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Chitra Divakaruni

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The Palace of Illusions
by Chitra Divakaruni   

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Literary Fiction

Publisher:  Anchor ISBN-10:  1400096200 Type: 

ISBN-13:  9781400096206

Chitra Divakaruni

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to the time of the Indian epic The Mahabharat—a time that is half-history, half-myth, and wholly magical. Through her narrator Panchaali, the wife of the legendary five Pandavas brothers, Divakaruni gives us a rare feminist interpretation of an epic story.

The novel traces Panchaali’s life, beginning with her magical birth in fire as the daughter of a king before following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at the brothers’ sides through years of exile and a terrible civil war. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her stratagems to take over control of her household from her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husband’s most dangerous enemy.

The novel traces Princess Panchaali’s life, beginning with her magical birth in fire  before following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at the brothers’ sides through years of exile and a terrible civil war. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her stratagems to take over control of her household from her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husband’s most dangerous enemy.




Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.

The story inspired me to make up fancy names for myself: Offspring of Vengeance, or the Unexpected One. But Dhai Ma puffed out her cheeks at my tendency to drama, calling me the Girl Who Wasn’t Invited. Who knows, perhaps she was more accurate than I.

This winter afternoon, sitting cross–legged in the meager sunlight that managed to find its way through my slit of a window, she said, “When your brother stepped out of the sacrificial fire onto the cold stone slabs of the palace hall, all the assembly cried out in amazement.”

She was shelling peas. I watched her flashing fingers with envy, wishing she would let me help. But Dhai Ma had very specific ideas about activities that were appropriate for princesses.

“An eyeblink later,” she continued, “when you emerged from the fire, our jaws dropped. It was so quiet, you could have heard a housefly fart.”

I reminded her that flies do not perform that particular bodily function.

She smiled her squint-eyed, cunning smile. “Child, the things you don’t know would fill the milky ocean where Lord Vishnu sleeps—and spill over its edges.”

I considered being offended, but I wanted to hear the story. So I held my tongue, and after a moment she picked up the tale again.

“We’d been praying for thirty days, from sun-up to sundown. All of us: your father, the hundred priests he’d invited to Kampilya to perform the fire ceremony, headed by that shifty-eyed pair, Yaja and Upayaja, the queens, the ministers, and of course the servants. We’d been fasting, too—not that we were given a choice—just one meal, each evening, of flattened rice soaked in milk. King Drupad wouldn’t eat even that. He only drank water carried up from the holy Ganga, so that the gods would feel obligated to answer his prayers.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was thin as the point of a sword, and hard like it, too. You could count every bone on him. His eyes, sunk deep into their sockets, glittered like black pearls. He could barely hold up his head, but of course he wouldn’t remove that monstrosity of a crown that no one has ever seen him without—not even his wives, I’ve heard, not even in bed.”

Dhai Ma had a good eye for detail. Father was, even now, much the same, though age—and the belief that he was finally close to getting what he’d wanted for so long—had softened his impatience.

“Some people,” she continued, “thought he was going to die, but I had no such fears. Anyone who wanted revenge as badly as your royal father did wouldn’t let go of body and breath so easily.” She chewed ruminatively on a handful of peas.

“Finally,” I prompted her, “it was the thirtieth day.”

“And I for one was heartily thankful. Milk and rice husk is all very well for priests and widows, but give me fish curry with green chilies and tamarind pickle any day! Besides, my throat was scraped raw from gabbling all those unpronounceable Sanskrit words. And my buttocks, I swear, they were flat as chapatis from sitting on that freezing stone floor.

“But I was scared, too, and stealing a glance here and there, I saw I wasn’t the only one. What if the fire ceremony didn’t work the way the scriptures had claimed it would? Would King Drupad put us all to death, claiming we hadn’t prayed hard enough? Once I’d have laughed if someone had suggested our king might do that. But things had changed since the day when Drona appeared at court.”

I wanted to ask about Drona, but I knew what she’d say.

Impatient as mustard seeds sputtering in oil, that’s what you are, even though you’re old enough to be married off any day now! Each story will come in its time.

“So when your royal father stood up and poured that last pot of ghee into the flames, we all held our breath. I prayed harder than I’d ever done in my life—though it wasn’t for your brother I was praying, not exactly. Kallu, who was cook’s apprentice then, had been courting me, and I didn’t want to die before I’d experienced the joys of having a man in my bed. But now that we’ve been married for seven years—” Here Dhai Ma paused to snort at the folly of her younger self.

