Panchaali enters this world through a holy fire, an unwanted boon granted by the gods in addition to her brother, the child destined to kill their father's greatest enemy. She marries the five Pandava brothers, the eldest of whom bets and loses his kingdom to their cousin. After twelve years of exile in the forest, the cousin refuses to return the kingdom, and the Pandavas go to war against the Kauravas. It is a story so epic that it has an epic name: the Mahabharata.
My reading of fiction involving Indian culture has been biased toward postcolonial works. This wasn't intentional; rather, I think it's because there are just so many well-known postcolonial authors, like Salman Rushdie. My experience with epics in general is sorely lacking. The Palace of Illusions is no substitute for the real Mahabharata, of course, but it's a good place to start. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has taken one of the fundamental pieces of Indian literature and focused on the story of Panchaali. Narrating the events from Panchaali's perspective, CBD explores Panchaali's role in the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The result is a moving tale of human tragedy which, according to CBD, gives us insight into a character who is significant in the Mahabharata but largely silent on her motives, thoughts, and feelings.
Hmm … a female author re-telling an epic from the perspective of a female character. That sounds familiar. It reminds me of Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Fortunately, The Palace of Illusions doesn't share Lavinia's stylistic shortcomings. I quite like the way CBD has written this book, for she warms up to Panchaali's voice as a person instead of trying to preserve any of the omniscient qualities of a more neutral narrator. A lot of what we hear is rumour or hearsay, filtered through Panchaali's own opinions and biases. I had to keep reminding myself that Panchaali is an unreliable narrator, that we don't really know if the Pandavas are as innocent as she makes them seem. (Well, OK, innocent isn't the right term. But she definitely wants us to think they are the righteous ones, even though some of her story belies this.) What would this story have been like from the point of view of Gandhari, mother of Duryodhan?
Since CBD embraces her first person narrator, the epic scope of the source material suddenly becomes more personal. This in turn leads to a good question: can one really distill the essence of something as long and convoluted as the Mahabharata in less than four hundred pages? Having not read the Mahabharata, I can't say for certain; however,, I suspect the answer is "no." One of the reasons mythology is beautiful is its enduring but flexible nature as a source material. What matters is not whether CBD distilled the entire epic into a novel but whether she remains true to the original's themes (something I'm not qualified to judge) and true to her own stated goal (which, thanks to her Author's Note, I can judge).
For the most part, The Palace of Illusions entrance me in the way only mythology can. Panchaali herself is literally a mythic character, as she was born from a fire; she associates with other mythical characters, like Krishna. She inhabits an India where magic is part of the quotidian fabric of life; people regularly interact with gods, who often bequeath boons, curses, or even powerful astras. Gods go around fathering children (poor Kunti!). Thanks to the Hindi concepts of dharma and reincarnation, however, the gods' often-capricious attitudes are much easier to understand than those of their eternal Greek counterparts. In particular, Panchaali ruminates a lot on the motives and loyalties of Krishna (whose divine status she denies until quite late in the book). All of the gods, Krishna included, seem to be aware that they are simply part of a narrative. As Vyasa puts it: "Why should I grieve any more at it than if I were watching a play?" Many of the characters are aware that they are, to some extent, merely actors in a play. And I love stories like that, stories that are self-aware without being self-conscious. It makes the story itself seem magical, fantastic instead of just fantasy. And it is an atmosphere and tone entirely suitable for an epic.
One thing about CBD's style did irk me. She glosses over a great many events that, to me, seem important. For example, after Panchaali's marriage to all five Pandavas, we get a brief explanation of how her marital situation works: she is married to each of the five brothers for a year, during which time she sleeps only with him, and the others don't touch her or speak to her in private. She mentions it several times, and once and a while she reflects upon it—but for something so central to her adult life, she takes it very much in stride. Considering that CBD is trying to explore Panchaali's feelings and motivations, I'm disappointed she did not include more detail on how this strange marriage affected the relations among the Pandavas and Panchaali. We only get vague details, like the fact that Arjun resents Panchaali for the situation, though it was his mother's doing. Sometimes it feels like we get a "digest" version of Panchaali's story, though CBD delves into incredible detail in other sections.
These narrative difficulties do not diminish the pathos CBD creates for Panchaali, the Pandavas, and even the Kauravas. Yes, it's silly that Yudhisthir loses his kingdom to Duryodhan in a game of dice, and then ends up betting Panchaali as well. It's silly that so many brothers, cousins, and old friends end up fighting each other because of vows, matters of honour, or prior obligations. But is that not one of the flaws of humans? In our hubris, we commit the greatest follies. Panchaali, humiliated by both her brothers and Dusassan, vows not to comb her hair until she "bathes in Kaurava blood," and it's safe to say that this ire contributes to the budding hostility between cousins. We are, at times, prideful, wrathful, vengeful, even as we can be compassionate, kind, and conciliatory.
I could spend a lot of time ruminating on why CBD chose the title The Palace of Illusions. Ultimately, I think it symbolizes the motif of mutability. Our personalities are complex, and our desires and convictions are evanescent. Krishna reminds Panchaali of this truth at the end:
. . . I asked, What if I forget?
He said, You probably will. Most of htem do. That's the beguiling trick the world plays on you. You'll suffer for it—or dream that you're suffering. But no matter. At the time of your death I'll remind you. That'll be enough.
We live, and while we live, we change so much. Past triumphs become regrets. We look back at our previous selves and shake our heads with wonder. We die, and our lives fold back in upon themselves. Was it real? Is this real? Do we go to heaven, reincarnate, or simply cease to exist? We are mutable, and like Panchaali's palace, always in flux.
I can't attest to how well The Palace of Illusions upholds the legacy of the Mahabharata. Regardless, it is a beautifully-written, moving story about Panchaali, the Pandavas, and the Kauravas. At times it doesn't go as deep into Panchaali's life as I would expect of a story narrated by and about her. But that's a minor quibble compared to the tragic story, one of personal and epic scope, unfolded against the landscape of an India where magic is commmonplace and gods walk among us.