The Palace of Illusions

This book was suggested to me by a friend in my Literature of Ancient Greece class.  This book is a retelling of the Mahabharata, which is a sanskrit epic of ancient India.  It was an interesting book with a very interesting way of retelling an ancient tale.  The book is written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Book Stats

360 pages

Stand alone

Mythology

Characters

Nearly all ancient myths centered around men and their stories.  This is where Divakaruni does something completely different in retelling this tale.  She tells the story from the viewpoint of Panchaali (birth name of Draupadi), who is the wife of the 5 Pandava brothers.  Panchaali is an interesting character, but had she not been the primary viewpoint character, she probably wouldn’t be anyone’s favorite character.  I would assume that this in largely to keep in line with the myth, but she is driven by jealousy and a search for vengeance throughout the story.  Given that she is the viewpoint character, this is well disguised as she is able to offer her reasoning for her actions throughout the book.  While the story focuses on Panchaali and her thoughts and motivations, the other characters in the book are all interesting and prove to be able to stand up to Panchaali’s dominance of the book.

Setting

The book is set in ancient India and describes some aspects of life during the time it was based.  The settings follow the three main areas of Panchaali’s life, living in palaces for large parts of it, exiled in forests for other sections, and being involved in the largest battle anyone has ever seen in their time.  Divakaruni is fairly descriptive for most of the book (which again may be taken from the myth, in myth you don’t explain what life in general is like unless it directly affects the character, it’s assumed to be understood by the reader/listener of the story) but the descriptions of The Palace of Illusions about halfway through the book were wonderful.

Plot

The story begins with the childhood of Draupadi in her father’s palace.  She was born in a ritual where she was essentially an unexpected child, the ritual was in place so that her brother Dhristadyumna could be born to take vengeance for her father.  As such, she is unwanted for most of her life and largely secluded.  She is given no choice about who she will marry and her father picks her husband through a competition.  She is ultimately wedded to all 5 of the Pandava brothers.  The story follows the Pandavas and Panchaali as they struggle to regain their rightful place as kings.

Enjoyment

The book is written in such as way that it would be better to be familiar with the original story of the Mahabharata.  Being written this way, the book has a tendency to simply refer to other stories in Indian myth without going into them with too much detail.  While this was a little annoying at times as I’ve never read the Mahabharata and am not familiar with it or other Indian myths, it helped to give a weight to the world that led you to understand that there was a huge backstory, even if you didn’t know it.  I enjoyed this book a lot and knowing that it was written from a prior tale makes it interesting in many ways.  Imagine the story of the Iliad being told from Helen’s point of view, that is essentially what this book is.

Overall Score

8/10

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3 Comments

  1. There was a great film version of the Mahabharata by Peter Brooks, made in 1990, that ran on PBS. I taped it on VHS at the time and have watched it several times. I just checked and the DVD is now $27.99 on Amazon, running just over 5 hours. I’ve read spiritual commentaries on the Bhagavadgita, and the Gita itself – that discorse Krishna gives to Arjuna just as the battle is about to start, but this was my source for seeing the sweep of the whole epic.

    Reply
    • I’ll have to look into that. I’ve never read the Bhagavadgita, although I’d like to eventually. It was an interesting story as it was told through Panchaali’s viewpoint, although I’m sure that the Bhagavadgita tells a lot more of the background of the world as opposed to just what Panchaali sees.

      Reply
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