Palace Of Illusions By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Power Of Stories And Storytelling: Essay Fountain

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“Stories changed with each telling. Or is that the nature of all stories, the reason for their power?”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, an Indian best selling novelist, has written an extremely emotional and mind boggling mythological-cum-historical-fiction novel, The Palace of Illusions that narrates the great epic Indian mythological tale, Mahabharata from the point of view of the most fearless female character, Draupadi, who weaves her thoroughly soul touching life story starting from the day she was born to the day she left her palace and kingdom to follow her husbands to heaven. Yes, in modern terms, you call it a fan fiction of Mahabharata.

The novel traces the princess Panchaali’s life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited act to balance out as a woman with five husbands who have been exiled out of their father’s kingdom through unfair means. Panchaali supports them in their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate. The book is remarkable in the sense, in a world where pages are ruled by men, she gets a chance to tell her story, her passions, her desires, her humiliation, her sorrows that were till now considered unworthy of attention in her own voice. And she begins, by shaking herself free from the name ‘Draupadi’ (Daughter of Drupad) and accepting Vyasa’s boon to be remembered as Panchaali. Panchaali, daughter of king Draupad, was born out of fire, when her father prayed and fasted for a son who will take vengeance from his enemies. So apart from Panchaali, beautiful and highly intelligent young girl, Dhrishtadyumna, a fierce young boy was also born out of the very same fire. While growing up, Draupadi confided in only three people who were closest to her heart, her caretaker, Dhai Ma, her brother, Dhri, and her only friend, Krishna, who guided her through all her troubles with his wise and thoughtful advice. But when the time arrived for Swayamvar, Draupadi’s heart has already found the man of her life, but due to her father and Krishna’s strategy and scheme to protect the king and the kingdom from his enemies, thereby yet once again Draupadi followed what others wanted her to follow before her heart’s desire. Arjun, Draupadi, after getting married, once again, had to fight for and obey the rules and the opinions of her mother-in-law, Kunti, who asked her to marry off five of her sons, instead of only one. From then on, Draupadi had to lead an enduring life filled with only grief, pain and loss and embarrassment. But not for once Draupadi spoke out aloud of her grief either to her husbands or to her own family, instead she quietly obeyed and payed heavily for everything that her husbands did. Divakaruni has used an ancient storytelling technique, the one with tales within tales. While narrating the greater story of her life, Draupadi draws upon stories of other characters and sub-stories that aptly aid or conflict with the larger framework.

Time and again both the author and the protagonist have reinforced the power of stories and storytelling. Throughout the bleak years of her childhood, Draupadi listens to Dhai Ma tell the story of her birth and this helps her to fortify her purpose and resent her indifferent father. On the other hand, what help both her and her brother survive are the stories they tell one another. The stories, whether they be of Drona and Drupad, Amba and Bheeshma, Nal and Damayanti, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, Kunti and Karna, each one has its own little lesson to teach. It was captivating to read the Mahabharata with the point of view of Draupadi who has a pivotal role to play. More over, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni presents the characters as human as possible devoid of the aura of divinity which makes it a compelling read. This is one of the most enthralling and magical re-telling of the epic mythological tale that changed the history, spiritualism, thoughts and beliefs of Indian society.

Another reason is the book’s unravelling of different kinds of love and what ultimately proves to be true. There is no stronger and purer love than that of a child for his/her parent. The strength and unity that this love can inspire in families. The other one is the platonic love we all desire. Being a woman I can assure that every woman has this weird desire that the man she loves should pick her over everything else in the world. Foolish? Isn’t it? Not quite, ‘cause given a chance she would do the same. Draupadi laments how none of her husbands came to her aid when she was being stripped by Dussasan.

You agree with Panchaali when she says:”Love, there’s no argument, no matter how strong, that can overcome that word. ” The impossible love of Draupadi and Karna though will keep prickling like a thorn throughout the story, you will find yourself smiling in the end, as it is Karna who extends his hand to welcome Panchaali and not the other five; thereby reinstalling your faith in a love that transcends the mortal life. A trip to the epic, might really make you want reconsider if these illusory creations of Maya worth the chase? Sitting atop the hill, Panchaali realizes her existence until then was equal to the ashes and dust around. Power, palace, prestige, anger, vengeance were nothing compared to the happy times she could have spent with her loved ones had she chosen otherwise.

The narrative is somewhat intellectual, thoughtful and truly authentic and it is told from the first person point of view of Draupadi, so that will let the readers contemplate with her honest voice. Of course, I personally cheered at her choice of Draupadi as her narrator, having given a lot of thought to the treatment of women in the Mahabharata. Draupadi, or Panchaali, which is what she is called in this book, has been one of the most mysterious creatures in the grand epic. If I had to criticize this book, I would say two things:

The manner in which gender roles are portrayed is a little constrictive. It seems that the author is a cultural feminist, one who believes that there are differences in the nature of men and women. It would have been really wonderful if Chitra Banerjee had broken through these “stereotypes” a little and ensured that the reader remained more sympathetic towards Draupadi when she did not follow these gender roles, instead of giving off the impression that she is a bad mother and wife.

The pacing of the book is very slow and while reading, the readers might feel a bit lethargic due to the usage of heavy words and too many philosophical adverbs by the author. The beautiful part of this half mythical, half fictional book is at the end of each chapter, where the protagonist questions herself only to find the answers in the next segment. In conclusion, this lovely book is a must read because one, it brings a new prospective about our own mythology and two, it enlightens each one of us to understand and relate to the emotions a female experiences throughout her life.

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