If she got onto the subject of Kallu, I wouldn’t hear the rest of the story today.

“Then the smoke rose,” I interjected, with experienced dexterity.

She allowed herself to be pulled back into the tale. “Yes, and a spiraling, nasty-smelling black smoke it was, with voices in it. The voices said, Here is the son you asked for. He’ll bring you the vengeance you desire, but it’ll break your life in two.

“I don’t care about that, your father said. Give him to me.

“And then your brother stepped from the fire.”

I sat up straight to listen better. I loved this part of the story. “What did he look like?”

“He was a true prince, that one! His brow was noble. His face shone like gold. Even his clothes were golden. He stood tall and unafraid, though he couldn’t have been more than five years old. But his eyes troubled me. They were too soft. I said to myself, How can this boy avenge King Drupad? How can he kill a fearsome warrior like Drona?”

I worried about my brother, too, though in a different way. He would succeed in completing the task he was born for, I had no doubt of that. He did everything with such meticulous care. But what would it do to him?

I didn’t want to think of it. I said, “And then?”

Dhai Ma made a face. “Can’t wait till you appear, eh, Madam Full of Yourself?” Then she relented.

“Even before we’d finished cheering and clapping, even before your father had a chance to greet your brother, you appeared. You were as dark as he was fair, as hasty as he was calm. Coughing from the smoke, tripping over the hem of your sari, grabbing for his hand and almost sending him tumbling, too—”

“But we didn’t fall!”

“No. Somehow you managed to hold each other up. And then the voices came again. They said, Behold, we give you this girl, a gift beyond what you asked for. Take good care of her, for she will change the course of history.”

“ ‘Change the course of history’! Did they really say that?”

Dhai Ma shrugged. “That’s what the priests claimed. Who can tell for sure? You know how sounds boom and echo in that hall. The king looked startled, but then he picked the two of you up, holding you close to his chest. For the first time in years, I saw him smile. He said to your brother, I name you Dhristadyumna. He said to you, I name you Draupadi. And then we had the best feast this kingdom has ever seen.”

As Dhai Ma counted out the feast foods on her fingers, smacking her lips in happy remembrance, my attention veered to the meaning of the names our father chose. Dhristadyumna, Destroyer of Enemies. Draupadi, Daughter of Drupad.

Dhri’s name fell within the bounds of acceptability—though if I were his parent I might have picked a more cheerful appellation, like Celestial Victor, or Light of the Universe. But Daughter of Drupad? Granted, he hadn’t been expecting me, but couldn’t my father have come up with something a little less egoistic? Something more suited to a girl who was supposed to change history?

I answered to Draupadi for the moment because I had no choice. But in the long run, it would not do. I needed a more heroic name.

Nights, after Dhai Ma had retired to her quarters, I lay on my high, hard bed with its massive posts and watched the oil lamp fling flickery shadows against the pocked stone of the walls. I thought of the prophecy then, with yearning and fear. I wanted it to be true. But did I have the makings of a heroine—courage, perseverance, an unbending will? And shut up as I was inside this mausoleum of a palace, how would history even find me?

But most of all I thought of something that Dhai Ma didn’t know, something that ate at me like the rust corroding the bars on my window: what really happened when I stepped from the fire.

If there were voices, as Dhai Ma claimed, prophesying my life in a garbled roar, they hadn’t come yet. The orange lick of flames fell away; the air was suddenly cold. The ancient hall smelled of incense, and under it, an older smell: war-sweat and hatred. A gaunt, glittering man walked toward my brother and me as we stood hand in hand. He held out his arms—but for my brother alone. It was only my brother he meant to raise up to show to his people. Only my brother that he wanted. Dhri wouldn’t let go of me, however, nor I of him. We clung together so stubbornly that my father was forced to pick us both up together.

I didn’t forget that hesitation, even though in the years that followed King Drupad was careful to fulfill his fatherly duty and provide me with everything he believed a princess should have. Sometimes, when I pressed him, he even allowed me privileges he kept from his other daughters. In his own harsh and obsessive way, he was generous, maybe even indulgent. But I couldn’t forgive him that initial rejection. Perhaps that was why, as I grew from a girl into a young woman, I didn’t trust him completely.

