Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Palace of Illusions
(2008, Anchor Books, 360 pages)

The Mahabharata, along with the Ramayana one of the major literary works of ancient India, is an epic in the Sanskrit language that was largely created in the middle of the first millennium BCE and came to written form around 300 CE. The epic ranges widely, but centers on the story of two sets of cousins: the five Pandavas, sons of the deceased King Pandu, and the one hundred Kauravas or Dhartarashtras, sons of blind King Dhritarashtra. They and their armies fight the huge Kurukshetra War for possession of the kingdom of Bharata. Stories from the Mahabharata have become standard fare in dance and theater throughout Southeast Asia, and have been translated into a variety of languages and retold by countless other artists. Perhaps best known in the west, and throughout the world for that matter, is the famous and beloved Bhagavad Gita, a philosophical and spiritual dialogue (from the sixth of the Mahabharata’s eighteen books) between Arjun, the warrior hero of the Pandavas, and his charioteer Lord Krishna.

In the author’s note to The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – author of many acclaimed novels and short stories, and a teacher in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston – talks about how she became fascinated with the stories of the Mahabharata as a young girl, but also how frustrated she was by the lack of a woman’s perspective within the work. So her novel tells much of the Mahabharata story through the eyes of Panchaali (sometimes known as Draupadi), the wife of all five of the Pandavas. Clearly Divakaruni could not wrap the entirety of the Mahabharata – which is said to be the world’s second largest book (after Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), encompassing about 100,000 verses, or about ten times the length of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined – into a novel of under 400 pages. But she does effectively and evocatively manage to capture the broad range and human drama of the story. Read more