My knowledge of the ‘Mahabharata’ is confined to bits and pieces of anecdotes and excerpts  from the grand epic . I have a rather perfunctory familiarity with the names of the myriad characters all of whom play a meaningful role in a saga which is so much a part of the fabric of Indian mythology.

Recently, I was recommended a book, ‘The  Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Bannerjee Devakaruni, and it was unputdownable. There are those who will find it a little slow-reading in the beginning, but to me it was an excitingly original take on the events leading to the great epic war  from the point of view of Draupadi , at whose door is laid the responsibility for instigating the great fratricidal war.  What made the deepest impression on me was that the powerful narrative was built and developed not just out of the author’s readings of the epic but from her memories of tales told to her as a child by the elders in the family which had imprinted themselves in her psyche.

One is spellbound absorbing  the many teachings that are threaded through the narrative such as the science and art of honourable warfare, the power of oratory and the importance of correct choice of words by leaders while addressing the masses. One cannot forget Draupadi’s comparison of a resentful heart to a burning stick – ‘it may hurt you but in trying to burn you it’s consuming itself’, or ‘ the humiliated enemy is the most dangerous one’, giving the examples of the hair of Duryodhan’s brother-in-law Jayadrath chopped off by Bheem for trying to abduct Draupadi, and Duryadhan’s rescue from capture by a Gandharva king by Arjun, his most hated enemy.

There is the breathless  building up of the tempo leading to the war of Kurukshetra  – the hectic  throbbing pace and build up to war, its climax, its denouement. One practically feels one is in the thick of it, the aligning of the 2 armies, the resonance of the musical instruments, the preparedness of horses and the elephants, the description and use of different types of weapons, the layout of the battlefield and the living quarters (including brothels for the soldiery), the rules of honourable battle and the state of preparedness of the generals.

It is difficult not to love and empathise with the character of Draupadi – her strengths and weaknesses, her wilfulness and her regrets. Also her practical nature and logic.  For instance, when she accepts her Pandava husbands taking extra wives because you ‘couldn’t expect them to remain celibate while waiting their turn’ as her spouse. Still, she adds elsewhere, ‘it’s never a good idea to let one’s husband grow too complacent’ hence her temper  tantrums to ensure a healthy respect for a wife’s anger.  It is easy to identify oneself in her very modern ideas, her chafing  throughout at the restrictions that limit women froma wider area of knowledge and activity such as the art and science of warfare, the veiling of body and face, even talking unless specifically permitted to do so. With her life so closely entwined with those of five strong men, she can conclude that- ‘for men the softer emotions are always intertwined with power and pride’. One understands  that five husbands are four too many and life can be so trying under such circumstances that she looks forward to a life  in the next birth ‘ where she can be free of male demands’.

What moved me most was the author’s beautiful depiction of Karna as the tragic hero whose fate was decided before he was born.  Draupadi’s deep and abiding attraction and love for Karna shines through the entire narrative; comparing him almost involuntarily  to her husbands she confesses that ‘none of them had the power to agitate me the way the mere memory of Karna did’. Her glowing, detailed descriptions of Karna so lovingly etched reveal her burning desire, the depth of her feelings for him, the understanding of his pain.

Finally, what a master story teller is Vyasa who penned the Mahabharata and is also plays himself in it – the delineation of each character and their individual and separate idiosyncracies, and the stories- within- stories enmeshing with each other. And what an equally amazing raconteur must have been the family elder of the author, that every little detail remained etched in an impressionable child’s memory till she was able to bring them all to life many years later.



12 responses »

  1. indrani9 says:

    Very nice review, Vimala. I have read the book and I liked it a lot. But my favorite Divakaruni read is The Mistress of the Spices. Have you read it?

  2. vimala madon says:

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy it Geeta. We have recently started a book reading club with around 9 members. We meet once a month and each month one member recommends a book that is to be read and discussed at the next meeting. Sometimes it can be more than one book. At the last meeting we read the Sufi poets; so while I and one other read Rumi, others read Bulle Shah, and so on. It’s good to read material one would not have otherwise picked up.

  3. gc1963 says:

    Great review. Would make it a point to read the book.

  4. vimala madon says:

    You must Om. you will enjoy it immensely as I did, I hope

  5. Vimala Madon Madam,
    Your review has inspired me enough to look for the book! I will definitely read it. Thanks.

  6. vimala madon says:

    Thank you Beyniaz and Mira – do read the book. And enjoy it as much as I did.

  7. Mira Pawar says:

    I am sure reading the book ‘Palace of Illusions’ must have been very enjoyable for you as it seems from your blog……I am ashamed of myself for not knowing so many things you mentioned . You have now inspired me to read the book. My inquisitive mind now wants to know so many things.
    Thanks for sharing…..lovely read.

  8. Beyniaz says:

    Really nice, Vimala. Shall try and read this book asap.

  9. vimala madon says:

    Thanks Vimala, Sonal, Shail. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed this reading.

  10. Sonal Shree says:

    Interesting book it seems. Hope I can get hold of it. Something quite different. Nice review.

  11. Dear Vimala,

    Your review shows that you completely enjoyed the book, thoroughly in fact. Yes, the characters of Draupadi and Karna are always worth reading again and again.

    Thanks for the lovely review…

  12. vimala ramu says:

    The treatment of an ever fresh epic subject in the hands of an expert like Diva karuni must have indeed been very interesting.

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