August 05, 2008

Divakaruni's 'Palace of Illusion' is in fact 'Draupadi's Mahabharata' and demands exclusive readership


I liked Divakaruni's short stories so when I saw The Palace of Illusions, her latest novel, I couldn't help reading it.

Divakaruni, a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston, has always had a penchant for the immigrant experience and for the role of women in society, and this novel caters to the latter; the role of women in Indian mythology. Given this context, did Divakaruni intend to exclude all of those readers not familiar with this exclusive context, namely the story of Draupadi as told in the Indian epic 'Mahabharata'?

I was fortunate in that I had read the Mahabharata so I was captivated by Draupadi's story in The palace of Illusions as told by Divakaruni, a modern woman who questions the legitimacy of Draupadi being wife to the five Pandava brothers, simultaneously and not out of choice. The character of Draupadi is colored in some stark hues and with some bold strokes that present her as a narrator with a mind of her known that she bares to the reader as also to Krishna ever so often. Krishna, the godly 'avatar' in the Mahabharat is Draupadi's mentor and an apparent saviour who conducts Socratic exchanges with her but in a benign sort of a way; something that might infuriate a modern day reader, perhaps what Divakaruni intended. A bold and intelligent Draupadi takes the reader through all the important happenings in her life that are pretty much brought upon her except for the one incident that she is destined to bring upon herself which would result in changing the course of History as predicted by the Sage Vyasa.

Did Divakaruni want to create a tragic figure out of Draupadi through this novel? Afterall she fulfills most of the Aristotelian requirements for a tragic hero: belongs to a royal family, suffers due to the flaw of excessive pride, experiences reversal of fortune, suffers extensively and her suffering is in excess of what she deserves. Having said that, as a reader I am not convinced that that was Divakaruni's intention because despite all the foretelling and all that happens to Draupadi, she never thinks of altering the prediction by opting for different choices. Instead she continues steadfast on the path she knows leads to devastation. Though strong and powerful, she chooses to go along with the dictates of fate. Her stoicism irrititates because it borders on masochism in a modern day context. You finish the book wondering why Draupadi couldn't have done better for herself and altered the course of history positively.

Fate is almighty! Is that the theme of Divakaruni's Palace of Illusions, and if so how is that any different from what the epic Mahabharat said? Nevertheless, Palace of Illusions is very readable if you are familiar with the Mahabharata, and its remoteness of context makes it ideal material for reading on a transatlantic flight.

3 comments:

Lash said...

I have read similar articles where the portrayal of women in mythology has been translated into a contemporary context. The existence to Draupadi is a certain indication of how old male dominance is and the mention of Krishna, many a times makes you wonder if Gods too were chauvanists..

human being said...

love the stories which render ancient mythology in a modern context...
Mahabharata is a precious source containing universal themes... so this novel seems readable... thanks for the review...

Nandi23 said...

Interesting, I guess it depends on the reader but I have always thought about her as one of the most powerful women in literature due to the fact that she did have five husbands and her relationship with them, Even though the brothers all took other wives she was still considered queen.
An interesting comparison would be the women in the Mahabharta as to the women in the Ramayana and the way that they are portrayed.