Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Palace of Illusions: Retelling of the Mahabharat

The Palace of Illusions
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions is a retelling of a traditional Indian tale, the Mahabharat. It is the story of one woman married to five brothers, a woman born from a holy fire and a king bent on revenge. Panchaali is determined to live her own life, as she watches her twin brother become consumed by the purpose he was born for, vengeance against a friend-turned-enemy of their father-king. But even a woman, especially a woman, cannot escape her destiny in India.

When Panchaali is married to the five Pandava brothers, the exiled princess' tests truly begin. She is subjected to humiliation, hardship, and the loss of some of her most treasured things, and it is made all the more bitter by the fact that some of it she could have prevented herself, and some of it could have been prevented by the husbands she loves. Her friend Krishna cautions and advises her again and again to watch her tongue, love her husbands, be happy with her place in life, but Panchaali must always fight for more. This is both a virtue and a vice for her.

The story starts out with Panchaali as a young princess in her father’s palace, and it is my favorite part of the book. She is still somewhat innocent and naïve, but also full of passion and a sense of what is right. She constantly questions why things must be the way they are, just because she was born female, and she demands attention and education equal to her twin brother. She only wishes to spare him from his fate, and fulfill her own destiny by making a mark upon history.

As she grows older, and is subject to many things she never thought possible, Panchaali begins to change. She starts to lose the hope she carried with her as a girl, and her view of the world becomes darker, more vengeful. Even as she fought against her father’s purpose for creating the twins, she begins to become like him.

She is definitely not a perfect character, and there are many instances in the book where, if she had only been a better, or nicer, or kinder, or more thoughtful person, many of the things that come later could have been averted or lessened. She is harsh to her husbands, and unforgiving of their mistakes, and she often chooses the most difficult path through an obstacle to merely be able to say it was the hardest on her.

As the tone of Panchaali changes, so does the narration of the book, and I didn’t like the second part as much as the first. I felt it went from following Panchaali through her story, to merely begin told about it. It felt less active, I think the book could have been longer and more filled out, because I feel like we stopped hearing her inner voice as she becomes older and the tale goes on, and that’s what made the start of the book so great.

The setting of India, with its many kingdoms and princess and the different castes, is one I found absolutely captivating. The descriptions are breathtaking and far beyond what I know of here in our time and place, and the casual ways in which magic and demons and gods descend and walk among humans is very fun to read. My favorite character in the book, besides Panchaali, is Krishna, the incarnation of the god Vishnu. Instead of seeming remote and impossibly wise, Krishna is a mischievous trickster and something of a hound dog, frequently carrying off people’s sisters and daughters to add to his many wives. The people of India seem to have a much closer, more friendly relationship with their pantheon, seeing their gods more as fallible and super-human, rather than above or beyond humans. Many of the characters in the book are born of woman and god, including all five of Panchaali’s husbands.

This book is a good introduction to the history and mythology of India, and the fantasy in it is subtle but rich. Panchaali is a flawed but admirable woman, and her true desire is to be free to live her life and love who she wants, regardless of duty or honor, which is something any woman or man can understand. The look at life as it must have been for women back then, with arranged marriages and being one wife among many, is relevant to many parts of India today that still follow the older traditions. Definitely take a look at this story.
Bonnie Norman. I'm an English Major, a feminist, and a book lover. Sometimes a writer, too. I'm committed to being a voice for diversification and inclusion in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as all books and the world at large. Check out Bonnie at A Working Title.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like 5 husbands is at LEAST four too many! :--) Great review, thanks!

merc3069 said...

I am a huge Divakaruni fan and this one sits, calling me, from my shelf. It is worth buying for the book jacket alone!

Radha said...

What a fantastic retelling of the Great Epic. Helps fortify my faith in the Geeta and the Mahabharata. What is not in these two depictions is not in this world.

BonnieBelle said...

Sometimes, rhapsodyinbooks, I think one husband is one too many. lol I can't imagine putting up with five, although the system they use in the book to time share is interesting.

Merc3069: Yes, I love the cover, it's so beautiful. It could easily be the palace Panchaali loves so much.

Radha: This is my first introduction to this particular Indian myth cycle, so I was really interested and totally enthralled. I'll have to check out the original version and the Geeta.

Thanks for the great comments, guys!