A real treat – Palace of Illusions


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After having read the review of Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at Smitha’s blog, I ordered the book from the local library. The thickness of the volume, however, put me off. Until this morning.

I picked up the book, and only a few pages into the story, I could not… absolutely could not.. put it down. I took a couple of ‘essential’ breaks 😉 but was otherwise hooked onto it completely.

The book is the narration of the Mahabharatha, seen through the eyes of Draupadi.

I’ve always loved reading mythology, Indian and otherwise. To me, reading this book was like a flashback of a movie seen in childhood, but this time, in technicolour 🙂

It isn’t boring, I assure you. And for once, I have read a book that has left me with absolutely no words of criticism or nit-picking!

I love the way the author has humanised (is there such a word?!) the characters. She turns a mythological Draupadi into a living, breathing woman! In this character called Draupadi, you will probably see a piece of yourself. Or others you know.

It makes one realise Draupadi was not an average person, specifically a woman, whose life revolved around cooking, keeping house and breeding!!

Draupadi is beautiful, confident woman, with higher aspirations, but is typically trapped in a man’s world. She is intelligent, fully aware of both her ‘desires’ and ‘limitations’. She realises ‘a woman’s place’ in this world, and abides by it.

I loved the way Draupadi beseeches to Arjun, to stop her from being ‘shared’ by his brothers, and where he subsequently redirects his fury and frustration on her, as if she were the culprit, not the victim!! Isn’t that exactly what happens even in the modern day world? In the case of rape, the first reaction is that the victim must have done something, to provoke it.

What shocked me though, was that since Draupadi was to be ‘shared by her five husbands’ – one husband a year, Vyasa ‘blessed‘ her with a ‘boon to become a virgin every time she went to her next husband‘. I almost felt the bile rising in my throat, as I read this. Draupadi or Divakaruni (the author) rightly says, this is a boon, made very conveniently, for the men, and not for Draupadi.

The delicate relationship of mutual mistrust between Draupadi and Kunti is described in such a simple, practical manner. It makes one realise why MILs and DILs co-exist the way they do 😉

Draupadi herself is a survivor. She does not simply make her mark in her household. She tries her best to not allow any adversary into ‘her’ palace, where SHE is the Chief Queen.

I enjoyed the way Draupadi tried to make amends to Karna, for her insult to him at the Swayamvar, but where he refuses to be mollified, and yet, he does his best to protect her from harm, when the court broke into pandemonium!

There is a brief moment where Draupadi (in this book) admits to not being very maternal. She says being a wife to five men, and stately duties sapped her, and she was more than happy, to have her nanny take the children off her hands. Why are ‘women’, specifically in Indian society expected to ‘want’ to take care of children? Why is it not a choice? If a woman does not enjoy feeding her child, does that make her a bad mother? Do we, as a society, have the maturity to realise that a Mother is also an INDIVIDUAL who might simply yearn for more in life, than mundane chores?!

I’ve encountered very severe reaction from a couple of friends whom I sometimes call to watch a movie or something over the weekend. Their reaction is one shock – ‘How can I leave my family, that too on the weekend?’ Its not like I’m asking them to elope!! They feel guilty to even ‘want’ to dedicate some time to themselves. Earlier, I used to feel sorry for such women, who ‘constrain’ themselves. Now, though, I feel sorry for the handful of ‘Draupadi’s that remain, for wanting ‘more’. Strange as it may sound, it is they who are constrained by their wants!

Nevertheless, what struck me most, was the fact that despite being foretold her future, she did not stop it ‘because of the circumstances’.

Arjuna's deadly attack on his half-brother Kar...
Image via Wikipedia

Draupadi could have chosen Karna over Arjun. She did not. (Which by the way, makes the reader feel really bad for Karna, who was always the subject of unfair treatment. In colloquial language, Karna got a bad deal!)

She could have given up her life, rather than be a Queen to five Kings. She did not.

Krishna could have stopped the Great War if He wanted to.

There are just so many instances.

Which made me wonder, is Life about Destiny or about Choices? All my life, I thought it was Destiny. Today, somehow, I think, it is probably not as simple as that.

The book isn’t without humour either. There is a reference to Yudhishtra being ‘blissfully unaware’ that people could mean them harm. And to Bheem’s plate being piled higher than the other brothers. It all made them very HUMAN. There is a Yudhistra in each of us. A Bheem too. Some brave ones even have a piece of Arjuna in them.

There were some extremely distressing moments as well. Like, the murder of Abhimanyu. Or that of Karna. Both these ‘hunks’ 😉 were killed unfairly. What really moved me, was the description of young Abhimanyu staring in ‘disbelief’ at the the unfair play by those whom he had always respected.

