The Palace of Illusions
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
First published in February 2008
From Goodreads: A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of an amazing woman.
Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.
The novel traces the princess Panchaali’s life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.
I read a section of the Indian epic, The Mahabharat in my Classics 498- Epic Tales class in college, but it’s been more than a few years since then. While I remembered a little bit about Arjun and Krisha, that was about it. I did not remember the story of Princess Panchaali, a girl born from fire and destined to change history. Because I had no preconceptions or expectations of this story, I was able to approach it with a blank slate.
The Palace of Illusions begins as many other fantasy novels might- with the miraculous birth of a pair of twins. Panchaali and her brother, Dhristadyumna (called Dhri) grow up in a beautiful palace and spend most of their childhood together. As they approach their teenage years, their educations diverge. Dhri goes off to learn statecraft and weaponry, while Panchaali is expected to learn about fashion and cooking. She longs to be at her brother’s side and learn what he is learning. Then one day she visits an oracle who reads her future: that she will marry five men, and she will be the reason millions will die in battle.
Panchaali is shaken by this and decides that she will do what she can to keep those horrible things from happening. But on the day she chooses her husband, Panchaali sets in motion the events that will lead to the war she fears.
The world that Divakaruni builds in The Palace of Illusions is a lavish one, filled with as much luxury as poverty. Gods spend their days among men, and strange magics allow vast palaces to be built seemingly overnight. The prose is equally lush, describing the land of Bharat and its people without resorting to purple prose or overwrought metaphors. Nor does Divakaruni belabor her points. She says a thing once, perhaps twice, and expects the reader to remember it. For this, I thank her. I appreciate it when writers assume that their readers are clever enough to remember what a character looks like without repeating said description over and over again.
“When I was fourteen, I gathered up enough courage to ask Krishna if he thought that a princess afflicted with a skin so dark that people termed it blue was capable of changing history. He smiled. That was how he often answered my questions, with an enigmatic smile that forced me to do my own thinking.”
-Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions
The characters are as finely wrought as the world. Some are godlike, some are mere mortals, and some are heroes of myth, capable of awe-inspiring feats of strength and skill without being gods themselves. And yet, in spite of their abilities, they are flawed and mortal. Though Arjun is meant to marry Panchaali, his mother insists that Panchaali marry all five of the brothers (the Pandavas). For this, Arjun blames Panchaali though the arrangement was not her doing, nor did she have a choice in the matter. Meanwhile, Karna, the Pandavas sworn enemy, saw a grave insult in something Panchaali said to keep the peace at a gathering. For this, Karna carries a grudge for years until he finds the right moment to take revenge on her, not caring that the consequences could be dire.
And that is the heart of this book, I think, and what keeps it grounded in reality when gods and illusory palaces are everywhere. The characters’ actions, however inconsequential they seem in the heat of the moment, lay the foundation for the events that lie ahead. Though they may be forewarned, their flaws and frailties lead them into the very situations they swore they would never land in.
If I have one complaint about this book, it is Panchaali’s lack of self-awareness, though the more I think back on it, the more I think this was a conscious decision on Divakaruni’s part. During the early years of her marriages, Panchaali imagines that the only way to keep her husbands’ attention on her is to fly into rages and fits of temper so they will feel chagrined and shower her with affection and gifts. Because of these rages, the other women of the court find Panchaali to be intimidating. They fear her where they could have loved her. It is not until much, much later that Panchaali realizes that many terrible things could have been mitigated, if not avoided altogether, had she shown a kinder face to those around her.
But youth is wasted on the young, as they say. Wisdom is not achieved without experience and the ability to look back at your own deeds and words with a critical eye. When she has everything, Panchaali cannot see how fortunate she is. It is only when she has suffered grievous losses that she realizes the gifts she has squandered.
“… by then we would all know this: war is like an avalanche. Once begun, it cannot cease until it has wreaked all the destruction it is capable of.”
-Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions
The Palace of Illusions is, happily, not the only novel by Divakaruni. Thanks to this lovely book, I have a greater understanding of at least a small piece of Indian legend and a brilliant introduction to an amazing author.