Just finished reading “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni ….
The flow of storytelling is riveting and there lies the appeal of the work.
Though the story line is the ancient epic Mahabharata, you get a completely different perspective since the narrator is Dhraupathi and you see the story once again through her prism. The success of the narration lies in the way the author takes you into the skin of Dhraupathi and gently guides you through the zigzag maze of her views and perceptions.
And often – on many occasions through the reading, you wonder – ‘yes, why not?’ - Like those occasions when she reflects on her relationship with Krishna. “Perhaps the reason Krishna and I got along so well was that we were both severely dark-skinned. In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk-and-almond hues, this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl….” I enjoyed reading such tongue in cheek language peppered throughout the narration.
In the opening chapters where Draupathi’s growing years are described, the language and the narration borders almost on contemporary settings. On many occasions I had a strange feeling that I was reading a modern story rather than an ancient epic! Perhaps there lies the immortality of the epic itself. The emotions and thought process are so universal that the story could have happened anywhere in the world and at any point of time! The application of contemporary thinking on an epic has not disturbed the flow at all.
However, I couldn't help a strong parallel between young Scarlett of Gone With the Wind and the young Panchali of Palace of Illusions! Even the character Dhai Ma – the maid who looks after Panchali reminded so much of Mammy, the old slave who nursed Scarlett O’Hara of GWW. In fact even Draupathi’s love for her Palace of Illusions reminded me of Scarlett’s Love for Tara – the Oharas’ family farm. Both Draupathi and Scarlett are Passionate in their goals, both have strong independent minds. The parallels can go on….!
The prose is lucid and the writing style crisp, with a dash of wit and humour thrown in. But sometimes, the linear narration gets too monotonous and you feel deprived of an omnipotent view – a narrative style that Vyasa or many other story tellers employ to narrate a story. At least I couldn't help feeling - wondering - what Karna really felt, or what thought process went inside Arjun and so on and so forth. The narration, after all, stems from Draupathi’s perception and you couldn't help wondering what exactly would have been the real thought process of each character. With Draupathi in full focus, the rest of the other characters are all in a blur! Except the character of Kunti and perhaps Karna - both of whom occupy a lot of Panchali’s thoughts and thus get more visibility. The rivalry between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and the subtle passion between Karna and Panchali are aspects where the author has employed her vibrant imagination skillfully. They run throughout the story as under currents.
A lot of attention is given to details, which of course embellishes the narrative – of Panchali’s taste for good life and her passion for cloths and jewelry. The battle field scene details are too disturbing though.
A ready-made story line is an advantage for the author. But adhering to the frame without messing up with the epic is a tight rope walk and Chitra has pulled it off very well.
If Panchali reflects on her life, could Seetha be far behind? Yeah…. Chitra Banerjee is soon coming out with her work on Ramayana…. I know that Seetha has many questions – at least from my perspectives... Let us see how Chitra portrays them!