rachelmanija: (Mahabharata: Krishna with wheel)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2009-04-07 09:49 am

The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

A retelling of my favorite epic, the Mahabharata, from the point of view of Draupadi who here goes by another of her names, Panchaali. For those who don't know the story already, Panchaali is a princess who marries the five Pandava brothers and proceeds to live a rather put-upon life; her attempted stripping by the Pandavas' rivals is the immediate cause of the great war between them.

I have no idea how this book comes across if you're not already familiar with the story, and I am very curious about that. Please report if you fit into that category. (I am especially curious how you felt about the Panchaali/Karna thing; I couldn't tell if it worked for me because of what was actually in the text, or because I was projecting what I already knew about him.)

I think this might well be a good introduction to the story. It definitely tells the whole thing, but in very short form and in excellent prose.

My favorite parts were the ones in which Divakaruni brings more of her own ideas and interpretations to the story. I liked the beginning of the novel, which focues on Panchaali's childhood and young adulthood, better than the later parts, in which Panchaali is only present in her own reflections on events which mostly concern other people. I could have happily read a novel which ended at her marriage, in fact. Once the war begins, Divakaruni proceeds with more of a standard retelling than the re-imagining she began with, and since I've read a lot of re-tellings, that's less interesting to me.

Some of the more notable additions and interpetations are that Panchaali is secretly in love with Karna (I must say that I loved this); there's also a lot of attention given to her special relationship with Krishna, especially at the beginning, which I also enjoyed. I had a bit of a problem with the very modern-sounding way in which she expressed feminist sentiments - not a problem with the feelings themselves, but that they were phrased in a way that felt too contemporary to me.

I would have also liked to see more emotional range, especially later on. This may be my interpretation imposing itself, but I always thought that Draupadi had very high highs and very low lows. Here, she's never really happy with her husbands, and never really glories in battle and revenge - she already knows the war is futile and revenge won't bring her happiness before the war even begins. I would have liked to see more joy and ferocity, in addition to frustration, unhappiness, and resignation.

I appreciated the moments of humor early on ("Something always seems to go wrong at a swayamvara") and would have liked a little more of it later. Okay, maybe not at Kurukshetra, but it seemed like no one ever laughed once Panchaali got married, except for the catastrophic moment in the Palace of Illusions when Duryodhan falls into the pool.

I definitely enjoyed seeing Divakaruni's interpretation of the characters (I especially loved her Veda Vyasa, and her alternately very human and otherworldly Krishna, especially as he was early on) and the clever way she juggled a truly dizzying array of characters and events. Overall, I liked it, but I would have liked to see less of Kurukshetra and more of Panchaali.

Buy it from Amazon: The Palace of Illusions: A Novel

ETA: As per conversation in comments, I have added more links so you can buy other versions of the story on Amazon!

The Great Indian Novel. Wild, funny, irreverent remix mashing up the Mahabharata with much more recent Indian history. Probably requires at least some prior familiarity with both the original and the Indian Independence Movement.

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering: Vol 1,v.2: A Modern Rendering: 1 and The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Vol 2. Er. This really is worth the price. A sexy, lush, sometimes overwritten, but always vivid and involving retelling. If amazon doesn't work, abebooks.com should.

Mahabharata. A less modern style, but one of the most emotionally engaging versions I've come across. If your heart doesn't break for her Karna, you probably don't have one. I bet abebooks.com has a cheaper copy than amazon.

[identity profile] spectralbovine.livejournal.com 2009-04-07 05:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Ha, you're right, I would definitely get to it sooner. My queueueueue grows longer every day (no thanks to you, I might add).

Divakaruni is one of the Famous Indian Writers I know. Others include Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri (the only one I've actually read).

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2009-04-07 05:41 pm (UTC)(link)
I forget, how much of the Mahabharata story do you actually know? Because if you've absorbed it via osmosis, you could also read another sort-of retelling, Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, which is a mash-up of the MB with the story of the Indian Independence movement. It's really wild and funny and irreverent and smart - right up your alley. But you do need to know who the characters are before you start.

[identity profile] spectralbovine.livejournal.com 2009-04-07 05:49 pm (UTC)(link)
I read the kiddie version when I was younger. The one that was maybe a hundred pages long. And maybe I read some comics? And, of course, I've seen some of the TV version with the hilarious arrows. I do know the basic story and characters, but it's been yeeears, and about the only thing I remember is that Bhima has a mace and Yudistira is...the leader or something? I had to look up his name because all I knew was that it started with a Y. And Arjuna has a bow. And someone has a neverending sari. Draupadi? I might need a refresher if I attempt a retelling before reading the telling.

I think you or someone else mentioned The Great Indian Novel in that post I wrote before; I WILL ALSO ADD IT TO THE LIST GEEZ SO MANY BOOKS.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2009-04-07 10:50 pm (UTC)(link)
Probably me, I'm a huge fan. I keep hoping to discuss it with someone, but it does require some background: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Indian_Novel#Characters_in_.22The_Great_Indian_Novel.22

Palace of Illusions doesn't rely on previous background, I think.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2009-04-07 10:58 pm (UTC)(link)
You see why I can never find anyone to discuss it with.

[identity profile] tekalynn.livejournal.com 2009-04-08 12:23 am (UTC)(link)
Draupadi has the never-ending sari, courtesy of a miracle of God.
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)

[personal profile] oyceter 2009-04-07 10:33 pm (UTC)(link)
Wait, really? that sounds awesome! Maybe i will try that and hope the bits of the MB you tell me will be enough. I looove remixes.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2009-04-07 10:47 pm (UTC)(link)
Just read up a bit on the Indian Independence Movement, enough so that you know the personalities of the major historical figures at the time, like Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten, Jinnah, and (later but relevant to the book) Indira Gandhi.

Wait! Here's a handy chart cross-referencing everyone! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Indian_Novel#Characters_in_.22The_Great_Indian_Novel.22