What I liked
The lighter passages (e.g. the badinage between Krishna and Panchaali when they discuss their past lives) are well-handled. Also, the device of the childhood game between Panchaali and her brother Dhrishtadyumna (Dhri), where one of them starts telling a story (about other characters in the epic), the other continues it and so on – it’s a nicely intimate scene and a creative way of filling gaps in the narrative.
Were the stories we told each other true? Who knows? At the best of times, a story is a slippery thing. We’d had to cobble this one together from rumours and lies, dark hints Dhai Ma let fall, and our own agitated imaginings. Perhaps that was why it changed with each telling. Or is that the nature of all stories, the reason for their power?Some of the character analyses go beyond the clichés found in basic translations of the Mahabharata. For instance, conventional tellings regard Bheeshma among the most unblemished characters (along with the less interesting Yudhisthira and Vidura), but one can argue that in his rigid adherence to his principles and his famous vow, he often disregards basic, common-sense humanity. (Even Satyavati, in whose interests Bheeshma took the vow in the first place, begs him to break it for the common good. His refusal to do so reminds me of the uncompromising "righteousness" of the very religious – people who are more interested in staying on the good side of their personal God than in their dealings with human beings.) In The Palace of Illusions, here’s Panchaali on Bheeshma:
I wanted to warn my husbands that one couldn’t depend on a man who plucked frailty and desire so easily out of his heart. How could he have compassion for the faults of others, or understand their needs? Protecting a [dead vow] was more important to him than a human life.(For more on this side of Bheeshma, see Iravati Karve’s reading of the character as someone who, having voluntarily renounced many of the pleasures of worldly life, occupied a higher ground than everyone else and saw himself as being accountable to no one.)
I also liked some of Divakaruni’s turns of phrase, such as when Panchaali expresses the cruel futility of the Kurukshetra war in her descriptions of dead bodies on the battlefield (“My father, his mouth drawn back in a grimace of disappointment, for he did not live to see the vengeance he had spent his entire life planning...the blood-encrusted face of Duryodhana’s son Lakshman Kumar, his eyes wide with surprise as though he hadn’t expected death to win this game of tag, blurred into the face of one of my boys.”)
What I didn’t like
One advantage of a point-of-view telling of the Mahabharata should be that it shows us how much greater the epic is than the sum of its parts (the 10-year-old who hero-worships Karna or Arjuna might disagree with this, but most of us do grow up). In such retellings, we get to see people and events through the (naturally biased) perspective of a particular character, and once we have enough of these perspectives, they add up to complete a fascinating tapestry. One problem I had with The Palace of Illusions is that the book doesn’t always acknowledge the subjectivity of Panchaali’s viewpoint. Too often, she becomes an all-knowing sutradhar figure, not very different from Vyasa himself, and we’re expected to believe that she has the real inside dope on many things, including other characters’ motivations and struggles.
An illustration of this. Duryodhana is a completely unsympathetic character in this book, which would be perfectly all right if it were made clear that this is because Panchaali sees him that way: that she deeply fears and loathes the man who did her so much harm, and has had no occasion to see his good side. The problem is when the narrative feigns objectivity: at one point, Panchaali relates a conversation in the Kaurava camp, conveyed to her by her spies, and the Duryodhana we get here is a one-dimensional Hindi-film villain. (There is the implication that Balarama is his friend only because he once sent him a cartload of alcohol. In other passages, we gather that Karna isn’t so much genuinely attached to Duryodhana as obligated to him. Gone is the multi-dimensional Kaurava prince who was a generous, sympathetic ruler once he had got the Pandavas out of the way, and who earned – rather than purchased – the friendships of some of the noblest characters in the epic.)
The Panchaali-Karna relationship (specifically, their secret feelings for each other and her lifelong questioning of whether she did the right thing by humiliating him at her swayamvara) is tritely handled. I thought it was reductive to take two enormously complex characters and define them primarily in terms of their forbidden love for one another – don’t want to sound like a purist, but I didn't care for the scene where Kunti tries to persuade Karna to join the Pandavas and he is briefly swayed only when she tells him Draupadi will be his wife. I didn't think it was consistent with his character. (By the by, it might have been more fun if Divakaruni had retained the original version of this episode, which had Krishna making this offer to Karna, and turned it into a nudge-wink frat-boy dialogue: "Join the Pandavas, dude, you'll totally score!")
Karna and Draupadi as Jack and Rose
When Karna dies, something happens that (as Panchaali solemnly tells us) Vyasa didn’t put down in his version. The glow from the fallen warrior’s body travels straight to the weeping Draupadi: “It grew into a great radiance around me. A feeling emanated from it that I have no words for. It wasn’t sorrow or rage. Perhaps, freed of its mortal bondage, Karna’s spirit knew what I hadn’t ever been able to tell him.”
This is a giggle-out-loud moment to compare with the best of them, but nothing trumps the book’s ending, when (I hope this doesn’t require a spoiler alert) Draupadi reaches heaven and is reunited with her great love. Remember the lavish final scene of James Cameron’s Titanic, with the spirits of the doomed lovers Jack and Rose finding validation in a shimmering afterlife? Remember them kissing in the ship’s ballroom while people of all classes, including those who used to call Jack sutaputra (or something) stand around and applaud lustily? In The Palace of Illusions, Jack and Rose go by the names Karna and Panchaali, and their great big ship is heaven itself. They don’t actually kiss, this being against Indian culture, but as an enthusiastic Panchaali puts it, “Karna is no longer the forbidden one. I can take his arm in view of everyone. If I wish I can embrace him with all of myself.” In heaven, you can frolic for all eternity. The great war was worth it after all.
[Earlier posts on the Mahabharata: Karna and the Madrakas; how Rukmi avoided the war; astonishing births; Yuganta; Bhasa's plays; old tales, new renderings]