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Popular perception states that Draupadi was a kritya, a woman brought forth into the world to destroy, the ill-fated one who was the cause of the ruin of a whole clan. She was a bad omen; a dark stain on the history of Bharat. No girl child is ever named Draupadi. Popular narrative is also dictated by those rooted to the various seats of power. Epics are written by men to valorize the honour duty and bravery of men while women are of no more consequence than to provide plot twists or ornamentation. Their individuality gets lost in the grand narrative. Homer’s Helen’s, another hapless female epic protagonist, was the face that launched a thousand ships. And that was all it did in The Iliad.
Chitra Divakaruni’s Mahabharata is the story of a girl who grew up without a mother, who fell in love with one man and was forced to marry five others, the princess who lived as a servant, and watched her family fall apart around her. Divakaruni’s Draupadi is passionate, outspoken, defiant and self confident. The Palace of Illusions is a woman’s epic saga. Even though epic retellings are as old as epics themselves, the modernized revisioning of the story makes for compelling reading; where the focus shifts from war and valour of the original to more humanized concerns of the everyday, that otherwise get obscured by the grand narrative of the epic.
From the young girl who grows up with illusions of grandeur about the world and sees every such illusion washed away as she fails to fight off the loneliness of her younger years, Divakaruni presents to us a woman like any other. Draupadi is not the Queen, but a lonely woman caught in the web that fate has woven around her. The greatest strength of the book is that it does not consist of kings, demi-gods or princes. It speaks of humanized characters, rather than the tragic, even if flawed, heroes of the original epic, whose travails the reader identifies with. Very few who read the book will be unfamiliar with the original story. Divakaruni’s challenge therefore was to hold the reader’s interest throughout the novel. She does a more than stellar job.
For generations that have grown up on stories from this ancient epic, The Palace of Illusions is a nostalgic trip. It is also a beautiful piece of writing that provokes, evokes and moves. Draupadi’s voice echoes long after the pages of the book are shut.