Caution: This book is not for the judgemental reader. You read, you nod either in agreement or disagreement, and you move on. If one were to start judging any of the characters as moral or immoral, cowardly or brave… then, IMHO, it defeats the purpose of the book. Any book, perhaps.

This book, is the life of a woman. Of her aspirations, her boundaries and her will. One cannot help wondering how similar it is to the story of a woman in today’s world. Not much has changed over the centuries, has it??!!!

I leave you with some snippets from the book…

– This one: ‘Between Yudhistra and Krishna, a woman cannot even enjoy being in misery!’ LOL! I loved that line!

– Or this one: ‘There is a strange freedom in realising one is not that important!’

– Or this: Krishna says to Dhritharashtra: ‘If you had believed all (Kauravas and Pandavas) were YOURS TO LOVE, this war would have never taken place’. Isn’t this exactly what we need today? Look at the Ayodhya issue. If only we believed we were truly ‘one’ – would there ever be bloodshed?!!

The book is filled with glorious and inglorious incidents from the past, but in that, one can clearly draw references to today, and even to the future!!

I hope this inspires you enough to grab a copy of the book!!

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78 thoughts on “A real treat – Palace of Illusions

  1. That was an awesome review, Pals! Loved it! You have analyzed the book so well!

    Your analysis is so apt!

    ‘This book, is the life of a woman. Of her aspirations, her boundaries and her will. One cannot help wondering how similar it is to the story of a woman in today’s world. Not much has changed over the centuries, has it??’- Couldn’t agree more. I think this is the reason why the book works so well. It makes Draupadi one of us, instead of a figure from the mythology!

    1. Guess what? I’m only half-way but couldn’t resist putting up this review. The book is just too good. Like you’ve so aptly said, it makes Draupadi one of us 🙂 And that brings me both joy and despair!!!

  2. Firstly, “you linked my post????????? :-O :-O wow”
    Secondly, thanks 😀
    Thirdly and finally, I have been hearing a lot about this book, but haven’t really thought of buying it. So I am trying to find out from whom/where to borrow. Retelling the story of Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi is a bold step indeed, since the voice of women have always been suppressed. Its always refreshing to know her perspective, too. Even Gandhari and Kunti would have their owm take on the circumstances, am sure. For example, I wonder whether Kunti ever felt real remorse for her treatment of Karna?

    After your review, I am now going to surely check this book out.

      1. Pal, I was at Starmark during the Durga Puja, waiting for my friends to turn up and I utilised the time by finishing almost half the book 🙂

        From whatever I read, I loved it. I was also kicked to see that the author has also said what I always believed – that it was Karna throughout whom Draupadi loved 😀

        I am thinking to revisiting a bookstore to finish the rest of it 😉

        However, I think that the way the story of Mahabharata has been retold (through flashback n all) it read like some pop story; it was robbed of a lot of essence which makes it Mahabharata. As much as I liked Draupadi’s narration, I felt the story of Mahabharata was not properly detailed. My two pence 🙂

  3. Nice way of reviewing the book Pal..I liked it 🙂

    Though haven’t read this one yet but have read all good about the book..will read it soon 🙂 given that I liked CBD’s ‘Sister of my heart’ very much !

    1. Thank you, Scribbler!!! You’ve read ‘Sister of my heart?’ I was just planning to scan the library for this book today 🙂 Do read POI, I am sure you will love it. But it does require a teeny weeny bit of patience to run through the thick volume 🙂

        1. Thanks for the link, Scribbler. That’s definitely the kind of books I like to read. Will head over right away.

          Btw, I came across this link: http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/books/one_amazing_thing
          But when I read the synopsis, I felt it too cliched to my liking. After going through Chapter 1, (considering I have just finished POI) I think its going to be difficult for me to like any of her other books as much as this one. What do you think? Am I being far too judgemental here?!

          1. SOMH gets tooo filmy somewhere in b/w 😉 Total masaledar book 😉 I read it after POI too. Its nice but probably bollywoodish 😀

            1. @Swar: Actually may be the bollywoodish touch but when you think of it..it seems for real since it can happen to anyone of us..I mean in real life that is 🙂 The basic think that I liked is the way she writes…

          2. OAT has not got very great reviews there actually as compared to CBDs other books.

            Also,I personally feel that it’s always better to take a break before taking up the same authors other works…read some other author in between so that it will feel fresh..that’s what I do 🙂

          3. “I think its going to be difficult for me to like any of her other books as much as this one.”Same here Pals. I read Mistress of Spices, which didnt find worth all the hype & SOMH after I read POI. None of the two books could come close to the pull POI held for me 🙂

  4. It’s indeed a wonderful book and like you said “You read, you nod either in agreement or disagreement, and you move on.” As long as you remember that the author is just trying to re spin the tale from a modern woman’s point of view, you are able to disagree and move on 😛

    Btw I loved the way you have put up a picture depicting a Blonde Draupadi 😆

    Haa so you too have friends who disagree to spending time without family? 🙄 I have learnt the art to go alone to watch a mushy romantic hindi movie :mrgreen:

    1. Sanski : Exactly, as long as one can remember what the author/book is trying to do, it is easy to be detached 🙂 and watch the play unfold.

