Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Palace of Illusions: the good, the bad and the Titanic

I was a bit harsh with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions when I mentioned it in an earlier post. Having sped-read it at the time (out of idle curiosity, not for a review), my rough impression was that the narrative lacked intensity, which one doesn’t expect when the narrator is someone like Draupadi (or Panchaali, the name she prefers here). Haven’t changed my view about this, but reading the book more thoroughly I could appreciate its strong points - it’s possible that as a Mahabharata-pedant, I underestimate the value of an accessible, reasonably well-written version. Divakaruni’s book should be given that much credit.

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]


  1. Whats next? A movie with Aishwarya Rai as draupadi?

  2. Nice one! Isnt is the charm of this wonderful epic that even after thousands of years , it still remains open to any number of inntersting interpretations?? Too bad that there are many who take it too literally and oppose any 'meddling around". It is quite probable that the Mahabharata as we know it now is actually not at all the original "Vyasa" version, or even a single literary entity, but a contributions from several authors adding their bits and pieces down the line, each adding their own inagination and interpetation of the original stories..

  3. ROTFLMAO at the remark on Pandavas as frat boys - genius! It totally works! And it's only a matter of time before Wooden Aishwarya is roped in to play Draupadi.

    Has anyone seen or read reviews of the Yudhistir and Draupadi dance theatre thing that's playing at Habitat? Thoughts?

  4. I don't know much about this particular book but I once had the misfortune of picking up one of her books in an Aiport and reading it on the journey. Her garrulity and shall we say "flowery" language put me off. What with having it drilled into me by my English teacher at school that conciseness is the hallmark of a good author.

    I guess brevity is just not Chitra's strength and that sort of has made me slightly fearful of picking up any of her other books

  5. Great points on Bheeshma. I never looked at him that way before this.

    I think you are being just a tad bit harsh on Divakurani as far as Paanchali's know-it-all attitude is concerned. Isn't it meant to be fantasy, so to speak, as it deviates form Vyas' original version? However, I agree with you regarding reducing Duryodhan to a unidimensional villain.

    Lol at the whole Titanic comparison.

  6. Nightwatchmen: I've heard similar things about Divakaruni's previous work (haven't read any of it) and her name comes up a lot when people talk about writers exoticising India - the very titles of her books aid in that perception. But I thought this one was mostly restrained - maybe the responsibility of retelling the Mahabharata forced her to cut out some of the dross.

    Btw, "conciseness is the hallmark of a good author" is the sort of limiting diktat that makes me uncomfortable, though I understand why a teacher would need to say it to students who are just embarking on a creative-writing course - you need to get the basics right before you can get experimental as a writer.

    It is quite probable that the Mahabharata as we know it now is actually not at all the original "Vyasa" version, or even a single literary entity

    Sid: "probable"? I would think that is quite definitely the case.

  7. ArSENik: I wouldn't have a problem with a "know-it-all" attitude if the subjectivity of it had been acknowledged (in fact, as I pointed out, one of the problems with the book is that it doesn't give this fiery, impetuous character a distinct enough voice of her own). My issue with the Duryodhana episode is the pretence that Panchaali really does know it all, that she is recording things exactly as they really happened, not as filtered through her own biases and prejudices.

  8. Having just reviewed the book, and waiting for said review to be published, I now read your post to find that you've gone ahead and made many of the same points that I'd written about -- especially the subjective point of view issue. Rats.

  9. Sanjay: hi! Always frustrating when that happens - I often experience the same thing with Baradwaj Rangan's film reviews. Incidentally I just did the "official" version of the review today, might update the post with new points. Looking forward to seeing yours.

  10. Gosh, this totally sounds like Mahabharata Mills and Boon. You know, the outward antagonism and the fires of desire raging beneath and all that. Even the dialogue brings back memories of furtively read M&Bs with Jack and Rose type people on the cover!

  11. The Mahabharata,being the sprawling epic that it is,has dozens of layered and fascinating characters...thus also leaving the door wide open for an innovative and talented writer to provide an original spin on it.

    I read just one of Bannerjee's works,"The Mistress of Spices" about a couple of years ago..and I thought she was guilty of too much style-too little substance.
    However,I am sufficiently intrigued with this one,Jai

    P.S. Loved the bit about the Titanic

  12. Was wondering if you'd had the chance to read Pratibha Ray's Yajnaseni? I think this was written in 1984, though the translation from the Oriya probably came out in the 1990s.

