Book Review: The Palace of Illusions

Posted on August 8, 2010

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As religious texts go, the Mahabarath is a gem.  It’s not just instructive and exciting, it’s beautiful. The story has truly earned the descriptor “epic.” To make a long story short (understatement!), the general plot is about a devastating war between cousins, betrayal, kingship, morality, manhood, and the workings of fate.  Many more of you have probably heard of the Bhagavad Gita. The Mahabarath is sort o the back story to that text, or rather, the Gita is neatly wrapped up in one chapter of the Mahabarath.

The Gita is primarily a musing on dharma, or duty, and the Mahabarath deals with this principle to some extent as well, but like any good epic, it’s also full of lies, gambling, cheating, and deception.  And rape.  And polygamy.  Aaand polyandry.  Which brings me to the character of Draupadi/Panchaali/Krishnaa (characters in Hindu myths seem to acquire names like others acquire snowglobes).  She’s married to the five Pandava brothers (yes, all five).  You can think of her as a Hindu equivalent to Helen, somewhat.  Draupadi doesn’t quite cause the whole war, but she’s definitely beautiful, and destined to be embroiled in the struggle. She also has an intriguing birth story, like the Greek maiden, though hers involves fire, not a large human-swan egg.

With these parallels so clear, I have always found Draupadi annoying.  She, like Helen, idles in a position of considerable power while death happens around her needlessly.  She in fact invokes the curse that sets off much of the bloodshed.  Sure, both stories revolve around fate and the women’s respective destinies, but claiming to be helpless?  I don’t buy it.  Their societies are extreme patriarchies, but they both have beauty, education, and political influence at their disposal.  Where is the feminist consciousness?

At least, these were my initial thoughts on how Draupadi fits roles of virtuous daughter, wife, and daughter-in-law, and “patiently bears” (how I rue the phrase!) the trials of her day.  But Chitra Divakurani’s The Palace of Illusions has me seriously rethinking this paradigm.  In Divakurani’s hands, Draupadi goes from irritating to fully realized,with a dynamic and at times radical life.  Divakurani does not rewrite the Mahabarath; she merely gives voice to the woman at the story’s core.  The effect is enrapturing.  A reader unfamiliar with the Mahabarath will enjoy the story and be able to read it smoothly, and those of us who grew up with the tale can enjoy its complexities once again, with brand new perspective.

That is not to say that Draupadi having a voice erases the sexism she is mired in.  We still here of her banishment from education, the “boon” she is given of becoming a virgin anew each time she moves to another brother, another husband, and how negotiations of statecraft and war are made with her body as a pawn.  And the infamous sari-stripping episode is still present.

But now I see her less as a weak damsel and more an agent of her own struggle, battling huge forces as best she can.  She is not the strongest female protagonist out there–indeed, at times she is still petty, self-absorbed, and myopic–but she tries.  I would not say I now love her character or that she shines or excels in the story, but at the very least I understand her and empathize just a little.

Hinduism is still practiced by nearly 15% of the world’s population, and accordingly the Mahabarath is an ancient, but still religiously relevant epic.  For this reason, writing from Draupadi’s point of view is not like writing from, say, Penelope’s.  No indeed, Divakurani has really made a feminist reading and interruption into generations of patriarchal tradition.  And she has done so with integrity for the original text.

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