still an amazing character) - to Nakul, Sahadev, and Kunti - and for that matter even Duryodhan, Drona and Bheeshma (all of whom were on the other side of the epic) battle. But the character I loved the most was Krishna. Krishna has been my favorite since years, but this book, and his relationship with Draupadi, took my love to a new high. None of the characters are unblemished and purely heroic (in a book about gods!) but in that they become truly lovable. All the interpersonal relationships are also wonderfully etched - you can learn from the way Divakaruni shows Draupadi's relationships with each of her five husbands, her brother, her mother-in-law, her forbidden lover, the other wives of her husbands and her sons. 

The book also added a lot to my understanding of the Mahabharata. I've grown up hearing the Mahabharata from my grandfather, but I'd thought before that it was a rigid, impractical sort of war - a righteous war that did not fit with my world view. The book made the war much more alive and real to me. Divakaruni does not mince words and she doesnt save characters - all your favorites can be dishonored when the very real game of war begins. I think you might enjoy the book slightly more if you're already fairly familiar with the Mahabharat - there are some tricky points that you might miss otherwise, and a lot of major battles and victories that Divakaruni skims over, because they are simply not things that Draupadi would pay attention to or know. Also many in-references can be found inside the book, like a mention of how "Krishna was out looking for a gem," that you wont understand because she wont explain them. While this should not detract from the experience of someone who hasn't read the Mahabharata, it will certainly be more enjoyable for those more familiar with it. 

I don't know if you would enjoy the style. Divakaruni has a very, very unique voice (I catch myself thinking, writing and speaking in the same lyrical way for days after reading one of her novels). Its written in first-person view, but it often has moments like, "But I knew later that this was not true." I generally avoid such books, but this is one of my favorite authors, after all and I believe she makes it work (it helps that you might know most of the story already - you are more re-discovering than discovering all this for the first time). She writers poetic prose but it still seems to fly - I finished the book in two days and I felt like I couldn't stop until it was over. I honestly believe that its a work of art more than it is a book - everything, from the font of the chapter heads to the cover to the writing is meant to immerse you more deeply into the world of these characters.

Final thoughts: It has been way, way too long since I cried after reading a book. And I teared up multiple times during this book. That should really speak for itself. But if it doesnt - its the stunning re-telling of an age old epic, great characterization, drastic change in the point of view and beautiful writing. Read it. 

Other thoughts: When I re-read this review, I kept thinking stuff like, "oh, I forgot to add how much I loved Dhri! Or Dhai Ma! Or how awful the lac house thing was!" - which is just further proof that you should read this book.

Also, I shifted list day to next week. Exams! -sigh-

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, Sakhi!
    Check out mine at


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