The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The story of the epic Mahabarath has always fascinated me. I first heard it from my grandmother. I grew up admiring the vibrant characters of Krishna, Arjun, Bheem and others. I also developed a negative feeling towards the darker characters of Duryodhan, Dussasan, Sakuni and the kauravas. Since the story of the Mahabarath was told in a black and white form, my young and naïve mind was not capable of analysing this holy text in an objective way. As I grew up and I read the original text and its many commentaries, I was able to show empathy to all the characters and pick up the valuable life lessons. I was able to emphatise with the characters and understand the viewpoint of each of them. I even developed empathy to the darker characters such as Karna and Duryodhan.

One such important character that is central to the story is that of Draupadi. I always found Panchali, to be a weird character, the one with five husbands. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni is an excellent retelling of the Mahabarath from Draupadi’s prospective. Panchali, the princess of panchal and the common wife to the Pandavas has a different story to tell than what all we have heard so far. We typically tend to ignore the feelings, thinking and the prospective of female characters in the epics, but this book has helped me to view the Mahabarath from a female character’s prospective. Also, it has given me valuable lessons about war, peace, revenge and love that I can take for my journey in life as a tradesman.

Panchali is the daughter of Drupad, the king of Panchal. She is born out of a fire sacrifice that Drupad performs to obtaining a son, who would later on kill his arc enemy Drona. She is born as a product of her father’s vengence, along with Dushtadyum, her brother. She grows up with her Dhai ma, a lady nurse who brings her up. She is ambitious, just like most other young women in our lives. She wants to know her future, for which she visits Vyasa, a sage whose prophecies  always come true. The Sage tells her big things about her future. He tells her that she would marry five men, the greatest warriors of their time. She will face the biggest humiliation a woman could face. She will cause the bloodiest war of their time and that she shall change the course of history. With such a big life to live, Draupadi has emotions. All these emotions are very well expressed in the book for the reader, so that we can go into the mind of Draupadi and experience them for ourselves. Her anxieties, insecurities, her love for Karna and the exciting future that she looks forward to will make us all to stick to the book.

The book talks about her deep friendship with Krishna, the divine being. He helps her in understanding her emotions in a playful way. He helps his father Drupad to organise her swayamvar, where the contender is challenged to shoot at the eye of a revolving fish with his arrows. Arjun, who is a total stranger to her, accomplishes this almost impossible feat, marries her, and takes her off to his forest life. She meets her mother-in-law Kunti, who then asks Arjun to share her with his other brothers. Hence, she marries the five pandava brothers. The book talks us through Draupadi’s emotions, fears and confusions when she gets shared as if like a fruit between the five brothers. The story then talks about the division of their kingdom where the pandavas receive the barren Kandavaprasta as their inheritence. Now the Pandavas then have the task of building the city of Indraprasta on this baren land and the beautiful Palace of Illusions.

Draupadi’s love for the fine living and her class is well documented in this book. She likes the fine things – gardens, fountains, servants are all beautifully described in the book such that we can open our imagination. The relationship she has with each of her husbands, the conversations, the gentle and tender love, the kindness is all very heart touching. She then goes on to tell the story of the Rajasuya Yagna, the killing of Sisupal by Krishna, and the eventual humiliation of Duryodhan, in a thought provoking way. The humiliation of Duryodhan as she later would come to know, led to the ultimate revenge between her and Duryodhan, leading all the way up to the great war.

The main events of the Mahabarath are all spoken from Draupadi’s prospective. The dice game where the pandavas gamble away their wealth, their kingdom, their honour and eventually their common wife is spoken from the prospective of an innocent, but strong woman. As a reader, one’s blood boils when reading about Draupadi’s enslavement and the attempt at disrobing her in front of the filled court. One can feel her emotions of anger, helplessness and resentment, that she feels when Dussasan tries to disrobe her by pulling her saree. Despite being the common wife of five of the greatest warriors, she still calls on her dear friend Krishna who saves her. The humiliation she faced and her need for revenge is what eventually leads to the great war where she loses her brother, her father and all the five of her children. Her husbands live on to rule the kingdom after the war, but then, the kingdom is just left with widows and orphans. Women don’t have their husbands, children don’t have their fathers, poverty is everywhere, so much so that the women now have to selling their honour for the sake of making ends meet. These are the outcomes of war, triggered by revenge, suffered by commoners.

The book talks about all her struggles when she is exiled into the forest. It talks about the times she spends with her husbands, her love for them and the actions they take to try and keep her happy after all the humiliation. It takes about her love for Bheem, his deep feelings for her, the moments where he stands up for her and kills all those who would trouble her. The book is written to open the eyes of the reader towards the ill effects of war. The after effects of war –  the rotting bodies, the empty houses, the lifeless palaces and the silence of the funerals are the only result of war. We need to learn this as the most important lesson from any version of the Mahabarath. This book looks at these harsh truths from the soft heart of the central female character.

As a tradesman, I understand the importance of peace in my life. Wealth is created by trade and prosperity comes to those who work hard towards achieving it. However, if there is no peace in the place where we live, then there can be no prosperity. Whether we fight for honour or revenge, we either die or lose our loved ones when we fight. The task of a swordsman is to kill the opponent ahead of him. War is a one time affair where everything is lost, one painful misery at a time. The one who won the war has lost and the one who lost is dead. Trade on the other hand is an ongoing everyday affair. Trade brings wealth and prosperity. Trade survives over compassion, empathy and trust over other people. As a tradesman, my task is to convert suspecting strangers to formidable allies. My task is to use the power of words so that I may influence the people in my surrounding to part with what they have and what they know, towards the mutual good of prosperity. I need to generate feelings of trust and friendship to accomplish the same. The geo-political condition of the place is very important to do such a task. If we observe the global scenario today, it is evident that the peace, which we so easily take for granted is not so easy to attain after all. We all want to have a life filled with compassion, love and friendship. Such a life allows for trade and creates wealth and prosperity. The book definitely makes the reader realise the value of peace in his everyday life.

The book then talks about the life of Draupadi after the war. Her role as the queen, the actions she takes to relive society after the war, Krishna’s disappearence and her final journey before her departure from her mortal form. In the whole story, the main lesson that we need to pick up is to love our fellow beings. To respect others, show empathy and compassion and prevent impulsive reactions to things that just happen. Peace and prosperity will be ours when we learn to join hands rather then cross them in a duel. The world today needs more bridges than walls. It needs collaboration and not conquering. It needs more tolerance and not hatred. If you would like to understand how life would be, without these learnings, from a woman’s prospective, then you must read this book – The Palace of Illusions.

Happy Reading !

Chiraag Kashyap

02nd April 2020

Author: open my book

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