Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Palace of Illusions

Born from a ritual fire, Draupadi was destined for greatness the moment she stepped into the world. But that destiny never arrives the way she expects it to. While she's still a girl in her father's palace, she sneaks away to visit the sage Vyasa, who warns her of a grand future: She will marry the five greatest heroes of her time and "be the mistress of the most magical of palaces," but she will also be responsible for the worst war of the age. When Draupadi begs the sage for a way to escape fate, he gives her sound advice; as always, though, the wisdom of prophets is easier to hear than to follow.


Draupadi's story was first told in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian poem of more than 90,000 verses that serves as historical epic and religious text. Between discussions of Hindu philosophy and ethics, the poem focuses on the struggles for the throne of Hastinapura between the Kaurava and Pandava families. The five Pandava brothers are the heroes Draupadi marries, and, through three moments of shamed arrogance, she provides the impetus for the 18-day war that decides the issue. In The Palace Of Illusions, Draupadi (who later names herself Panchaali) is given the chance to explain her actions. Her tale is full of wonders, but they're more like the echoes of distant storms than any local weather.

In the introduction to Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni describes her love for the original epic, and her desire to place the women in the forefront of the action. On those terms, she largely succeeds; Draupadi is a complex, impassioned heroine with a wry sense of humor, and the women who surround her are fierce and uncompromising. As her story is a small part of the Mahabharata, Divakaruni works hard to hit the highpoints of the poem, and here, she's less successful. There's something mundane about Draupadi's struggles in context, especially an oft-thwarted romance that could've stepped whole cloth from a Lifetime Original. Illusions is well-written and inarguably well-intentioned, but many of its pleasures come from its source material; they still retain their power, but reading them in this context is a distinctly second-hand experience.

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