30 April 2009

The Palace of Illusions

When I told my friends in India that I planned to pick up a copy of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Palace of Illusions’, when I was there a couple of months ago, they did their best to dissuade me. “Don’t waste your money”, “you’ll regret it” and “is that the sort of stuff you’re reading nowadays” were the phrases that they used.

But being a stubborn Gemini, I went ahead and bought the book anyway. Not only because I am stubborn, but also because (a) I’d already read ‘The Conch bearer’ by the same author and enjoyed both her imagination and style of writing & (b) simply because this book was about the Mahabharata and I couldn’t resist it.

And you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was absolutely glad that I had gone with my instinct to buy it.

I’d certainly be lying if I said I didn’t find anything to criticise in it or that the book was the best take on the Mahabharatha that I’d ever read. And I definitely didn’t agree with many things the author had said. But I enjoyed Divakaruni’s style, her take on Draupadi – the way she’d interpreted one of the most enigmatic characters of the Mahabharatha.

I guess when you’ve grown up hearing these stories all your life, you don’t actually stop to pause and think about each character’s personality. You think: it’s all black and white. The Kauravas are bad and the Pandavas are good. Paanchali had five husbands (btw, I found out from the book that Paanchali is because she is named after her land, Paanchal and not, as I mistakenly thought, because she has 5 husbands). Karna was a good guy on the bad side, etc.

Maybe that’s another reason I found the book fascinating and wished it could have been a lot longer so Divakaruni could have explored some of the themes that she’d just touched the surface of.

Draupadi’s relationship with her brother Dhrishtadyumna (no wonder she calls him Dhri, it's a mouthful!) is brought out very well and in great detail. Their lives as children, in a gloomy dismal palace, is given a fairly large chunk of the narrative and is brilliantly handled.

The same can’t be said about Paanchali's relationship with her husbands – it lacked depth. Similarly, her relationship with her MIL Kunti isn’t explored in too much detail. What little I read of Kunti’s character was a revelation to me – was she really that much of a hard case? The Pandavas were complete letdowns – even Duryodhana’s character is etched better. Arjuna started off promisingly, but petered out soon. Funnily enough, I like Bhima's character the best among them in this book, although that hasn't been the case earlier on for me.

I found the author’s take on Draupadi’s relationship with Karna intriguing. I can’t quite recall where I have read it/heard of it, but somehow, the fact that Draupadi loved Karna did ring a bell. I especially liked Divakaruni's physical description of Karna and could relate to that. Once again, no idea if that’s a fact or just the author’s imagination.

Paanchali’s realationship with Krishna was completely entrancing. Again, there isn’t too much of it, but what there is, especially at the end of the novel, is beautiful.

But why did Divakaruni skip the bit about Karna being married? And why did she have to make the Paanchali-Karna angle so strong and their love so deep? In a way, that is the strength and the failing of the novel. But was that how it really was? Who can tell? Was that the reason why the Pandavas and Paanchali journeyed to Hastinapura play a game of dice that would end in victory and ruin?

Another thing that irked me was the 'Hindised' use of all names, as opposed to the original Sanskrit version - Arjun instead of Arjuna, Yudhisthir instead of Yudhisthira, etc.

I enjoyed knowing all about the life of the Pandavas after the terrible war till their last journey - it's a bit like Ramayana after Rama found his sons Lava and Kusa - you never really get to hear what happened after that. Here, though, you do hear what happened to the Pandanvas and Paanchali, right to the not-so-grim end.

But what the heck, you can do only so much with 300-odd pages on the Mahabharatha. And I thought she did really well. Never mind what anyone else says!


Shyam said...

Hmmm, the second review of the book that's positive... perhaps I will read it after all. Thus far it's just Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's name that I've liked the most! :)

Munimma said...

After mistress of spices, I kind of lost interest in CBD's works. But this one was a wonderful, thought provoking read. As you said, there were negatives, but didn't stop me from enjoying the book.

Right now, I am on to Indu Sundaresan's 20th wife.

brinda said...

It looks like CBD has borrowed heavily from an Oriya book called Yajnaseni (there's a baddish translation available -- but I think it's well worth a read) which revolves around Draupadi and her love for Krishna and Karna...

umm oviya said...

done a review too. am linking yours there. hope that's ok.

Pollux aka Paps said...

Shyam: do read it, I think you might even like the book.

Muni: Cheers

Brin: Thanks for that reco. I did read the English translation of Yajnaseni - the concepts & ideas were great, and the translation was bloody awful, to say the least:-)

Umm: No worries.

rads said...

It IS one of her best books! I had my apprehensions too, but this one was worth it. I met her recently at a book read and she's a warm, unpretentious wonderful lady. Someone you'd meet at the local temple or potluck u know.. :)

How you've been? I chanced upon an old post of mine and saw your comment and hopped over! :)