Review: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’ll be honest this book wasn’t on my TBR and reading it was a rather spontaneous decision. It is a retelling of the Mahabharata which is a major Indian epic that is at its core, the tale of a devastating war between two clans- the Kauravas and Pandavas. It’s a very detailed, intricate tale so I’d suggest looking up the characters and understanding the basic storyline before reading this book. I never explored the genre of mythological texts much before and that’s why I only had a loose idea of what the Mahabharata was about. That was until I came across a more philosophical explanation of it and realized that this story has more than meets the eye.

For those unfamiliar with the epic: the Pandavas are five brothers and cousins to the Kauravas. A multitude of events and instances of betrayal causes a civil war between the two. The duration of this war is filled with revelations, acts of love and sacrifice and interludes of mythical stories. Moreover, it is a wonderful description of Indian culture and traditions. Keep in mind, the original book is huge and this novel talks of more of the main events and offers a new perspective on this compelling tale. It is narrated from the point of view of Panchaali, wife of the five Pandava brothers and a very important part of the epic. Although there have been various tv shows, movies and interpretations of the Mahabharata, they are for the most part male-centric. But, Panchaali plays a very crucial role in this war and she has such an interesting, unique history too. This is my mom’s favourite book and she has been urging me to read it, but I refused thinking it wasn’t my cup of tea(sorry mom).

However, when I found out the distinctive perspective this book offers and that Panchaali was no damsel in distress but an outspoken, fierce and opinionated queen,(literally) I wanted to read this book immediately. If you can’t tell already, I loved it and my mom had an ‘I told you so’ moment. Anyway, it’s surprising that Panchaali’s viewpoints haven’t been explored much before because she was the immediate cause of the war and in general, a female character not only known for her prophesized birth, but her inquisitive nature and drive to push boundaries and enter places reserved for men in ancient India. However, the thing that sets her apart and makes her known across lands is that she is queen of the Pandavas.

Throughout the book, Panchaali expresses her desire to make a name for herself and to go down in history as someone who was revolutionary or different. As her name Panchaali goes, she was one of a kind living in a time where only kings have several wives all at once. Becoming this legend of sorts is only the beginning of a lifetime of instances where she indirectly influences major events of the Mahabharata. Panchaali has some dialogue or history with almost all male characters in the book, she advises some and seeks advice from some. These moments, even if they don’t play a part in driving the story forward are still at the back of her head and we see how they affect her when those characters are on a battlefield fighting for their lives.

The author also highlights some other background female characters equally interesting as Panchaali. These women made a difference in their way and it’s great the way they all come together at the end. If there’s an emotion I noticed was very well put forth in this novel, it was regret. Panchaali often forgot the consequences of her actions in pursuit of her ambitions and these consequences would return to haunt her. Chitra Banerjee brought something new to the table in her portrayal of Panchaali’s deepest desire playing out unexpectedly. She wanted to make her mark on history and she did, but by starting a war. Towards the end, she has an almost apologetic tone as she never wanted for so many lives to be lost, women to be widowed and survivors left forlorn and regretful.

Final thoughts~ This book had a bittersweet, beautiful ending. Though mythological it is very versatile and has some great lessons to teach no matter where you’re from. The title particularly intrigued me because I couldn’t figure why the Palace of Illusions which is the name given to the extraordinary palace Panchaali inhabited, was particularly important. I think it’s meant to be symbolic because this palace was the first place she ever belonged, was ever happy and when the war and devastation began in her life; the palace, the crux of her joy was something she never saw again. I could go on about this book, but I’d rather you read it and understand where I’m coming from. I want to explore more of this genre because mythological stories are truly timeless!

“A situation in itself, is neither happy nor unhappy. It’s only your response to it that causes your sorrow.”

~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions.

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