Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “The Palace of Illusions” is a unique take on the story of the Mahabharata with Draupadi as the narrator. As the chronicle unfolds, one senses a distinct dominance of a feminist spirit, something that is quite fitting considering the voice of narration. It is perhaps because of this that the novel reaches the epitome of feminism which shatters the masculine gaze of the original text of the Mahabharata.
The utterly devastating way Indian marriages made women lose everything…
The idea of power that a man holds over his wife in the Indian society is not new. The pattern set by the patriarchal society and a blind adherence to it has been leeching out the happiness of women since ages. What sets Divakaruni’s book apart is its honest confession of fear and suffering by Draupadi. Divakaruni does not limit herself while underlining every cruel and harsh decision that Draupadi had to undergo because of some silly age-old conceptions which, in the practical world, no longer holds any value. To pay for the Indian obsession with virginity, Draupadi had to bear the pain of having her hymen break every year of her life. This “boon” by Vyasa to Draupadi was more a boon for the husbands only. One could not imagine the pain she had to suffer. This story is based on every devastating situation occurring because of misogynistic fervour.
The novel does not only stick to the standardised model of feminist criticism but brings in Orientalism as a tool for interrogating that experience, primarily because “the theoretical model of Orientalism supports the analysis of how the female self is created by a patriarchal hegemony and maintained through tradition”.
The character of Draupadi is limited by her own vision. The way she believes in herself and the world around her, her perspective, is restricted by an orientalist culture that operates both at the level of a Nation and domestic life. One such example is her home, the palace that becomes much more than an architectural edifice. The feeling of loneliness and her inner chaos tries to search for a comfortable state of mind which would enable her to achieve calmness. This was done in the palace. The palace helps her find her own identity and space, a course of experience that is entirely intimately connected to ‘herself’. The description of the palace unfolds key points about the patriarchal hegemony in the narrative. For example, her father decided to conceive Draupadi by yajna due to his strong desire for revenge. She is, thus, from her childhood, a girl involved with nationalistic power struggle. These factors influenced the formation of Panchaali’s character. “The politics of the women as the Other (physiological, societal, cultural, ontological and intellectual) and consequent representations of that otherness emerge from the micro – level of the domestic and gradually seep into the outside.”
In the novel, the palace represents the dynamics that drive the nationalistic agenda, as it is said “unlike Drupada’s palace and the one in Hastināpur, there is no gigantic old furniture in the palace. It is created, not inherited and hence it is free from the burdens of history”. The concern regarding the Palace becomes the concern of Draupadi, whose perspective is restricted (the narrow windows in the palace). This is what Orientalism is, a narrowing of perspective for the Other (the other in here is Draupadi) and fixation of things, which in Draupadi’s case is her vengeance. The scene when her brother comes to visit her and says “You’re looking at the story through wrong window”, the window becomes a symbol of perspective of life that in relation to his words were not in the right direction. Panchaali is bound by narrow windows in space, and her imagination is governed by the development of taste as women aught to be governed by patriarchal angles of morality and order.
Another proposition suggested between the lines are about the complex relationships that the characters had to endure. The relationship of Draupadi with her husbands, Kunti’s relationship with her first born child Karna, Karna’s relationship with his own brothers, Draupadi’s love for Karna, and Dronacharya’s friendship with Karna – all of these situational relationships never really fulfilled their purpose. Every character had to experience such devastating situations that every relation they had were all incomplete and unfulfilled.
Amongst all of these, the connection between Karna and Dronacharya as represented by Divakaruni might call for the feeling of “compassion”. The moment Karna is denied of taking part in the Swayamvar, it was Duryodhan who stood by his side and made him the king of “Anga”. Not only that, he gave Karna a place in his court, called Karna as his good friend and always asked for his advice in political matters. These events shed a new light to the relationship between both the characters. But considering Duryodhan’s nature of betrayal there is also an angle of scepticism and it becomes very hard to believe him when he refers to Karna as his good friend. The real reason behind Duryodhan’s action was perhaps based on his knowledge of Karna’s strength and power which he could later use to ruin the Pandavas.
The character of Karna, who is also regarded as the anti-hero on the basis of the original text of the Mahabharata, generates a pure sense of sympathy for Divakaruni’s readers. He was the only tragic figure in Mahabharata who suffered a raw deal at the hands of everyone in his life. From the time of his birth to death he was almost cheated by everyone. His birth mother left him and the eldest Pandava denied his lineage, he was taunted by his brothers, cursed by his guru and insulted by the woman who should have been his wife. As Draupadi had feelings for Karna she saw him through her loving and caring eyes and the readers shared the view. The cherry on top situation could be said to have taken place when Draupadi in disguise overhears the conversation between Bheeshma and Karna, where Karna in regret confessed his emotional trauma as he already knew that the Pandavas were his brothers (who he was to fight next day) and his love for Draupadi whom he failed to rescue from the past horror event. The whole confession before Karna’s death was Divarukni’s way of giving him voice for the last time. But different from the original text, Karna in “The Palace of Illusions” can be said to have created a different image of himself. Unlike Karna, Duryodhan’s characterization is the same like in the original text of Mahabharata. Panchaali’s hatred for Duryodhan can never make his character a good one. The bits she talk about Duryodhan are only explained in words of hatred. The illustration of Duryodhan’s character in this novel is completely unsympathetic . Duryodhan’s action in the Sabha had affected Draupadi the most, for which reason she only makes him look like a villain in the story. But what really can be the point to ponder upon is that Duryodhan was more than a mere villain. Had this story been narrated by Duryodhan, one would have been sympathizing with Duryodhan’s tragedy now.
Every perspective, if taken into consideration, limits it’s criticism on self narration and in many ways favour the instinctual needs of the narrator themselves (whether that perception be good or bad). Same can be seen in this book by Divarukni. It also enables one learn the female side of the story and question Vyasa’ s narration as that somehow fails to give justice to the female characters of Mahabharata. In many ways this novel makes one’s mind broader with the new ideas of looking into a story and helps to understand how different perceptions can affect a story and mould it in it’s own way .