The Palace of Illusions - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Title : The Palace of Illusions
Author : Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher : Doubleday
First Published : 2008
Pages : 360

She's dead. Half of her died the day when everyone she had loved and counted on to save her sat without protest and watched her being shame. The other half perished with her beloved home. But never fear. The woman who has taken her place will gouge a deeper mark into history than that naive girl ever imagined

The Palace of Illusions is a retelling of Mahabharata from Panchali’s, the wife of the five Pandawa brother, point of view. I read this book because a) I’ve been a hardcore fan of Panchali and Karna since I was a child and b) I though it would be interesting to reread this epic from a woman point of view, the fiercest woman in the story to be exact. And turned out I was right, this book is really interesting, and nicely written too.

The story started in Panchali’s childhood when she and his brother Dhristadyumna (he’s called Dhri here) just came out from the yajna fire. She was an excellent student, a rebel, and she always felt unwanted because -unlike Dhri who had known all along that he was born to kill Drona- she didn’t know what was the purpose of her birth. She was always told that she would shape the world’s destiny, but she had no idea how she’s gonna do that.  This is the main theme of this book, about Panchali’s quest of finding herself, doing her duty as a woman in a male dominated universe. And it's right. This book  highlights Panchali as one of the main cause of the kurukshetra war, how her disrobing incident did shape the future of the entire Aryan kingdom.

To be the beloved of the greatest archer of our time. To be the woman whose smile made his heart beat faster, whose frown wounded him almost to death, whose advice guided his most important decision. Could this be the way I was meant to change history?

Well, you know about Mahabharata epic and how long it is, right? Divakaruni gracefully managed to squeeze an epic that long into a short, touching and entertaining story. I think this is very challenging, to tell new things from a story that has been known widely. The plot is not really hard to follow, especially because I already know this epic by heart. I love Panchali and Dhri’s conversation to tell the events outside Panchal kingdom or something that happened before their birth.  The diction is very light. In the beginning of this book, Panchali’s words are veryAmerican teenlit that sometimes I thought I was reading Meg Cabot’s or Ann Brashare’s novel. But as the story goes and as Panchali grew up, the words are changed to be more mature.

I think the previous interpretations of Mahabharata I’ve read were lack of feeling. I never really knew what Panchali felt when she was divided among the Pandawa. I only could guess about what Panchali felt in her Cheer haran. But this book managed to give me everything I’ve desired about Mahabharata. Through Panchali’s eyes, I could feel the emotion of each and every character of this story. In some part, I don’t know how Divakaruni did itu, I felt really emotional while reading the book. I felt I could also feel what Panchali feel. I cried for days literally when Abhimanyu and Dhri died, and especially when Karna died. This was sad. Really really sad.

Remember that, little sister : wait for a man to avenge your honor and you'll wait forever.

And as what I’ve mentioned earlier here, I always love Karna and Panchali. I’ve read and heard stories that they actually had crush on each other.  And I’m really happy that this book explored about Panchali’s hidden feeling to Karna. And it’s nice yet painful to know that in this version, Karna actually loved Panchali too. He really did since the day he saw her in her Swayawara, and in the other hand, Panchali also deeply regretted that he avoided Karna from participating in her Swayamwara. It’s painful to read that Panchali already had five husbands but she still desired other man. Well, I’m not gonna blame her since The Pandawa just sat still in her cheer-haran.

Karna would never have let you suffer like this

There’s a lot of emotion in this book. I love how Divakaruni treated every single character as flawed human, not as the good and the evil. I finally understood why Panchali stopped Karna from participating in her Swayamwara. Not just because he was sutaputra, but because Panchali protected Dhri. Even Duryodhana had feelings too, he had reason to be evil. And I love this book for that.

But overall, I think this book is a pretty good interpretations of Mahabharata. It’s the same story, yet it’s very different. Turns out there’s a lot of differences can be made when we see this story from a woman’s point of view. I always think that Panchali’s boon to be virgin again every year every time the Pandawas took turn to be with her was more about the Pandawa than Pancali herself. And I’m glad Divakaruni has the same opinion with me.  I appreciate the writer’s success to describe the emotion of the character really well. I was feeling sad for a whole week after reading this book. And the most important thing, unlike the previous interpretations of mahabharata, this book doesn’t  talk about the loser and winner. Everyone’s a loser in a war this huge, everybody’s hurt. 

Your childhood hunger is the one that never leaves you

If there’s one thing that disappoint me from this book, maybe it’s just because I expect something that wasn’t presented in this book. I know Panchali loved Arjuna the most and actually, I expected a rage, anger from Panchali when Arjuna brought Subadhra home. But I didn’t find it here. Yes, Panchali is angry, but I knew it because divakaruni stated it clearly that she was angry. I wanted more description, more emotion in this part. I wanted more interaction between panchali and Arjuna, but I, again, didn’t get it here. Panchali seems spent a lot of time with Yudhistira, which is not my favourite Pandawa. But I love her story with Bhima. It’s sweet and funny. If I were Panchali, I definitely would choose Bhima over Arjuna and the rest brothers J.  I also found some part being told a little bit too rush. For example, in Panchali’s disrobing. The story is just too fast for a such important matter. But again, that’s just my personal feeling. If I wrote this book, I would write it differently.

For those who love this epic, this book is a must have! It’s very light, very easy to read, but still beautifully written.

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