To be honest, this book was on my TBR for a long time. I used to steal a glance at this awesome green and yellow glittery cover in the library. But I always ended up picking another Jeffrey Archer / Dan Brown/ John Grisham book instead. Almost all my GoodReads friends had already put this book on their ‘read’ shelf. I don’t know why I didn’t join the bandwagon then. Was it due to the fact that I was 97% unaware about the epic Mahabharat? I knew only snippets of this 100000 shloka (couplet) long poem, all thanks to comic books, stories shared by teachers during lectures, and friends who have knowledgeable opinions about the Mahabharat
But there’s something you must know. I had learned Egyptian and Greek mythology from scratch when I was in eighth grade. By that reasoning, learning Indian Mythology in the fourteenth grade would not have been an uphill battle for me . And hence, I picked up ‘The Palace of Illusions’. Added motivation? The Indian Booktuber tweeted that this would be the Book of the Month in her Facebook group. Hence, here I am, reviewing the book from the perspective of a Indian Mythology Newbie!
This book is written from the POV of Draupadi or Panchaali or Krishnaa or Sairandhri. (I will use the name Panchaali henceforth). She was the daughter of King Drupad, twin sister of Prince Dhristadyumna (or Dhri), wife of the five Pandava brothers (Yudhisthir, Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev), friend to Krishna (the avatar of Lord Vishnu) and the “cause” of the Kurukshetra War.
When I opened the book and began reading the story, I realised that all my fears about ‘not knowing anything about the Mahabharat’ were unfounded. I did not feel the need of a prior background knowledge about the Mahabharat. The introduction to the book highlights the main characters. Also, it prepares you for the perspective the author will write from. What’s more, there’s a family tree you can refer to, and a list of Other Major Characters in the book. You can jump back to these pages and check the lineage of the character (which I did many times. I can now recite the names of all the people in the Mahabharat, and tell you what role they played in the book). You may have to Google certain Sanskrit terms. But again, you can understand the meaning of these words from the context itself. I’d recommend that you take a minute to learn the exact meaning of these keywords. More than following the story, I’m pretty sure you’d want to be more knowledgeable about the Sanskrit language too
Getting back to the review.
The plot of the story follows the birth, life and death of Panchaali from her own POV. Not. If the book was limited to just that, it would scream “boring feminist literature”. Divakaruni’s work goes beyond that. It gives you an insider’s view into the psychology of Panchaali, her interactions with other characters in the book and the thoughts of the other characters too. Allow me to quote a few examples.
As a child, Panchaali yearned to be as knowledgeable as her brother, Prince Dhristadyumna. To quote from “The Palace of Illusions”,
“But I was determined to learn what a king was supposed to know. (How else could I aspire to be different from these giddy girls, or from my father’s wives, who spent their days vying for his favours? How else could I be powerful in myself?)”
~ Panchaali, The Palace of Illusions
Yet, she made mistakes. As any human being is ought to make. Many characters in the book are caught saying that Panchaali was the one who ignited the flames of the Kurukshetra war. But the sage Vyasa had some much-needed and much-delayed advice to give Panchaali on the eve of the Kurukshetra war.
“Don’t give yourself so much credit, granddaughter-in-law! The seeds of this war were sown long before you were born, though perhaps you did it nudge it along a bit.”
~ Sage Vyasa, The Palace of Illusions.
Panchaali was forewarned that she would make crucial mistakes that could change history. Don’t you think that the weight of this knowledge frightened her? Yet, she couldn’t help but seek revenge for the injustice done to her. It may seem like a typical plot based on revenge, but trust me, I am bursting with spoilers which will convince you that it is way more than that. Choosing between the devil and the deep sea, making enemies because no other solution exists, hiding true feelings because the truth could create worse problems… these are REAL problems that even you and I have faced on a personal level. What if I tell you that these were the same problems that Panchaali faced? Aren’t you now motivated to understand the series of events which lead to the greatest war of all times? Also, as I pointed out earlier, to help us further understand Panchaali, Divakaruni introduces us to the histories of the other characters of the book (Spoiler Alert) We understand the reason why Kunti was so street-smart. We understand why Yudhisthir gave up everything he had while gambling with Duryodhan and Sakuni. We also sympathise with Panchaali when she becomes jealous of her husband’s other wives. (Spoiler Alert End)
You can understand all this, by following Divakaruni’s simple, intriguing and mesmerising narration. She has done a fantastic job in exploring Panchaali’s mind and thoughts. I completely immersed myself into the 3rd century B.C. while reading this book. I’ll stop convincing you to read the book now and get on with the review.
(Spoiler alert) My favourite character in ‘The Palace of Illusions’ is Karna. Partly because of the love story angle, and partly because he spent almost his entire life not knowing the truth about his parents, and partly because he had all the skills needed to win a war and was not allowed to take part till the end, and even when he did enter the battlefield, he couldn’t kill the main people in the war. *releases breath* In short, he is a tragic hero. And I love tragic heroes. (Spoiler alert end)
What I didn’t like about this book is the excessive use of foreshadowing. For a newbie like me, the foreshadowing was blatant and sort of a spoiler, and there could have been a better execution of the foreshadowing aspect. But, if you are already well-versed with the Mahabharat, you already know how the story will pan out. You are reading the book because of the unique POV of Panchaali. So the question of foreshadowing spoiling your reading experience does not even arise.
(Unrelated, but can I get an aye for a fanfic based on Luna’s POV of everything that happened in Harry Potter? )
I would recommend this book to all my friends who can discuss the Mahabharat at length. And also the ones who don’t know that Panchaali is the other name for Draupadi. I found “The Palace of Illusions” to be a primer to Indian Mythology, and I now feel like reading more books that are based on our rich Indian culture.
~ Amateur – Book – Reviewer
I am linking this review to #BookTalk by @theerailivedin.