Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


Wife to five accomplished husbands, born out of fire and daughter of a king, and yet Draupadi’s character in Mahabharata faced the ultimate insult of almost being undressed in a room full of men. In author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions, Draupadi gets a voice and a strong one at that. From her lonely childhood to her marriage to the Pandava brothers, her ultimate insult and desire for vengeance – the book takes readers along Draupadi’s tumultuous journey. Whether you see Draupadi as the victim or are one who holds her responsible for the chain of events that unfolded in the epic Mahabharata, the treatment of the story is sure to delight you.

Divakaruni presents the entire book in the form of Draupadi’s first hand experiences and a series of her dreams. A fictional account of her feelings is the central theme of the book. The writing is lucid and Divakuruni does not spend too much time on any one stage of Draupadi’s life – instead the story flows seamlessly as Draupadi’s character ages. From a young lonely girl in her father King Drupad’s palace to the woman compelled to take five husbands, a fiery queen, a woman seeking vengeance and eventually a mother who gains wisdom after losing everything that she held dear.

Divakaruni’s Draupadi is a woman who knows her mind and refuses to cow down despite living in a man’s world. Draupadi’s life is presented as a series of choices she makes. She is arrogant, beautiful, flawed and refuses to forget or forgive. Did she make a mistake when she refused to let Karna be a part of her swayamvar? Should she stand up to her stern and controlling mother-in-law or should she follow orders? Does Arjun, the one who won her at swayamwar, love her? These are some of the thoughts that occupy Draupadi’s mind. She questions why she cannot do more to change the course of her life and why saying no or following her heart’s desire is out of question even for a royal like her.

While she is a devoted wife, she is also a woman who finds it hard to forget her insult and knows how to manipulate her five husbands. Divakaruni’s account of the epic tries to create a realistic portrait of Draupadi’s character while remaining true to the basic story of Mahabharata.
With strong feminist undertones, Divakaruni presents Draupadi as a passionate woman who struggles to come to terms with her unique situation of being married to five men. Yet she sticks with them throughout their years in exile. Her only friend, Krishna, gives her advice that more often than not, appear as riddles she cannot comprehend.

The book’s other strong character is Daupadi’s mother-in-law and mother to the Pandavas, Kunti. The two women are always at loggerheads and while they constantly struggle for one-upmanship, they are united in their love and concern for the Pandavas.

Divakaruni raises several questions as she narrates the story. Could Draupadi have avoided the war that ultimately led to the destruction of an entire empire? Who did she love the most? Then there is the secret attraction to the mysterious man who despite all her yearning remains out of bounds for her.

Palace of Illusions is also the story of needing to let the past rest and to move ahead in life, something all the characters either will not do or are not able to. While the opinionated and strong queen Draupadi always spoke her mind and did not shy away from her duty to the Pandavas, why is it that she is not a role model for the Indian women? There is so much to Draupadi’s character than just being the woman whose honour Krishna protected, and Palace of Illusions is an attempt to bring forth those aspects of her life.

Disha Shetty is a young journalist whose hobbies are reading and travelling.