The Mahabharata is a complex work. Gods, demons and human beings interact freely making us wonder what really distinguishes one from the other. Who is good and who is bad? What is morality? What is dharma? The fabulous epic does not give very clear answers to these questions. Is the complexity and inscrutability an integral part of the cosmic plan that unfolds in a process which we cannot alter much? In other words, are we puppets in that cosmic game? Do we really have free will?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel, The Palace of Illusions, is a retelling of the great epic from the point of view of Panchali, as Draupadi likes to call herself in the book. The plot is the same. The very same characters not leaving out the man-like gods and the whimsical sages. The point of view is different and that matters pretty much.
Panchali is a rebel in Banerjee Divakaruni’s retelling of the epic. “Perhaps that has always been my problem,” Panchali tells us in the novel, “to rebel against the boundaries society has prescribed for women.” But the result is no superficial feminist take on Vyasa’s inimitable narrative. On the contrary, the novel succeeds in retaining the profundity of the original and that is its greatness. Panchali, in this avatar, is acutely aware of the alternative that awaits her if she does not rebel. “To sit among bent grandmothers, gossiping and complaining, chewing on mashed betel leaves with toothless gums as I waited for death?”
Panchali is a different woman by any standard. In an age when men could have many wives but no woman could have more than one husband without being labelled a prostitute, Panchali was ordained by destiny to live with five husbands. She was also ordained to alter history in much more profound ways than that. The Palace of Illusions tells us the story of that Panchali, her agonies and acts of rebellion, her demands from her husbands, and her secret love for Karna.
Every major character of the Mahabharata comes alive vividly in this novel. Every paradox of human life that makes us wonder why we, human beings, couldn’t be a little more sensible, why we can’t love one another instead of dividing ourselves into us and them, why righteousness becomes the antithesis of love and kindness – yes, every paradox stares at us in page after page of the book just as it does in the great epic.
Krishna, an avatar of god, is a manipulator in the novel just as he is in Vyasa’s epic. Even god is helpless in the world of these human beings who are bent upon dividing the world into “mine” and “theirs”. “Hasn’t this (divisiveness) been the cause of your troubles,” Krishna asks Dhritarashtra, “ever since the fatherless sons of Pandu arrived at Hastinapur? If you had seen them all as yours to love, this war would never have occurred.”
“Wasn’t it the cause of my troubles, too?” wonders Draupadi. “Of every trouble in this world?”
|Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni|
Wasn’t it the cause of quite a lot of the problems that plague Bharat even today? A reader may wonder while reading that part.
The novel should be read by all Indians even if they have read the Mahabharata. Just to remind ourselves of the depth of our great epic (which is more boasted about than read and understood). Of course, the epic can be interpreted in infinitely varied ways. The Palace of Illusions is one of those possible interpretations. And that interpretation is very relevant in today’s India.
The conclusion of the novel is given to Draupadi, naturally since she is the protagonist here. And that conclusion is a grand mystical vision, a profound interpretation of the epic, a penetrating peep into the advaita that our ancient scriptures taught and is totally forgotten by the contemporary sainiks in cultural armours.
This review started with some questions which the epic tries to answer. The novel also tries to answer them and succeeds eminently.