Ancient epic poetry is ripe material for modern day writers. There are hundreds of interspersed stories and myths, fantastic and yet familiar enough to be credible. But more than that it is the fact that epics are woven, to use a favourite metaphor, from a gauze-like fabric and as a result there are hundreds of tiny gaps surrounding the bare ‘facts’ of the story. And these gaps are perhaps all the more apparent, and tempting, to a modern writer and his audience. Why did Aeneas kill Turnus? How did the Trojans fail to see through the Greeks’ wooden horse ploy? Why did Yudhisthira gamble everything away?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions succumbs to this temptation with an adaptation of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. Like Margaret Atwood (who wrote The Penelopiad), and others before her, Divakaruni attempts to skew the normally androcentric focus of epics in favour of the female characters, of whom Draupadi – or Panchaali as she prefers to be known – is understandably the chief point of interest. Given the lack of attention the epic pays to these characters, Divakaruni has more scope to colour the narrative and to play on the emotional or psychological reasons behind a character’s actions. Thus Draupadi’s transformation from headstrong eager princess to embittered vengeance-seeking queen is quite reasonably put down to her public shaming and the loss of her one home, the title’s ‘Palace of Illusions’. It is Draupadi’s ongoing and inexplicable fascination with Karna that provokes her to urge Yudhisthira to accept Duryodhana’s invitation to Hastinapura to play dice – a decision which we are led to believe he would not otherwise have made. But Divakaruni’s novel does not seek to explain actions and events by simply attributing a single motive to a single character. She is well aware of the complexity of a story in which pupils fight teachers, cousins fight cousins and brothers, unwittingly, fight brother. She expertly draws her reader along this tangled web of grievances, loyalty, honour, vows and emotion. “The chariot of vengeance, which requires no horses or wheels” rolls on. So Drupad’s initial shaming of his friend Drona leads finally to the night slaughter of Dhristyadyumna by Ashvattama. By fleshing out her characters and judiciously deciding when and where to introduce or drop the thread of each person’s story, she helps us navigate our way through what is always going to be a hugely long and complex narrative.
With Draupadi as a first person narrator, though, Divakaruni must contrive at least some of the omniscience and omnipresence of the epic narrator. Background stories such as that of Drona and Drupad’s friendship and enmity are introduced by various means – in this case as a story told repeatedly to Dhristiadyumna to whet his appetite for the vengeance for which he has been born. Draupadi’s dreams give her other similarly one-sided or limited knowledge – for instance she sees Karna and Kunti meet but cannot grasp the purport of their conversation. She does not have the Homeric muses to inspire her with sight beyond her immediate experience, but Vyasa gives her the ability to see the most important events of the war as it unfolds – a gift he has also given to Sanjay, Dhritarashtra’s charioteer and narrator of the Mahabharata.
Vyasa appears at several junctures in his role as the writer of the story, reminding Draupadi, and us, that this is of course a story which he has already written. Krishna, as the god of the Bhagavad Gita, too often tries to help Draupadi realise the ephemerality of the events she is witnessing and enacting. But despite the sound Gita advice he dispenses, Draupadi, as she herself admits, is enslaved by desire and hatred and cannot or will not distance herself. Nor do we as readers want to take Krishna’s maxims to heart, and the Gita episodes fall slightly flat in the face of our eagerness to learn what happens in the war. Much more successful is Krishna’s full-bodied presence as a god in the mould of the personal bhakti divinity for Draupadi. Her gradual awareness of his more than human nature and her baffling love for him, his omnipresence and his fleeting divine appearances enact a relationship similar to that of followers of Jesus or Buddha with their gods.
The Palace of Illusions in spotlighting the oft-maligned Pandavas’ shared wife offers a fresh and very readable perspective on an epic that can never suffer from a surfeit of related literature.
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was published in 2008 by Doubleday. Divakaruni is the bestselling author of several novels as well as volumes of poetry. She currently lives in Houston, Texas, where she teaches on the Creative Writing programme at the University of Houston.