The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I love reading myths and legends from all parts of the world. Be it Greek, Indian, Arabic, everything. They contain so much that sometimes I feel there won’t be enough of lifetime to finish reading (and to understand) all of them.
Why have these epics lasted longer than everything else in the world? I believe it is because they tell everything there is in the world. And so, these stories are told again and again, from various angles and differing point of views, to share the wisdom and lessons there are to be learned by humankind.
One such book in that category is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions. It is a re-telling of Mahabharata, with Panchaali being the narrator of the tale. The whole story starts and ends with Panchaali being the catalyst and undoing of everything that unfolds. From her birth into a man’s world to her complicated marriage with the 5 Pandava brothers, there is nothing ordinary about this very famous character in the Indian epic.
What attracted me most about this book (prior to reading it) is the amazing, almost magical looking cover, which incredibly captures the title of the book so beautifully, I can’t help but picking it up immediately. Then I realized who the author was, and what the tale is about.
Of course, what is the point of retelling a story if there is no element of surprise, a dramatic twist or even something you could call, say, scandalous in our terms, to the story? It is rather bold of the author to frankly state the secret, but mutual attraction between Panchaali and Karna in the tale. I find it very wicked and funny at the same time that she is attracted to him (as well), despite having 5 of the best warriors of that age.

I thought: you have 5 of them, and you are still attracted to the OTHER brother as well? Hmm, you go girl!
But then, no shock there; it is a woman’s tale after all, and an honest one as well.
Never before any other versions of Mahabharata (which I have read and watched) has captured Panchaali’s candid character so vividly. She sure was the catalyst for the Kurushektra war; in some ways it reminds me of the Helen of Troy and I can’t help comparing the two epic battles.
Panchaali is known to be headstrong and as a woman ahead of her time in the epic; but often misrepresented negatively due to the war that she caused, eventually. In this tale, however, the author has managed to show some other and better qualities that she has as well.
I really adore this book, the narration and all the beautiful, enchanted details that the author weaves in the tale. By showing Panchaali with a fresh breath of character, we could see the whole epic in a different but interesting perspective. This is a book I read very slowly, savouring each and every page till the end.


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