I turned the resentment I couldn’t express toward my father onto his palace. I hated the thick gray slabs of the walls—more suited to a fortress than a king’s residence—that surrounded our quarters, their tops bristling with sentries. I hated the narrow windows, the mean, dimly lit corridors, the uneven floors that were always damp, the massive, severe furniture from generations ago that was sized more for giants than men. I hated most of all that the grounds had neither trees nor flowers. King Drupad believed the former to be a hazard to security, obscuring the vision of the sentries. The latter he saw no use for—and what my father did not find useful, he removed from his life.

Staring down from my rooms at the bare compound stretching below, I’d feel dejection settle on my shoulders like a shawl of iron. When I had my own palace, I promised myself, it would be totally different. I closed my eyes and imagined a riot of color and sound, birds singing in mango and custard apple orchards, butterflies flitting among jasmines, and in the midst of it—but I could not imagine yet the shape that my future home would take. Would it be elegant as crystal? Solidly precious, like a jewel–studded goblet? Delicate and intricate, like gold filigree? I only knew that it would mirror my deepest being. There I would finally be at home.

My years in my father’s house would have been unbearable had I not had my brother. I never forgot the feel of his hand clutching mine, his refusal to abandon me. Perhaps he and I would have been close even otherwise, segregated as we were in the palace wing our father had set aside for us—whether from caring or fear I was never sure. But that first loyalty made us inseparable. We shared our fears of the future with each other, shielded each other with fierce protectiveness from a world that regarded us as not quite normal, and comforted each other in our loneliness. We never spoke of what each one meant to the other—Dhri was uncomfortable with effusiveness. But sometimes I wrote him letters in my head, looping the words into extravagant metaphors. I’ll love you, Dhri, until the great Brahman draws the universe back into Himself as a spider does its web.

I didn’t know then how sorely that love would be tested, or how much it would cost both of us.

Professional Reviews

The Palace of Illusions:
THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS is a retelling of the Mahabharat, one of the longest epic poems in history, and takes place between 5000 and 6000 BCE. The novel is populated by kings, queens and deities of ancient Indian mythology, spanning decades and revolving around Panchaali, a princess who is forced to marry five men. The story is told from her point of view, and through her we learn of her birth, her childhood and her eventual marriages to the Pandava brothers.

As a child, Panchaali is a willful girl who finds ways to learn things that only boys are taught in school. Rather than sitting at home and being a wife and mother, she yearns for the life that males are granted because of their gender. Panchaali wants to be taught the ways of men and how they acquire power, and she learns all she can from her brother (with whom she is very close) and his teacher.

A sage tells Panchaali early in life that she will end up marrying five men and that she will be the reason for the start of a great war, which will destroy the "Third Age of Man." Panchaali doesn’t believe this at first, but as the prophecies come true one by one, she admits that the wise sage was right and realizes that her life will not be an easy one.

Women are strong characters in this version of the tale and take center stage. Along with the charismatic Panchaali, readers are introduced to the formidable Kunti, Panchaali's mother-in-law, who is doing what she can to make her daughter-in-law’s life miserable. The two clash often throughout most of their lives, but there will come a time when they finally will see eye to eye.

A continuing thread in the story is Panchaali's friendship with Krishna, the one person in her life who she constantly relies on for companionship and advice. Even during her marriage to the five brothers, Krishna is still there for her --- if not physically, then in spirit. She doesn't realize how much she loves him until it’s too late.

Panchaali’s secret passion, however, is for Karna, the man she rejected initially on her wedding day. Her love for him consumes her, for now she cannot have him. When she learns of a secret that involves him and her mother-in-law, it is all she can do to keep from revealing it to her husbands. Still, no matter how angry she is with Karna or how much he hates her for rejecting him, her passion for him smolders until the day she dies.

THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS spans a lifetime --- from Panchaali and her brother’s childhood, to her marriage to the five Pandava brothers, to the great war and their downfall. It is as grand and tragic as the epic poems by Homer. The story is complex, as political relationships grow and develop, and friends and enemies are created, leading to battles and wars that will eventually destroy them all. While I personally didn't connect with the political themes of the novel, I was captivated by the tragic storyline and the fate into which Panchaali was born. This admirable attempt to recreate the epic Mahabharat from the viewpoint of a strong woman is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s best work yet.

