Palace Of Illusions, the bestselling novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, is a fictional take on the Hindu epic ‘Mahabharata’ through the eyes of the female protagonist – Panchaali. The novel is written in first person, giving Panchaali’s own thoughts on her own life. Though popularly known as Draupadi (daughter of King Drupad), she renames and declares herself as Panchaali (meaning from the Kingdom of Panchaal), rejecting the egoistic name given by her father and refusing to believe that her identity was to be bound by the men in her life.
Draupadi is generally portrayed negatively in the Hindu society. In India, you’ll find girls named Lakshmi, Saraswati, Maithili, Janaki, but not one girl will be named after Draupadi. Many believe that it was her headstrong actions that led to the destruction of the ‘Third Age of Man’. But Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni moves away from such definitions and throws a different light on Panchaali.
Divakaruni portrays Panchaali as a strong and independent woman, equal to the men around her rather than subordinate. She presents Panchaali’s life as a series of choices made by her, and not the people around her, giving her a voice in the patriarchal society that was ancient India. Divakaruni’s novel gives a stronger role to the women of the story.
Though through her novel, Divakaruni gives women an equal status in society, showing them as someone more than just being daughters, mothers, sisters and wives of great heroes of the epic Mahabharata, the injustices suffered by the female protagonists constantly remind the reader that no matter how much women declare their roles in society, equality won’t prevail unless the men accept the fact that women are not inferior to them.
Panchaali’s story can be compared to the contemporary Indian society that shows us that though it has been almost three thousand years since the occurrence of Mahabharata, our society has not developed much in terms of the way women are treated. Take the example of the infamous ‘Vastraharan’ scene, where everyone in the court, including the Pandavas, who were Panchaali’s husbands looked on as she was being stripped and molested. Same is the case in today’s time. People just look on rather than acting upon as if it is a spectacle. Though numerous years and generations separate contemporary life from Panchaali’s, her life’s events are surprisingly similar to the many trials and tribulations faced by today’s women.
Though the focus of the novel is Panchaali’s life, Divakaruni does not fail to include stories of the other strong female characters of the epic. Divakaruni portrays, at length, the story of Kunti, Panchaali’s mother-in-law, who devoted her life to the upbringing of her own sons and the sons of her husband’s second wife, making sure to treat them all equally, and grooming them to become righteous kings. She also mentions the story of Gandhari, wife of the blind king Dhritarashtra and mother of the Kauravas, who blindfolds herself at her marriage, choosing to live as an equal to her husband.
What makes Divakaruni’s novel different and special is that she portrays the stories of all these women as choices made by them, rather than roles that were imposed upon them by the society. These women chose the lives they lived, instead of simply walking upon them on someone else’s command. To give the women of ancient India such power and freedom is phenomenal.
The original epic was about Gods, kings, princes, warriors, etc. But Divakaruni’s version of the epic adds a humanistic and realistic touch to the story, which makes it so relatable.