To my shame, I hadn’t heard of ‘The Palace of Illusions’ until I started searching for a writer whose last name began with a ‘D’ to complete my A-Z of diverse authors for 2016. Divakaruni’s name came up and both the name and premise of this novel enticed me. It is based on the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, but retold through the perspective of one of the main female characters.
Now I’ve read retellings of traditional stories before. Not only were the Russians massive fans of fictional re-workings of the Gospels (probably best known in England through Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’) but I’ve also read more recent English-language fiction that gives voice to female characters from ancient texts. Just the two examples that spring to mind are Anita Diamant’s ‘The Red Tent,’ which tells a story from the Biblical book of Genesis through Dina’s perspective, and Margaret Atwood‘s difficult-to-pronounce 2005 novel ‘The Penelopiad.’ One thing these books all have in common is that I was already familiar with the original texts. Reading ‘The Palace of Illusions’ was different; I know virtually nothing about The Mahabharata and now I’m in the position of reading it first through Divakaruni’s subversion. It’s a fun and exciting place to be.
Maybe it seems irreverent to use the words ‘fun and exciting’ to describe an important epic story of warfare, but that was the impression Divakaruni gave me, if not of her heroine, then of the process of retelling her story. Draupadi is brave, independent, intelligent and passionate. She frequently makes mistakes, but is never passive and insists on her own agency within a fatefully proscribed role (inside an epic whose events won’t be changed). I was won over by the knowingness and also the sincerity of her narrative voice: ‘Perhaps Time was the master player. But within the limits allowed to humans in this world the sages called unreal, I would be a player, too.‘
This wish for autonomy is even more astounding given the events of Draupadi’s life. She is married off after an orchestrated competition of manly skill, fulfilling a prophesy that ‘You will marry the five greatest heroes of your time.’ She will live as a queen and as a servant, insult powerful men and be publicly humiliated in her turn. I don’t think I could have found a more engaging guide to the characters and plot twists of the Mahabharata.
It may have been that I really needed some fantasy battles and magical heroes after the realist tragedy of my more recent reading (India’s ‘State of International Emergency’ in ‘A Fine Balance‘ and the Third Balkan War in ‘The Ministry of Pain‘). It may have been that the story was completely new to me. Whatever the cause, ‘The Palace of Illusions’ is definitely my favourite example of an ancient story being retold by a female protagonist. For all the fighting and violence within the tale, I’m left with the memory of a rollicking yarn full of passion, magic and larger-than-life heroics. It’s been the perfect place to end my A-Z of diverse reading and has also given me a new book to look out for in 2017 … recommendations of good translations of Vyasa’s Mahabharata are very welcome!