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Thoughts on “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

After reading One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni a few years ago, I’ve been stockpiling Divakaruni’s books when I come across them. I picked up The Palace of Illusions on a trip to India and have been meaning to read it since. I’m so glad I finally put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list!

About the Book:

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (cover)The Mahabharat is certainly not a new story, and most people are familiar with at least part of it. So many of India’s heroes and myths come from the pages of this epic. It tells the story of the five Pandava brothers (the five husbands of Panchaali) and the great war they’re destined to fight.

But where is the voice of the tale’s women? That’s what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni wanted to know. In her Author’s Note, she writes:

[A]lways, listening to the stories of the Mahabharat as a young girl in the lantern-lit evenings at my grandfather’s village home, or later, poring over the thousand-page leather-bound volume in my parents’ home in Kolkata, I was left unsatisfied by the portrayals of the women. It wasn’t as though the epic didn’t have powerful, complex women characters that affected the action in major ways… But in some way, they remained shadowy figures, their thoughts and motives mysterious, their emotions portrayed only when they affected the lives of the male heroes, their roles ultimately subservient to those of their fathers or husbands, brothers or sons.

If I ever wrote a book, I remember thinking… I would place the women in the forefront of the action. I would uncover the story that lay invisible between the lines of the men’s exploits. Better still, I would have one of them tell it herself, with all her joys and doubts, her struggles and triumphs, her heartbreaks, her achievements, the uniquely female way in which she sees her world and her place in it. And who could be better suited for this than Panchaali? (p. xiv-xv)

Well, she ended up writing that book — and The Palace of Illusions is it!

My Thoughts:

You know those books that are good enough while you’re reading them, but you realize only halfway through — or even after the fact — that they’ve somehow soaked deeper into your being than you’d thought? The kind you enjoy, but you can’t point to the one thing about them that makes them so spectacular? The Palace of Illusions was one of those books. By the midpoint, I found myself sneaking in one more chapter whenever I could. I still feel pulled by it, though it’s been days since I read the final page and moved on to other books.

Divakaruni’s writing style is deceptively simple. It’s clean and straightforward, yet the emotions and stories it conveys are anything but. She manages to distill all the complicated rules and curses and lineages and connections and legends of one seriously massive epic down into something clear and complete without losing too much of that inherent complexity. It’s impressive, delightful, and very much appreciated.

I really do feel like Divakaruni accomplished what she set out to do: to relate the famous, oft-told stories of the Mahabharat through the eyes of its most famous heroine. But she also breathes a very real kind of life into her words. The characters lived generations ago, and the deeds happened far in the distant past, but Panchaali herself and the world she inhabits spring into being in the pages of Divakaruni’s novel. Even as history unfolds as it is destined to do, the people living it out feel anything but dry or flat. You can see the choices that led each down his or her path, the real life living the story instead of just the well-worn paths left behind. Sometimes, when I read an ancient story even in a modern translation, I feel distant from it, like there’s a wall between me and the words. I felt none of that with Divakaruni’s rendering.

All else aside, The Palace of Illusions makes a good introduction to the Mahabharat. The original is scarily long, but Divakaruni did a wonderful job trimming, condensing, and streamlining to fashion the story through Panchaali’s eyes. Purists might be annoyed that a particular side story was brushed over or omitted, but the novel feels complete as Panchaali’s own story and stays true enough to the details I know, and that was plenty for me. If you’re looking for a taste of the story without having to commit to reading multiple volumes, The Palace of Illusions should work nicely.

The Verdict: Excellent

Clearly, I enjoyed this one. But more than that, I feel like it touched something deeper in me, something only my favorite books manage to get to. Divakaruni is now two for two in my book, and you can bet I’ll be reading more of hers!

Your Turn!

What books have unexpectedly ended up staying with you long after you’ve read their final words?

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