An ancient epic through new eyes
By NORA SETON Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 22, 2008, 3:26PM

Born in India, author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.

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The Palace of Illusions.
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Doubleday, 360 pp. $23.95.
Among the greatest — and longest — epic poems of ancient literature is the Mahabharat. Written in Sanskrit, it tells the story of two branches of an Indian dynasty, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, whose lives are consumed by a lifelong battle for the throne of Hastinapur, and some of its verses trace back to the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E.

From Gilgamesh to Hector, men rule the plotlines of ancient epics, while dutiful or vengeful women mark notches along the way. This imbalance has piqued the interest of modern-day women writers and led to books — for example Anita Diamant's The Red Tent and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad — that give rightful voice to women lost in history's crevasses. Now we have The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of several award-winning and best-selling novels and a creative-writing professor at the University of Houston.

The Indian-born Divakaruni grew up on tales from the Mahabharat. In an author's note she writes of how as a child reading the poem she told herself, "If I ever wrote a book ... I would place the women in the forefront of the action. I would uncover the story that lay invisible between the lines of the men's exploits."

Her novel is a seriously condensed version of the Mahabharat, set down in uncomplicated prose and narrated through the eyes of Panchaali, a princess born from the flames. She is the daughter of King Drupad, whose thirst for vengeance against an old enemy launches the whole story.

Panchaali has the colorful distinction of marrying all five heroic Pandava brothers at the same time. This might be an emblematic predicament in an ancient story of gods and men, but Divakaruni, a 21st-century woman, lets her character feel some 21st-century angst. Here is Panchaali, describing a soothsayer's verdict:

"I would be wife to each brother for a year at a time, from oldest to youngest, consecutively. During that year, the other brothers were to keep their eyes lowered. In a postscript [the soothsayer] added that he would give me a boon to balance the one that had landed me with five spouses. Each time I went to a new brother, I'd be a virgin again."

Panchaali founders in anger and helplessness — her true love is the lower-caste Karna. "Nor was I particularly delighted by the virginity boon," she says, "which seemed designed more for my husbands' benefit than mine." Nonetheless, she complies. Duty is an elemental pillar of Hinduism, and The Palace of Illusions, like the Mahabharat, is a tribute to Hinduism's central virtues. Old vendettas and common greed push the story forward, but they only serve to highlight the path to eternal redemption through moral duty, right conduct and honorable death.

The title, The Palace of Illusions, refers to multiple-wed Panchaali's citadel of miraculous beauty and song. Its dimensions shift constantly, "making the palace new each day." It is lit by glowing jewels, filled by pools of scented water, with crystal walls and faux windows, "floors looking like rivers, waterfalls looking like walls."

Poetic moments like these are the jewels in this book's crown. Divakaruni is at her best bringing the reader lush descriptions of Indian beauty and Hindu grace. How history unfolds like a lotus: "An inner petal would never know the older, outer ones, even though it was shaped by them." How Panchaali's earthly paradise grows tiresome: "Deep down, though no one would admit it, we were a little restless, a little bored. The current of destiny seemed to have flung us ashore and receded. Not knowing that it was gathering in a tidal wave, we chafed in our calmness, wondering if it would ever claim us again."

Rarely will you read a book so upholstered with ominous foreboding. Sadly, the worst bears out, and in the end, after the terrible war, Panchaali leaves Hastinapur with her weeping husbands. "Watching them," she says, "my heart was torn apart by loss, by the realization that, like Krishna, my husbands' life purpose was over. Having purged the earth of evil, having changed the course of history, having raised a child to be a true king, they had rendered themselves unnecessary."

Hinduism provides several paths to eternal bliss. Panchaali and her five husbands together embark on an ascent of the Himalayas. "The sages had told us that the road ended upon a sacred peak, a place where earth met the abode of the gods. There a man who was pure enough could push past the veil that separated the worlds and enter heaven."

Poor Panchaali, who since the moment she stepped from the fire was fated to cause the greatest war of all time, make a million women widows and "die alone, abandoned at the end and yet not so." She falls from the mountain trail onto "a lip of rock cushioned with snow." None of her husbands may rescue her. It begins to rain "icy needles." Broken and frozen, she remembers how Krishna loved the rain.