      Blonde Draupadi: LOL! Yeah man, this is the only thing I liked off the WWW 🙂

      Oh, I’ve not yet watched a movie alone. Hubby has been generous enough to offer baby-sitting services while I watch one.. but I haven’t been able to gather courage yet 🙂

    1. Aww, that is such a sweet thing to say, thank you Shweta!!! Sadly though, I think it is we ‘oldies’ who can identify with serious books more… Oh to be young again!!

  5. I read the title and the first two paras of your post and rushed down to do a ‘me too’ jig!! Even I picked up the book after reading Smitha’s review and boy, what a read it made for!! So much so I gifted it to my mother and now she is a die-hard CBD fan 🙂

    “I picked up the book, and only a few pages into the story, I could not… absolutely could not.. put it down. ” Exactly what happened with me. You know I am a very slow reader otherwise, I need at least about 3-4 weeks to read a thick book like POI. But this one I finished it off in 1 week flat.

    Now scrolling up to finish reading your review..be back!

    1. ROFL!!! Did you finish reading the post now, Deeps? And look, how Smitha is influencing all of us!! I too, plan to buy a copy of this book for my Sis and Mum!!

      1. Yes yes I finshed reaidng the review and then I re-read your review in the evening from my phone too :). I couldnt leave a comment, Pals as I got tied up with Namnam.
        This is one review thats going to stay with me for a long time. Excellent excellent review, Pals. One of the best I’ve read. Every single line in this post had me nodding my head in agreement to your views. Brilliant analysis!

        “One cannot help wondering how similar it is to the story of a woman in today’s world.” Absolutely! Although a historical fiction, I could relate very well to the story. A story very relevant to today’s woman.

  6. its been long time since I read any book, this book sound interesting and ur review very tempting..I think I need to buy this book…heading soon to the bookstore…thanks :))

  7. I loved the book too. You might also like Prathiba Ray’s Yajnaseni – Palace of Illusions is kind of based on it, so some parts are repetitive, but it gives you some fresh perspective on some other aspects too 🙂

  8. I loved your review Pals… really. I couldn’t have said it more objectively!
    I loved the book as well and your review had me nodding along as well, agreeing to what you’ve written! 🙂

  9. I saw the picture of the book in your FB update and came over to read your review. I am a die-heard fan of Chitra Divakaruni and this is is my most favorite book of hers. Its really “unputdownable”. Your review says it all. I was nodding my head all along. Usually I don’t buy books as I have a very good library from where I get any book I want to read. But I like this one so much that I want to own a copy. I have always admired Draupadi and this book makes her one of us.
    But not every one likes the book. I have read a few caustic reviews on the net by bloggers, some of them are by men and I understood that perfectly! 😉 😛
    One of the bloggers (a lady) had criticised how could Draupadi be attributed with such free thought when those days women were not allowed such freedom. I left a comment asking her ‘Isn’t that what creativity is about??’ But in reality there is this too, ‘How do we know women those days did not have such free thought or at least that one odd among them was different enough to think the way she did (in the book)??’
    Anyway absolutely wonderful book. Though I have read it, I have already ordered one for myself.

    1. Thank you, Shail. At first I was surprised to see book has received some harsh criticism. But I guess this has to be the case, as most people cannot identify with a ‘woman’ being able to have strong views, especially when they ‘cross’ established boundaries. Established when, and by whom? God knows!

      As to ‘women not having free thought’ -in those days, I guess there must be some truth to it too. Simply because the roles performed by women has transformed over the years. So what must have been ‘taboo’ then is probably a norm sometime now, or in the future?!

  10. Loved CBD’s book !!!! I was all praises of it to everyone I met…. 🙂
    And love this review so much more…for u’ve aptly pointed out the parts where Draupadi too is just like today’s woman…. 🙂 I like that. 🙂 Till now, I’ve read almost all of CBD’s books and loved them all, of course except Vine of Desire… She is damn good. 🙂
    I am yet to read her other books, Uma!! Can’t wait, though!!

