‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an unapologetically accurate depiction of one of India’s most celebrated epics: ‘The Mahabharata’ through Draupadi’s eyes.
Queen Draupadi still remains one of the most maligned and rebellious women of our historical texts; she was the daughter of king Draupad, the wife of the five Pandavas, and a close acquaintance of Krishna. The Mahabharata as ‘her’ story opens our eyes to the blurred yet impactful patriarchal rules that have been around since, as long as history goes.
The book opens with Draupadi’s birth ceremony through the fire ( where she remained unacknowledged by her father) with her brother, Dhristhadyumna. The narrative keeps shifting from past to present and she is shown to have ‘boyish’ interests instead of sitting inside and weaving, cooking, etc. She is determined, sincere, and rebellious, in a time when modesty, shyness, and adaptability were the three most appreciated traits in a woman.
The story follows through her life as an unseen daughter and later gives a detailed explanation of Draupadi’s swayamvara. There too, she was not able to marry the one she genuinely desired, instead she was ‘won’ by Arjuna, whom she was obligated to, to share an exile with his four brothers.
We come across many hidden (or forgotten) moments in the epic. There is Draupadi’s mother in law, Kunti, who dismisses her ‘loud’ nature. The book aptly portrays many of the complexities in Indian Societal marriages such as this. Draupadi’s relationships with her husbands grow in her favour as he gains immense respect from them. Prior to her marriage, she was ‘blessed’ to regain her virginity five times in order to bed each of the five husbands yearly. They prove to be respectful of her space and opinions and are affectionate towards her, but truly, she feels strongly for Karna (the sixth Pandava who was abandoned by Kunti at Birth).
The title, ‘The Palace of Illusions’, comes from an artistic miracle, an architectural marvel, ‘Mayasabha’- the hall of optical illusions built as a palace of the five Pandavas in the Khandava Forest built by Mayasura. This is where the Kauravas ( Pandavas’ cousins) came to visit and got trapped in the confusions of its illusions and Draupadi’s subtly mocking remark on this incident led to a grave irritation in the Kauravas -which in turn (among other reasons)- was a push to the family dysfunction.
The Pandavas were invited to a dice game (a game of gambling), where the Kauravas intended to drain all of their brothers’ wealth. One of the most disturbing events that took place during this game was the open harassment of Draupadi.
“Karna calls Draupadi a "whore" for being the wedded wife of five men, adding that dragging her to court is not a surprising act whether she be attired or naked. He orders Dushasana to remove the garments of Draupadi. After her husbands fail to assist her, Draupadi prays to Krishna to protect her. Dushasana attempts to disrobe her, but she is miraculously protected by Krishna, and Dushasana finds that as he continues to unwrap the layers of her sari, the amount of fabric covering her never lessens. Dushasana is eventually reduced to exhaustion, as the awed court observes that Draupadi is still chastely dressed. At this point, a furious Bhima vows to drink blood from Dushasana's chest, at the pain of not seeing his ancestors/entering heaven. This vow unsettles the entire court.”, as Wikipedia accurately states.
Now, even though the book doesn’t end there,
This is a depiction of something bigger. We not only follow through a neglected childhood but also a restricted freewill through adult life, dismissed, maligned, disrespected, The Mahabharata correctly portrays a modern world of a woman in a patriarchal society.
Divakaruni's brilliance and courage to write this perspective, building aptly through the lives of our ancestors, and reflecting strongly- rather fiercely- onto some of the major origins of our patriarchal society and looking at the modern world problems revolving around this issue, many Indian women would still be able to relate to Draupadi’s story.
A fearless voice in literature, this book says it all. And yes, the Mahabharata may be a celebration of might, valor, grace, and intellect but somewhere it failed in terms of equality.