    Ray chose to tell the story from Draupadi's point of view, too, but I gather (haven't read the Divakaruni yet) with very different levels of emphasis--Kunti's story loomed pretty large in her version. I didn't like some of the melodrama, but Yajnaseni will always have a special place in my heart because the RSS hated the book (I gather because Ray humanised the Pandavas and allowed Draupadi a certain freedom of expression) and called it a "paapa-shastra".

  13. Nilanjana: yes, I mentioned Yagnaseni in the review I did for Business Standard. Liked it overall, though the English translation was very awkward in places. I thought in many ways it was more intimate than Banerjee's book, which is written in a cooler style - very much the modern American novel. Banerjee doesn't sprinkle the narrative with italicised Indian words, aided by a convenient little glossary; she uses the Tolkien-esque term "Third Age of Man" to refer to the Dvapara Yuga, and "game of tag" to describe children’s play. Which is a perfectly valid approach too, but it does mean that the two books make for very different reading experiences.

  14. What i liked about the book were the facet it gave to the whole story, being from a woman's perspective.....the subtleties.

    Thing like, Panchaali realising a woman's powers work aslant, and part where she is foretold and later realises that men will seek honour, and her husbands will avenge her when it suits them. How she seethes and uses her vengeance... she is not built out as perfect, nor does she hold qualms of not being one.

    I enjoyed the reading for being more honest, less strained in the seep of good bad right wrong, scriptures traditionally are, and because even after innumerable number of years, teh story of Mahabahrat is so fascinatingly gripping.

  15. I avoided the book for a long time 'cos of the author's rep (Mistress of Spices book and movie!) but when I finally caved - it was fabulous.. Its an interestign read from a different POV on the Mahabharata.. which is great.. Maybe it was a bit 'senti' and melodramatic but overall it was a cohesive engaging story

  16. I loved your review. Especially the latter parts. The book really really bugged me because CBD has absolutely no respect for the original. She simply pimps Panchali away as best as she can, riding on every cliche about Eastern mystique that she can possibly think of. Panchali as a character is far more uniquely complex that CBD can even begin to imagine. Judging by this book, the author sees poor Panchali as a stereotype of the oppressed princess-wife. But she's SO much more. And her sensuality is so vastly different from the way CBD has portrayed it as well. I'd really be curious to know which translation she used as her source.

    (I only just read the book. Hence the comment. :))

  17. When I was younger, and in India, I scoffed at the author's inability to figure out her target audience. Like people pointed out, she tends to exoticize India [Eastern mystique etc]. But then, her books are far too full of "Indian-ness" to appeal to the lay (global) reader.

    But recently, this book reminded me of home in an alien country and of stories narrated by my father...It actually counted as recreational reading. When I consider the book (and all the sentimental nonsense with it), I think it is a win!

  18. I thought the book made a compelling read.. As fr Draupadi's know all attitude, it is at the end of the day her story told from her perspective as she sees it and as she feels she knows it...

    I for one never thought of her particularly as a vile creature but the book made me realize how much more human she was... And yes while Duryodhan is woefully unidimensional, a natural concomitant of the fact that it is Drauoadi's story told from her perspective - can't really expect it to be impartial ;-)

    Haven't read the rest of her books - a lil bit of the movie Mistress of Spices that I watched made me cringe :-) but this book I liked! Barring the grand reunion in heaven!

  19. And yes while Duryodhan is woefully unidimensional, a natural concomitant of the fact that it is Draupadi's story told from her perspective - can't really expect it to be impartial ;-)

    Manisha: as I wrote in the post, I have no problem with Draupadi's perspective being biased: I've written elsewhere about how interesting "perspective tellings" of the Mahabharata are for this very reason. But I thought this book simulated the omniscient-narrator device in a couple of places - that didn't work for me.

  20. i really agreed with ur review..having read two of divakarunis books ie palace of illusions and mistress of spices i feel that though her ideas are good to begin with.. i always feel her narrative is not strong enough and aimed at a more western audience..but yes..her take on the relationship between 'dhri' and paanchali is fresh..and also her portrayal of krishna and paanchali is credit her with that much..

  21. i found the book very similar to the book written by pratibha ray named Yajnaseni.