    I too was thinking on similar lines…if Draupadi knew her future (predicted by Vyasa in the beginning) and had all the chances of choosing to over-ride them, she still went ahead and did what was written in her destiny. Its amazing realization for me…that we choose our destiny…
    Seriously, that is so unnerving, isn’t it? The thought that despite knowing the future, one is so reluctant to change it?!

    The part after the war, really troubled me….there’s no peace after a blood shed…life is very difficult….when the Pandavas decide to leave the Kingdom and go to the Himalayas, they are all mentally troubled with all the killing which happened. War is not the solution to all problems…lets take some lessons from that.
    You are bang on, there, Uma. People will never realise it, though.

    Did u enjoy the part when Draupadi cooks brinjal, after she weds Arjun and comes home to that hut….with the limited spices given to her by Kunti, how she cooks damn well and how Kunti is disturbed by the praise she receives for the brinjal dish….MIL vs DIL is an age old story, I guess…. 😉 😉
    Oh I loooved those parts, where there was a cold war between MIL and DIL, and each lost some and won some others. I also liked the description of how both women finally were too tired to be defiant… and realised they were both going to lose something in common!

  11. Great review Pallavi.. looks like an interesting book.. but not sure if I will like it.. I guess I read the review of this book on someone’s blog (probably Swaram’s).. dont remember though.. very true.. such books are not for judgemental people for sure..
    Thank you, Avada. And thanks too, for your honest feedback!! I do hope, though, that you will pick up this book sometime later on in life, and then probably enjoy it more than you would now 😉

  12. Superb review Pal. Such a balanced one!
    Thank you, swar! Though, honestly, I thought I was rather biased towards the author and the book 😉 so I could find no fault with it!!

    If one were to start judging any of the characters as moral or immoral, cowardly or brave… then, IMHO, it defeats the purpose of the book. – Well said 🙂 🙂
    Thanks, Swar 🙂

  13. You know, so many bloggers have reviewed this book. And based on recommendations from Smitha, GM and a few others, I picked it up as well and found it very very interesting. I was putting it off thinking it could be a woman’s book but the book was such an interesting read.
    Excellent, Rakesh!!! I’m glad you liked it. It is only a very mature reader, who can accept (even if he/she does not agree) Draupadi’s point of view, especially when she herself admits to things that were considered taboo in those days, and probably even now.

    I’d seen Mahabharata when I was a kid – the Sunday morning series. But after reading this book, the story seems so so relevant even in today’s times.
    LOL, even I remember the ‘Main Samay Hoon…’ and the chakra that started every Sunday morning 🙂 But yeah, the story is just so apt even today!!
    Even the Mother-in-law angle of Kunti was so believable. A fascinating read, surely. I’ve already recommended it to all my lady friends.
    LOL, the saas bahu saazish made the story so REAL 🙂

  14. I have read many reviews of this book across blogs, but none really gave me a feeling of what to truly expect. And not being a great fan of the Mahabharata, I just steered clear of it. But, must admit, its a very interesting take you have given the book, humanizing the characters!

    Aww, thanks, Aathira!!! I hope you will read the book now 🙂

  15. Awesome post!!!! I simply loved reading it!!! I was about to quickly glance thru it and finish it off….when my eye caught some of the points you had written…..and loved the post….and ur views…the highlights, italics, EVERYTHING…
    Fantastic work…! 😀 Loved every word….

    And the humanisation angle brings a very different perspective…thats why they say the entire Mahabharat is actually a representation of modern day world albeit in a olden day avatar … I totally agree… 🙂

  16. Loved your analysis. I read this book and totally loved it…and haven’t read any other book by the author because I have a feeling I will be disappointed, given that POI just set the standards very high for her 🙂

  17. Wonderful review Pals !! Even I read this book some time back and was amazed by the revealation of Draupadi’s character. At some places, she seemed so much ahead of times in her thinking and actions, yet so practical. And you drew the parallel between her a modern women so right.
    I was actually impressed by Draupadi’s character after reading this book and saw her in a different light.
    Have become a fan of the author since then 🙂

  18. I loved reading this book..it was about a year back and I still remember it with a lot of fondness..and your review catches the heart of the book so well. Was a great read..err both the book and the review 🙂

  19. I read this book couple of years back and agree with your review for the most part. It was an interesting take on a story that we all grew up with, and a refreshing one at that!

