In this fast-paced, multi-varied, turbulent and rather digitised Fellowship Programme – it is almost paradoxical that I would recommend a 360 page novel to my fellow Young India Fellows so strongly. But recommend I do, especially bearing in mind the perspective-building courses we have imbibed on the YIF journey as yet. http://www.youngindiafellowship.com/
If there is a book that could be illustrative of a very strong first-person narrative (the nascent learnings from our Writing course), this is one. Could there be a better tale that can spin the sociological, historical and near-critical understanding of India than the Mahabharata? And more so, would it be possible to read the complex text, after deconstructing it to simple stories, conversations and dreams in a woman’s voice?
To make the longest and timeless epic in time, where mythology and history are often inter-woven, into a deeply human story about a woman born into a man’s world would involve a tremendous, near impossible effort on the part of a single author. But Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does achieve this in “The Palace of Illusions” otherwise known as ‘Panchaali’s Mahabharat’.(Reference: http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/books/palace_of_illusions)
One isn’t surprised then to learn that Divakaruni is a Professor at the University of Houston who teaches a much sought-after Creative Writing course. Although she has penned a few other novels and children’s stories (the most famous being “The Mistress of Spices” which was made into a very unfortunate movie starring Aishwarya Rai) ‘the Palace of Illusions’ has bought Divakaruni to the forefront of international recognition and critical acclaim since 2008. This book has led me to resolve reading ‘The Mistress of Spices’ next, and abide by the new dictum to follow – ‘Never judge a book by its movie!’
It is obvious that the novel focuses on a select few events of the Mahabharata, by Divakaruni’s own admission she has chosen to highlight the tales of her favourite characters in the ‘Palace of Illusions.’ A review by Shekhar Kapur rightly points out that she “…gives us a racy and romantic tale, the story of not just Draupadi and the god Krishna, but also of the most tragic hero in the whole wide world- Karna.” But a personal opinion here was that there is only a singular plot to the Draupadi-Karna – and the Pandava stories here. All throughout the book, how important the characters destinies are is never underestimated. Yet the narrative seems oblivious to those very destinies as the story unfolds, almost as if it could be a simple instance of a single cause- and effect. For any child who has grown up on piecemeal oral stories from the Mahabharata which later would be only a single age in the humungous epic is very aware how the story is of many causes and many effects. The death of Panchaali and her husbands is known to be a very slow and painful one, which is inaccurately described – and I would have much preferred it to end that way rather than the imagined happy kingdom that is heaven where Panchaali is free from all earthly chains.
Yet I strongly believe that these weaknesses in the plot do not undermine the power of the text. Rather, it forces upon the reader a necessary reminder that it is only one version of the text and a work of fiction in the end, even if that work of fiction is a masterpiece. The power of storytelling as it unravels here makes this book an epic on its own. I also appreciate that this makes a very simple read – not an academic paper, not feminist prose with critical analysis of the epic but just a story of a very fiery female in the era of warriors. Like every woman, Panchaali is seen to have her own faults, finds strength in her own weaknesses and makes her own mistakes only to learn from them.
But what I loved in this book the most, is that it is filled with little anecdotes and quotable quotes – that are deep pearls of wisdom, short enough to be etched in one’s memory to serve as a recipe for advise relevant to this very day and age. E.g. Where the very thought and prayer as Draupadi is being publicly disrobed by Dusshasan is not some complex incantation invoking the power of all the gods – but a very true thought she remembers that Krishna spoke to her as a child –“No one can shame you, if you don’t allow it.” They are kept simple and lucid like the style of the rest of book – but could be re-read each time for developing a new meaning providing more depth to the tale.
To conclude, I would simply appeal to all of you here – read this poignant story for yourself and then decide whether you love it or hate it. But, all I can say is Two Thumbs Up to Divkaruni’s Panchaali – her powerful voice has indeed given a much-awaited twist to this timeless tale that is the Mahabharata.