Between the Lines

Thoughts on The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

A woman in a man’s world- the phrase we all have heard one or more times in our lives- is exactly what would define Panchaali’s life. Born unwanted to a father blinded by the need for revenge, accepted only by her brother at birth, and later married off to the one as choreographed by the men in her life, but forced to marry his other four brothers as a bait to righteousness by a hardened, widowed mother-in-law, her struggle is too real as one wonders how much of one’s life, even if prophecies dictates to be the changer of history, is truly one’s own.

Starting her story with her trusted maid, who is the closest to a mother figure she’s going to get, the narrative moves slowly to cover what it’s essential purpose seems to be: rewriting history from a female perspective, and it does serves this purpose well- as characters are described as humans, with flaws, not just a harmatia; and dreams, not just prophecies; and hopes, not just duty. The myth of human nihilism is counteracted by illuminating emotions into characters that have been rendered timeless. There is the seeking of love and belongingness that haunts us all, that also haunt the heroes our childhood tales glorify, and there is a sense of mystery and magic and adventure that we all hope in our life to unfurl.

The Palace of Illusions retell the story of Panchaali, who struggles as all women do, and who narrates the story we all know the outcome to. Perhaps this is why it’s easy to read the novel and take in minute aspects of it- there is no rush to find out what will happen, because it has been imbibed in our minds through childhood stories. Yet, there is a certain yearning and mystery, for you want her to have a happier ending- maybe because she’s not just the protagonist, but because we know it’s not possible- yet nothing is as agonizing as What if thinking.

And then there is the bittersweet agony of unrequited love that runs deep through the novel- that even though she had five husbands, she seeked love. And each of them as they open their souls to her also apparently seek love, but somehow the softer emotions are overwritten by pride and honour, and duty, as the author states, all men do.

Yet, there is something real in something that has been immortalized as an epic story of battle and ruins and destruction that this book explores. Beyond everything else, the author recognizes the fact that in the end all we seek is companionship and belongingness and love, that need not come from the source that we expect or yearn- that it is not unjust to hope for someone to love you even when there are millions ready to avenge you, and that sometimes we are just blinded by our beliefs in what should be and what we want to be true, and ignore what’s right in front of us- forgiving and unassuming.

And that’s what this story taught me: that a slight change in perspective is all it takes for us to look at lives differently- because every time I’d hear these stories, the importance of duty and righteousness and bravery is what is imbibed- things that blind men even today, but this narrative opened my eyes to a different way of looking at something that has been established as the gospel truth for centuries.

So when she’s absentmindedly named as Daughter of Draupad, while her brother is named Destroyer of Enemies, and when her brother’s tutor wanted her out because it wasn’t ladylike to learn of governance and warcraft and law, and when her father and her husbands repeatedly dismissed her off, the latter unconsciously, and when her mother-in-law hated her and her favourite husband took another wife, or when her husbands’ cousins humiliated her while the former looked on, and when she expected and longed for love all her life naively, or when she is remembered as the cause and the catalyst of a great war, when hundreds of men instigated it and fight each other resulting in a massacre, it would resonate with each of us. For indeed, it is a human story of a woman born in a man’s world- as are all of us.


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