  20. Ok first things forst (and before I forget because my fav author is being discussed here and I am ooooooo sooooo excited 😀 ) … I luuuuvvvvvvvv your header … where di u click it …. I addddore it 🙂
    Thanks, Sags, but the header is part of this theme on WordPress, so I can’t take any credit for it 😉 Except for choosing this over some other options 😉

    And yes .. i love the book .. me a mythological freak … lapped up the book like a compelte chatora 😉 😉 .. more than the lucid style of writing .. this book insipred me to think the way Draupadi must have really thought when faced with a situation .. ti portrays her as a lady and not a God – and that is where the strneght lies – for the reader sconnect.
    You’re so right… it shows her as a ‘lady’…a really strong ‘woman of the world’ sorts!! When did u read this? I seem to be one of the last people on earth to read it 🙂
    Long back I had written a post where i had mentioned this boo (no not a gimmick to make u read my old psosts 😉 ) –
    LOL, Ofcourse I didn’t see it that way!!! I will look for your old post 😉

    And yes … pick up the book “Women of Mahabharata” .. you’ll be amazed to see how much humane all those ladies were 🙂
    Thanks, sags, will check it out!!

  21. You did a splendid job writing about this book. The author is here in Houston and is on the board of an organization that i volunteer with. Real nice lady.

    but yes, your review makes me want to grab a copy. will do.
    Aww, thanks Roopie!!! Whenever you meet her next, please do convey my admiration 🙂 pretty please!!!

  22. grabbed a copy. read it. and am glad i did!!! couldn’t put it down. finished in one sitting (yes, advantages of being without a child hehe).
    You did it in one sitting!! Phew!! Roopie, you beat me hollow….
    thank you for recommendation. your review summarizes all i could say.
    I’m really glad of that, Roops!
    i laughed out aloud at one point where she says that either yudhishtra is really a saint or he is really stupid. :p i lean towards the latter.
    Oh I loved that too!!! Infact I committed the sin of bookmarking pages that contained lines I loved 🙂 This was lovely!
    also, there is another place where she talks of us never forgetting our childhood wants. no matter what we become, if our childhood craved for love, we forever will. nothing can fill that void.
    Yes Roo, that was so lovely too. Why did I miss that 😦 in my review!
    in short, loved the book. there were some inconsistencies here and there but avoidable. i wish i had marked them while i was reading so i could go back to them. that’s the disadvantage of kindle. i don’t really know what page it was at and have no patience to go through the entire book one by one.
    He he, I get tempted when I see the Kindle adverts everywhere, but somehow I feel ‘books’ are right, while Kindles aren’t 😉 Just call me ‘ol fashioned!

  23. Great review. Makes me wanna read it too. Will do when I have some time.

    P.S. I guess both our epics and our scriptures are misunderstood/misinterpreted. They have all been written in ‘coded text’ and have not been deciphered yet. What a pity!
    I don’t know about that, Rosh. I mean, I love our mythology but I really never thought beyond the written word 🙂
    Draupadi is THE most fascinating character that one can or will ever come across. Her speech after Yudhistir’s loss at the game of dice is the best that can be found… anywhere. Infact, Mark Antony’s speech after Julius Caesar’s death pales before it. Yet gallons of ink has been spent on it and still is…
    Wow, you make me want to re-read the book now 🙂

  24. pining after a person who calls you ‘prostitute’ is NOT being a feminist, it’s just perverted masochism.
    rejecting a suitor asserts her rights to make a choice; THAT would be a strong individual decison.
    and if that one strong step justifies some thin-skinned inferior-complex -ridden person to repay her with heinous insults …and you lust after him, then heaven help you!
    I’m sorry I did not understand your comment!

  25. i’m saying, the next time someone sloshes acid into a girl’s face or stabs her with a knife, becasue she “had the gall to reject me…”‘; dont pretend horror and dont talk of woman’s rights.
    that is exactly what karn did; so quit sympathising with the bastard. you are justifying; nay—glorifying his heinous deeds.

    what next? a book stating that poor draupadi’s true love was duryodhan? how far low can you degrade under the pseudonym of literature?
    my sympathies with draupadi…she cannot protest from her icy grave.

  26. Thank you for explaining.

    You believe Karna did that to Draupadi? Well, that is not my opinion. And from the book, it certainly does not seem that way. The book actually portrays Karna as a gentleman, who tried his best to HELP Draupadi even though she rejected him. Do read the book to understand that alternate opinion more clearly.

    I also don’t understand your rage on the author’s opinion about Draupadi’s true love being Karna and not her husband(s). It is an opinion!! And it is one of the premises of the book. Imho, it is not degrading to anyone. It just shows that Draupadi was an ordinary woman too, not Ms.Perfect or a super-hero!

    Thank you for taking the trouble to explain, but I’m afraid I don’t wish to enter into an argument on this. This topic is very subjective, therefore it is best if we can hold our individual opinion and also respect the right of another person to have a different opinion.

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