  22. pining for a person who calls u 'prostitute' is plain perverted masochism.
    CBD must have sympathised with Karn and uses poor Draupadi as her alter-ego. Draupadi, in her icy grave can't protest!
    this book is an attempt to score a vicious point over Arjun, to compensate for Karn's inferiority on the battlefield. What better revenge than propogating that his wife lusted after the enemy?
    Poor Draupadi-still getting disrobed in the pseudonym of literature.

    1. True. The concept is just not right from Draupadi's perspective to ever think of Karna in a fondly manner. But of course, she must have felt remorse on his death after realising who Karna was....

  23. Wow!!i fail to understand why all of you are being the critics here!!its just good ol mythology written from a woman's perspective for a change..pheww!!i guess people like to pin point mistakes just to sound cool..

    1. It is an entertaining book. But just a thought that emotions should be truer to the original story.

  24. Lol Palace of Illusions is entertaining. That's the best I can say. It is an easy and refreshing read. The language and narrative are a bit circular yet still better than that shiv trilogy.

    One thing I felt was that that in the book, Panchali never seems to age. Throughout the book I felt it was the voice of a petulant teenager. And yes, it was a bit anachronistic to show a "Dwapar yug" woman thinking like a Kali yug one.

    And the karna paragraphs are cringe worthy as the supposed 'feminist' protagonist longs for a man who called her a whore and instigated her almost-rape.
    It is as though all the writers, through their books, want Draupadi of all people from the grand epic, to appreciate the greatness of Karna. Probably because she is the one character (just like Amba with Bheeshma), who wouldn't see Karna as all that great.

  25. Hi, Jai... great review! I just finished PoI yesterday and oh so totally agree with you.

    Here's what I want to add:
    - I like how CBD portrayed Panchaali, but she is way too obsessed with Karna here *ROLL BIG EYES!* that completely out of Panchaali's character. She might feeling guilty about the 'suta putra' in swayamvara but Love, I don't think so. Her only obsession is to take revenge on ANYONE involved in her Vastraharan including Karna and so if there's any feeling towards Karna that would be a guilt and sympathy, but that to post-war & after his true identity revealed.
    - I like that it has minimum Gods-Goddesses interference, they ruining or maybe complicating the story :p and that's why I like Prem Panicker's Bhimsen & Iravati Karve's Yuganta
    - The unnecessary repetitive "I met X, (s)he is.... Years later..." annoyingly spill all the beans.
    - In addition to Titanic it also have Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice moments and daily soap DIL/MIL moments haha.

    Do you or anyone know where to buy M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham, P. K. Balakrishnan's And now let me sleep & Pratibha Ray's Yajnaseni in Singapore? I'm super curious

  26. Thanks for your well written review.

    I totally agree with you about the passage about Bheeshma. It was one of my favourite in the book, as it perfectly articulates why I've never liked Bheeshma all that much. I also like the descriptions of Yuddhisthir for the same reason.

    I disagree with your thoughts about the portrayal of Duryodhan. In fact, I was surprised at how mildly he was described. Given their mutual loathing, I expected Panchaali's passionate hatred to seep through whenever mentioning him. Also, there was was hardly any mention of Dusshasan. Again, rather unbelievable, given their history.

    The handling of Karna is also a disappointment. The mysterious attraction is believable, but it is stretching it to breaking point and beyond to suggest that Panchaali would have continued to fancy him after his deeply cutting insult. Also, his portrayal is too saintly for my liking.

    To sum up my opinion, the book's strengths are the keen insights it provides into certain characters (e.g. Bheeshma, Yudhishir) and certain relationships (e.g. Arjun and Panchaali). Its downsides are the slightly clunky descriptions and unrealistic takes on aspects of the story.

  27. Hello Jabberwock,
    I had heard this one on tape a long time ago, and enjoyed it as a fluid tale. But I did, even then, recognize its problems as a retelling of the great epic. Am now reading Ramesh Menon's version, and re-watching BR CHopra's version, and both go on to underscore what I long suspected: this is a tale of enormous complexity and wonderfully engaging, much like what I imagine the LoTR to be (I've only read a bit of the first book).
    While I was, as a child, adopted a hallowed view of Karna, I now am more interested in Dhristrashtra, and Vidura, esp. as contrasting characters. And of course, Yudhisthir- the questions he raises in my mind are so immense and intriguing. I also am curious about Arjuna and Krishna's relationship. Anyhow, nice post. It was nice to re-read it after a long time. Thanks!