The Palace of Illusions Summary

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions

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The Palace of Illusions Summary

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 2008 novel, The Palace of Illusions, reframes the epic Sanskrit poem, The Mahabharata. Consisting of some 100,000 couplets and a myriad of myths, The Mahabharata centers on the dynastic struggle for power between the Pandavas, or sons of Pandu, and their cousins, the sons of King Dhritarashtra. The text’s oral origins stretch back to the first millennium BCE, while its first written incarnation, attributed to Vyasa, dates to around 350 CE. Popular in households across Southeast Asia, tales from the ancient text permeated Divakaruni’s childhood, too. But, as with most epics, men and war predominate. Divakaruni wondered about the story’s women. Her novel finally gives a voice to one of the epic’s most important female characters, Draupadi.
In Divakaruni’s words, her narrative figuration of Draupadi, “begins with her birth and ends with her death. She is the teller of everything, and everything in the book is what she has seen, heard […].” The opening pages of the book recount Draupadi’s birth from a sacrificial fire, along with her twin brother Dhristadyumna. While their father, King Drupad, had prayed for a son, the additional female child surprises even the priests presiding over the ceremony. The king names the girl Draupadi, which means “Drupad’s daughter.” Her patriarchy-affirming name is just the beginning of the stifling gender-based limitations imposed on Draupadi in her father’s palace. To find relief from her circumscribed life, Draupadi repeatedly asks her nurse to tell the story of her birth and the astonishing prophecy it engendered. As the twins emerged from the smoke, the nurse remembers, “the voices came […]. They said behold we give you this girl […]. Take good care of her, for she’ll change the course of history.”
Draupadi clings to the prophecy for assurance that, despite being a woman, she will one day be powerful. Armed with this confidence – and the support of her personal deity, Krishna – Draupadi persuades her father to let her attend her brother’s lessons in statecraft. The legendary author of The Mahabharata, Vyasa, makes a cameo appearance when Draudpadi seeks out the sage to glean insights into her future. He tells her that she will wed five mighty heroes and ultimately precipitate the Great War. He then bestows upon her a new name, “Panchaali, spirit of this land,” which she adopts with pride.
King Drupad calls for an archery contest to decide Panchaali’s husband. Panchaali loves Karna, whose bravery she’s learned of from her brother’s stories, but his low social class rules out a match. Arjun, of the royal Pandava family, is presumed dead due to the machinations of his cousin, Duryodhan (son of Dhritarashtra), but unexpectedly appears and wins the contest. His mother, Kunti, orders Arjun to “share” Panchaali with his four brothers. Thus, as foretold, she weds all five of the Pandava warrior princes, rotating yearly as each one’s wife.
Following the directive of his father, Beeshma, King Dhritarashtra cedes half of his kingdom to the Pandavas, much to the dismay of his son, Duryodhan. While the portion they receive is unpromising, the Pandavas nevertheless build a lavish kingdom, Indraprastha, at the center of which is the magical Palace of Illusions. Now the Queen of Indraprastha, Panchaali exults in her power and her palace and frequently clashes with her mother-in-law. Duryodhan, still harboring antagonism, visits the palace. When he inadvertently falls into a pool and hears Panchaali’s attendants mocking him, Duryodahn becomes enraged.
Plotting revenge, Duryodahn invites Yudhisthir, the oldest Pandava brother, to his palace in Hastinapur for a rigged dice game. With a series of wagers, Yudhisthir loses everything to Duryodahn, including Panchaali. Claiming ownership of Panchaali, Duryodahn has her brought to the palace hall and orders her to be disrobed, or “shamed,” in front of everyone. Panchaali, disgusted that none of her husbands defend her, calls on Krishna to protect her honor. Krishna accordingly uses his divine powers to render Panchaali’s sari infinitely long, making it impossible to remove. Livid at such humiliation, Panchaali curses Duryodahn’s family, the Kauravas, and Dhritarashtra belatedly intervenes in his son’s vengeful stunt. He restores to Yudhisthir his swindled losses, but in exchange, the Pandava family is banished to live in the forest for 12 years, followed by a year living incognito.
During her forest exile, Panchaali’s antipathy towards the Kauravas festers, and she vows revenge against them. After 12 years, the Pandavas move to King Virat’s kingdom where they live in disguise. Panchaali suffers the lustful advances of Keechak, the queen’s brother, until outrage incites her husband, Bheem, to kill Keechak. This triggers a chain of events that leads to a battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, which, in turn, snowballs into the fated great Kurukshetra War.
As a woman, Panchaali sits on the sidelines of the war, but the sage Vyasa gives her telescopic sight to see all the events on the battlefield. She watches warrior after warrior fall on the field, and then her beloved Karna joins the war, siding with the Kauravas. She overhears him admitting his love for her, and learns he’s the illegitimate son of Kunti, and thus a Pandava brother himself. After much bloodshed, Arjun kills Karna, Bheem kills Duryodhana, and the Pandavas triumph. Yudhisthir takes the throne in Hastinapur, while Panchaali establishes a women’s court to assist the thousands of bereaving war widows. But when Arjun reports the death of Krishna and destruction of his city, Yudhisthir declares it is time for the Pandavas to climb the Himalayas to join the gods. They meet their deaths in the mountains, and Panchaali finally unites with Karna in heaven.
The Palace of Illusions explores the themes of pride and revenge as they factor into Panchaali’s fulfilment of her prophesied fate. Divakaruni notes that “in the mythic and epic tradition, pride and the desire for revenge are qualities of the male hero, which Panchaali takes on willingly.” And like traditional male heroes, Panchaali seeks power. In the end, however, the horrors of the war humble her. She dies anticipating true happiness in the heavenly palace above.