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The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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Feb 28, 2012

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Read in February, 2012

The Palace of Illusions retells the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi. The name itself refers to the palace owned by Draupadi after her marriage to the pandavas, and perhaps also alludes to the folly of identifying with one's worldly existence.

This is a book that should appeal to those of us whose childhood was spent listening to or reading about Indian mythology and who are not insistent on superior wordsmithing. The narration here is fairly straightforward. While the author gives abundantly of Draupadi's perspective on everything that happens, it is a rather simple, if emotional, tale. The big twist in the tale is that Draupadi is not in love with any of the Pandavas but with someone else. From a woman's perspective this is pretty logical. It would be impossible to be in love with men who gambled you away and did not lift a finger when you were being disrobed and humiliated. The character of Draupadi is fascinating for the sheer assertiveness she has in an overwhelming, Man's world. Instead of being a chaste martyr she fights ferociously for her own self-respect and is angry at injustice, not heart-broken. I love the fact that mythology has imbued her with such a desire to control her own destiny. As a much required respite from the doormat-ideal of a woman, it is no wonder that Draupadi is so admired by women today.

Like Draupadi says somewhere, the chastity of women is not a virtue so precious to women themselves as to the men who praise her for it. What is of inherent value is self-respect and the desire to achieve one's full potential. The task of being the voice of Draupadi is a difficult one and I like the author for not only taking it on, but giving her an unabashedly self-involved tone. Her friendship with Krishna forms the most significant thread throughout her life in this book and affords discussions on spirituality which I enjoyed the most. The writer cares a lot about Draupadi clearly but thankfully avoids showing her as the wronged one. Rather she ends on a note of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I especially enjoyed the book in its first and last few pages. But I would not say it is particularly impressive. It is often simplistic. It makes for a quick, light read. If you are a stickler for depth in fiction, this may not work for you. But if you love the characters you remember from childhood and like hearing about another person's opinion of them (like i do), this is nice.
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