Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the story of a great battle between two sets of paternal cousins - the Pandavas and the Kauravas - is made fresh in this retelling from the viewpoint of a woman named Draupadi. I listened to an audiobook (Blackstone: 12.5 hours) read by Sneha Mathan. Her voice kept me enthralled and also prevented me from stumbling over the pronunciation of the multitude of Indic names. (When I encounter unfamiliar names in written text, I tend to invent a shorthand name without pronouncing it and recognize who it is each time I see that combo of letters. This method doesn't work well when there are many roughly similar names.)

Draupadi and her twin brother were born out of fire, but other than that unusual start to life, she seems like a normal princess. A normal princess whose best friend is Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu). Draupadi fights unsuccessfully to have the same education as her twin brother. She gets more valuable lessons from a sorceress who teaches her things like how to make a delicious curry from only an eggplant and a tiny bit of oil and salt.

Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, won Draupadi's hand in marriage through a test of strength and skill. When he returned home with her, Arjuna's mother said he must share whatever he had won with his brothers and that's how Draupadi ended up with five husbands. Meanwhile, Draupadi's romantic desire rests with another man, Karna, whom she had shamed at the marriage contest in order to save her brother from harm. I believe Divakaruni diverges from the traditional tale on this point; it certainly adds dramatic tension.

I love the way lots of magical bits - like a cow that grants wishes - pop up in the story that otherwise seems to be historically realistic. Fantasy fans and other readers who enjoy great world-building and a sweeping saga told from the viewpoint of a fascinating woman will probably enjoy this as much as I did.


Amy said...

This sounds like a really interesting story! Thanks for the review, I'm off to verify if it is on my wish list :)

Lindy said...

Yes, do get it onto your wish list! I enjoyed recognizing bits from the Bhagavad Gita, but my experience with traditional Indic tales has mostly been through children's books. Divakaruni has whet my appetite for more.