THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Published by Doubleday Publishers, a Division of Random House. 277 pages. $23.95.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an acclaimed novelist, poet, writer of young readers’ books. Her previous novels, Queen of Dreams, The Vine of Desire, The Unknown Errors of our Lives, Sister of my Heart, Mistress of Spices,and Arranged Marriage are living beings in my heart. I got to absorb them, cry over them, laugh at the amazing characters and their heroic achievements and tragic downfall.
Even so, The Palace of Illusions is unique, amongst Divakaruni’s very best. For most Indian citizens, living in India or elsewhere, oral and mythic traditions are very much alive, and stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharatare still discussed amongst modern Indians, even while the Indian economy is booming forward at great speed. The Palace of Illusions, which is a retelling of the epic Mahabharat, could inform many current strains of dialogue.
Mythological and spiritual texts still guide behavior in many Indian families, whether in Bangalore or New York. Mothers and grandmothers still speak of Sita’s devotion to her husband, Rama, still encourage daughters born in cities, towns, villages, to be Pativratas, or women who remain loyal to their husbands until death. We have to remember, however, that these are discourses intended to socialize men and women, to get us to accept an old culture, to conform.
Given prevalent strains of patriarchal socialization, it is particularly refreshing to read an author who breaks the mold as clearly as Divakaruni does. Draupadi, or Princess Panchali is the novel’s narrator, the interpreter of the great unfoldingMahabharat. It is in her voice that we hear the truth unfold: the great rivalry between the two clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, had terrible consequences at the Great War at Kurukshetra. Indian historians date the war as having occurred between 6000 BCE and 5000 BCE. Many readers are familiar with the lessons from The Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna appears to the warrior Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield. When Arjuna is too paralyzed to lead the war, he is given reasons for moving forward into the right war, a moral war.
By the end of the battle, there are no winners. The heroic male warriors on the sides of good and evil die, and the women like Draupadi, are left on the sidelines to mourn. Divakaruni’s novel brings Princess Panchaali to center stage, and the Mahabharat that Panchaali gives birth to is a creative, illuminating, feminist work that compels us to re-examine the original text. All great works of interpretive fiction should allow us to re-view the stories that we grew up with as children. That is how dissent stays alive in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society; we must read texts which challenge our cultural norms, behavior, and beliefs. Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian makes this point particularly well.
Panchaali grows up with her brother, and we are intrigued by her ambivalent feelings towards masculine privilege. The princess reflects, “I turned the resentment I couldn’t express towards my father onto his palace … I hated the narrow windows … the uneven floors that were always damp … I hated most of all that the grounds had neither trees nor flowers.” We learn that the young princess is determined to learn all the skills that her brother has, and that she has her brother’s support in this endeavor: “My years in my father’s house would have been unbearable had I not had my brother … We shared our fears of the future with each other, shielded each other with fierce protectiveness … comforted each other in our loneliness.”
Many Indian women and the supportive women in their lives will identify with a women trying hard to “hold her own” in the midst of patriarchy. The book unfolds as Panchaali grows into a young woman, marries the five Pandava brothers, and learns that although Karna has won her heart, she cannot choose him as a husband. If she did choose Karna, she would not be true to the destiny the sage Vyasa had predicted for her. She would not set into motion the great moral war, in which the Pandavas fought the Kauravas, at Kurukshetra.
Panchaali lives on to regret her choice, and the war itself, but as this marvelous novel unfolds, we also see Panchaali reconcile her many selves. Her spirit is at peace, and the reader hopes that she, who both loves and cannot love, will achieve nirvana, her soul cleansed.
As in all great cathartic tales, Divakaruni’s novel grasps our attention from beginning to end and is, and was for this reader, a healing, aesthetic experience.