Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Palace of Illusions

Ramayana and Mahabharata are India's most revered mythologies and its difficult to go wrong with them as long as one sticks to the original story and does not diverge from it. While Ramayana is the idealist story and strives to tell things in black and white, its really the Mahabharata that catches our imagination and forces us to think at multiple levels about the reality of life, people and relationships.

I've always been fascinated with Mahabharata and its multi-level messages. So when my friends told me about this book it sounded very intriguing from a simple fact that I had not come across the story written from a different perspective. I tried to get this book way back in June but picked up another book by the same author and reviewed that.

Panchali / Draupadi is by far the most interesting character of Mahabharata. She is born out of fire (some say by mistake) to fulfill a dreadful prophecy. She is married to five brothers each of which represent one true facet of a human being. She embodies different forms of love - a pure love for Krishna and a hidden love for Karna. She is a woman driven by strong emotions of revenge and self belief to an extent that she ignores her own children. She has the power to drive men to different destinies. She is a creative person harboring a dream of a beautiful home only to see it crushed. With so many different images and facets of a single person it would be a daunting task to bring to pen her side of the story. And I thought that would be the biggest challenge of this book.

'Palace of Illusions' is in some way able to address all these facets of her life but only superficially. Each facet is touched upon, scratched at the surface and then left alone. Chitra leaves you wanting to hear more about Panchali's views on certain subjects probably because of commercial aspects of making the book to a readable length. We get to see understand her need for an open palace filled with wonders and her final realisation of the vision but do not get to explore why she chooses certain things in the palace. We get to feel her angst as she is dragged to the court by Dushasan but do not get to hear her sadness, her views, her questions, her accusations and her anger at the impotence of the court. Almost every Indian knows the story and knows what happened in it from a man's perspective. This would have been a great opportunity to present a woman's perspective of some of the key elements of the story. I feel the author missed the opportunity and instead focussed on surface level to try and present the entire story in one sitting.

Mahabharata from the eyes of Panchali had the potential to essentially rewrite the story as we know it and force us to think about it from an oppressed person's perspective. Palace of Illusions fails on that count. It does not make us think. Rather it makes lusting for more depth. Its almost like a film that fails to live up to the expectations sets by the trailor. The image that you left with at the end of the book is that of a pining Panchali who would have been much happier if she would have married Karna rather than Arjun. And that's not the image that I wanted to have.

Having said that its still a great read. It exposes you to a different perspective of the story and brings to life some of the old debates of good and evil, of ego and subjudication, of dreams and reality, of truth and lies, of destiny and actions.

I rate the book 3/5 as it left me wanting more. I hope Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni comes out with a more detailed version.

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