"About time you thought of me," Krishna teases, appearing at her side. He guides her from memories of earthly love to those of spiritual love. "If what I felt for Karna was a singeing fire, Krishna's love was a balm, moonlight over a parched landscape."

Divakaruni has won great acclaim for her young-adult novel The Conch Bearer. Is it possible The Palace of Illusions was written for children as well as adults? The prose of Panchaali's narrative is biblically simple, the lessons hand-delivered, the plotline linear. It's arguable whether an ancient epic could be retold any other way, since they were designed to reach the broadest audience.

Though The Palace of Illusions is sometimes encumbered by its naif style, it provides a radiant entree into an ancient mythology virtually unknown to the Western world. Divakaruni's impulse to flesh out the women of the Mahabharat results in a charming and remarkable book.

She's born of fire, seeking vengeance
The Miami Herald, 3/11/08

She's born of fire, seeking vengeance



Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Doubleday. 336 pages. $23.95.

Novelists who set out to breathe some life into overlooked women from history often come up with fabulous stories -- Anita Diament's The Red Tent, Isabel Allende's Ines of My Soul and Phillipa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl are among the books that come to mind.

Now we can add Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's enchanting The Palace of Illusions to the list. Divakaruni resurrects Panchaali, the wife of the five Pandava brothers in the Indian epic Mahabharat, which is set between 6000 B.C. and 5000 B.C. The ancient poem by Vyasa tells of a vicious, protracted rivalry between two families in the Kuru dynasty. Don't worry, though; you needn't have read the 220,000-line Mahabharat to quickly be absorbed in this novel by Divakaruni, who also wrote Queen of Dreams.

This is a mystical story, one in which gods grant powers to help courageous warriors, and curses are leveled and come to fruition. Divakaruni gives dimension to other female characters in this manly saga, too, but her focus is the beautiful Panchaali, a complex firebrand who aspires to greatness despite myriad obstacles and the desire to be loved.

Women and their plight haven't changed much in eons, it seems. Panchaali's strengths and frailties are universal. This princess is human, even though she was born from fire. From her birth, she is told she is destined to change history, but it is her brother, Dhri, whose fate is to avenge wrongs committed against their father, who is the center of attention.

Panchaali grows up lonely, save for her adoring brother, her vulgar (and hilarious) nurse and, sporadically, Vishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Krishna (although Panchaali doesn't know that), who doles out enigmatic wisdom. She is educated in womanhood, ``but my heart was not in such frivolities. With each lesson I felt the world of women tightening its noose around me. I had a destiny to fulfill that was no less momentous than Dhri's. Why was no one preparing me for it?'

Panchaali is enamored with the mysterious Karna but is wed to a Pandava in a marriage of politics. 'How foolish I'd been, dreaming of love when I was nothing but a worm dangled at the end of a fishing pole.' Her obsession with Karna grows and will plague her forever. Her mother-in-law, a widow who by herself raised five boys to be kings, demands that Panchaali also marry her other sons. The mother-in-law had a terrible marriage, and Panchaali wonders if that's what gave her such backbone. ``But perhaps I'd got the cause and effect mixed up? Perhaps strong women tended to have unhappy marriages? The idea troubled me.'

As well it should, since Panchaali is indeed a feminist way, way, before her time. When times are good for the Pandavas -- that is, they rule their own kingdom -- a magical palace is created, and it is exactly as Panchaali has always wanted. She's happy. She has children. She advises her husbands on governance and others matters of great import. But the paradise is short-lived, and the Pandavas are exiled to live in a forest for 12 years. That is the beginning of the end of Panchaali as we know her. The feisty beauty grows into a woman who spews vengeance and refuses to comb her hair. She encourages her husbands to war, and the results are tumultuous.

At the least an exotic escapist tale, The Palace of Illusions is a woman's look at crime and punishment, loyalty, promises and love and vengeance. 'Is the desire for vengeance stronger than the longing to be loved? What evil magic does it possess to draw the human heart so powerfully to it?' Panchaali asks. She rails against the hubris of men, but comes to ask 'was a woman's heart any purer in the end?' She's provocative, that princess, born from fire but not until now brought to life. With The Palace of Illusions, along with her other bestselling novels, Divakaruni has proven that her storytelling talents put her right up there with the best.

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