Ashley Ram

Favourite reads and life in writing!

Book Information:

  • Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • Year Published: 2008
  • Page Count: 360
  • Genre: Historical Fiction & Mythology Fusion
  • Pacing: Drawling | Slow | Suspenseful Build | Fluctuating | Steady | Fast | Vague
  • Type: Fantasy | Mix | Realism

Plotting:

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Palace of Illusions is a beautiful piece following the story of Mahabharat in the perspective of Draupadi (Panchaali), wife of the Pandav brothers and the integral influence to the legendary war. It’s a fusion of history and Hindu mythology that demonstrates the impacts of war, familial feuds and womens’ roles in ancient times.

Without a doubt, Mahabharat is one of the most influential epics known to literature. One of the issues is the lack of proper depth in the female characters’ perspectives and roles in the war. The author raises this issue in the beginning of her book and opted to travel in emotional depths to develop an extremely influential woman in the Mahabharat.

History and mythology are both matters of perspectives. The story changes shape, mood and atmosphere when the lenses is shifted to another angle. Palace of Illusions is a great example of a feminist viewing on a book while keeping the integrity of the epic story alive.

Characterization:

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Panchaali became a beloved character from the beginning of the book. She fought against the unfair treatment of women and often questioned the gender specific roles in her culture. Her entire character is raw and beautiful. We see her constant curiosity on the women in her life.

One of my favourite parts in the book was her philosophical thought process. An example I liked was the concept of forced blessings on women. Her mother-in-law, Kunti was a young girl when the gods offered to impregnate her with a blessed son. It raised the debate on whether she truly wanted to have children or had to accept her fate because it was a blessing in the eyes of others.

The same fate is also handed to Panchaali when she is made to marry all five Pandav brothers but unable to choose which one to spend time with nor the amount of time. She is made to be purified every years and passed down from the oldest to the youngest brother. To others, a woman having multiple husbands was a rare luxury but Panchaali questions that she has no real freedom or actual say in the matter. I won’t ever stop talking about this debate because it’s a concept that I don’t see often in feminist pieces.

Panchaalis’ character as a whole is so well-balanced and beautifully orchestrated. You see her frustrations with the way women are treated. The whole story is about her constant battle with a fate placed on her since she was young, questioning why others aren’t taking it seriously. She follows her fiery truth and also realizes the consequences of them when they do happen. It’s not a pity party or a way to excuse her actions. She faces her truth and future she built with her decisions while expressing the flaws and mistakes. Hands down, one of my favourite female characters written yet.

Another thing I liked about the characterization is how humanized the Pandav brothers were portrayed. Yudhishthir is gullible and a little childish, Bheem is sweet and sensitive and Arjun can be emotionally closed off. Nakul and Sahadev aren’t as much in the foreground here.

Connection Building:

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The relationships between Panchaali and three of her husbands are written well. The different dynamics and atmosphere between the couples are well-orchestrated. Panchaali and Yudhishthir are essentially the elder couple with formalities and classic royal couple pairing. With Bheem, it’s sweet and tender almost to the point of innocence.

Her relationship with Arjun is rocky and burning since initially, Panchaali was only betrothed to him. It’s a bond filled with jealousy from both sides at the wrong time. Except it’s not filmsy in the slightest. They are both heavily dedicated to each other and extremely mature when it comes to their commitment or the bigger picture. Granted, this particular situation isn’t something that happens to everyone but I liked the way all these characters handled it.

Another tension thick bond was between Panchaali and Karna. Panchaali stabbed at Karnas’ pride in the beginning of the story which followed a series of confused feelings, stolen looks and unsaid attractions that lasted for decades. It’s a love story that no one in the story truly knew and neither Panchaali or Karna could understand to the fullest. I could feel the frustrations and brimming desire from each of the characters. Obviously more from Panchaalis’ side since we looked deeply into her mind in this book. I love how it was so subtle but surfaced enough to create the right amount of heat between them.

Then we move onto her relationship between Krishna which is the most long-lasting and possibly the most important to Panchaali. She holds Krishna dear to her heart but it’s not all fun and games between them. Arguments ensue as Panchaali gets older and tension spreads but eventually soothes towards the end.

For a story that moves quite quickly through time, the author takes good care in building all these connections so the audience can feel all the right things.

Setting:

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Since this is a story spanning decades, the locations change quite frequently. We start with Panchaal which according to Panchaali is an essentially dull place and the princess often feels trapped within its walls. Then she moves with Arjun to the forest where she learns to live a simpler life full of physical and mental hardship. From there, she goes to the Palace of Illusions in Hastinapur; her dream palace filled with wonder and beauty. That is also then taken away from her through trickery. Panchaali is then moved back into the forest, made to work as a maid for another lady, chased around by a greedy man. When she returns to Hastinapur, she has to travel back into the depths of nature and pass away.

Most of the story is set in the forest if not in different palaces. Panchaali had to live a large portion of her life in exile of some sort and slowly build herself to become the strong woman that she was until the end of her life. She was really only a decorated princess and queen for a few select times of the book. Despite her royal status, Panchaali lived a hard lifestyle in the deepest parts of nature.

Story Arc:

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Layered with fantasy and epic mythology, Palace of Illusions was still a raw rendition of a woman living in an ancient male dominated world. Panchaali starts off as a fiery yet naïve girl who questioned everything she didn’t agree with and felt pride in her destiny. All the hardships from living in the forest, getting publicly harassed, living in servitude and then influencing a large-scale war. The naïve princess was broken into different pieces and she built herself back up with the same fire but it was darker, filled with a heavy rage and taste for vengeance. The fire eventually douses into peace in the final pages of the book. Panchaali feels transcendent beyond just being a woman flowing through her fate but an entity where she was truly herself.

You see her satisfactions, her deepest desires and regrets all come to light as the events in her life unfold. Everything is so nicely patterned into a wonderful tapestry that you can’t stop looking or thinking about it.

Writing Style:

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Writing about an entire life in less than 400 pages shows just how much detail and care the author can place in a few words. This is the kind of writing style I hope to achieve. The descriptions were so beautiful and moving the characters in such an effortless way. Nothing had to be detailed too much since her choice of words and structure made all the difference in story flow. It was a really enjoyable experience to read.

Social Readings

  • Feminism: I really enjoyed that there was serious philosophical depth in the issues raised by the author rather than just political pandering. Recently, I’ve been noticing that there’s never any room to have debates because they just dump political rants into the story. The author really allows you to think for yourself when observing the political climate.

Concluding Thoughts:

This was definitely one of my top favourite books from 2020. I really enjoyed the insight on such a popular epic story and the storytelling was passionate and filled with wonder. I loved every moment of this book. If you want to get into more books in Indian literature or just want a really thoughtful epic read then this is a huge staple that you should try out.

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