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Review: “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Because I work with the reimagined archetypes of Draupadi and a (female) Karna in my own writing, I cracked open Divakaruni’s retelling of the Mahabharata expecting, even hoping, to feel some envy. The Palace of Illusions presents the epic via the voice of Draupadi/Panchaali. It’s an ambitious project, and not without predecessors, choosing as its medium one of world mythology’s most idiosyncratic women.

To rework an epic is like writing a ghazal: there is infinite variety within the constraints of its key identifiers. But Divakaruni’s Mahabharata bears little difference to what we popularly understand to be the epic. That Panchaali is the narrator offers only a slight, undistinguished shift in perspective.

Plot-wise, the story is largely faithful to the original. The author succeeds in conveying depth and nuance in almost every character, portraying for example both Kunti’s resentfulness and righteousness, or Drona’s cruelty and greatness, in different lights. But when it comes to rendering her protagonist, the results are unadmirable.

Curiously absent are elements that truly challenge the misogyny of the original epic. Where is Panchaali’s famous lust, which in some retellings (but not this one) caused her husband in a previous birth to have cursed her with five husbands to quench it? Despite unexplored hints at her temper and capacity for vengeance, she is depicted mostly as obedient, pleading codes of honour as a ruse to mask cowardice. Even the single attempt at subversion, the centering of Panchaali’s secret love for Karna as the great regret of her life, is trite.

This Panchaali is obsessed by her roles, self-conscious – never is there a moment when she is not a princess, a queen, a wife, an exile, a woman wronged. Weighted down by these, she markedly lacks individuality – an enormous pity because what good is it to retell a familiar story without injecting it with a special spirit? Ultimately, the reader never manages to be fooled into believing that it is Panchaali speaking, as the best first-person narratives can do. Nowhere remains the intense, resilient, dangerous Draupadi we know of, who undoubtedly inspired the author herself.

Panchaali, in the final reckoning, is a weak, malleable character. She is unlikable, consumed by her ego, lacking the essential humanity that makes us love our heroes; the only thread that keeps the reader concerned for her is the memory of other, more fully-fleshed Draupadis.

Divakaruni seems to have juxtaposed one of the near-identical female protagonists of her previous books onto an epic setting. But positioning an indistinct character in a grand plotline cannot make the transposed character inhabit that skin comfortably by default. One wishes that Divakaruni had been bolder, dared to manipulate the epic in a manner that could have made this Draupadi truly hers.

Perhaps what draws the reader back to Divakaruni’s books regardless of their clichés has always been her impeccable stylistic craft, particularly her extraordinary gift for metaphor. But her writing in The Palace of Illusions is functional, stripped of lyricism. The closings chapters have their gripping moments, riding on the emotional crescendo of the original, but it is too late by then for the novel itself.

The Palace of Illusions succeeds as an introduction to the Mahabharata. But both its feminist and artistic aspirations seem shallow. Divakaruni’s reinterpretation of the Mahabharata falters above all because of an absence of imagination. The pathos of the original tale and its powerful heroine as raw canvas, combined with her gift for imbuing beauty in even the most repetitive storylines, should have made this book the author’s masterpiece.