Q: Some readers of The Palace of Illusions will be encountering the Mahabharat for the first time. Please explain exactly what it is and what significance it has in Indian culture. Are there any analogous texts in Western literature?
The Mahabharat is an ancient Indian epic, similar to Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. It is a very famous story. Most people in India, even those who cannot read or write, would know this story of a great war because it is passed on orally from generation to generation. Like the Iliad, the Mahabharat has literally hundreds of characters and tells the complicated, fascinating story of a great war. One of my challenges was to be true to the original story while changing the focus and the significance of actions and characters, to suggest different motives, and to create intimate moments to give us a whole different understanding of Panchaali’s character.
Q: There are numerous female characters in the Mahabharat. What made you decide to re-tell Panchaali’s story?
For me, she has always been the most interesting and unusual character. Her birth, her destiny that was foretold when she was born, her insistence on doing what none of the other women around her were doing and her unique situation—being married to five brothers—all made her the perfect choice. I was also interested in the fact that in some ways she was the catalyst for the great war—and perhaps the one who suffered the most as a result of it.
Q: Panchaali, in traditional readings of her part in the story, is often seen as something of a villainess or at least as a character whose actions bring about the downfall of many others. You see her differently. Why? Have other characters in literature similarly sparked your interest?
It would be more correct to say Panchaali is a controversial character, rather than a villainess.
I always felt that there was more to her story than the usual male-centric readings allowed. And that’s what I wanted to examine: how the world would have seemed from inside her head. What would have led her to say and do the things she said and did. I also wanted to bring out the difficulties she faced–how in her way she was as heroic as any of her husbands. I’ve long admired John Gardner’s Grendel, where he transforms the traditional monster-villain to a hero. I wanted to do something similar—make readers see Panchaali in a whole different way. But she’s certainly no angel. Quick tempered, immensely proud, headstrong, Machiavellian when necessity calls for it—she’s larger than life but definitely human—and I hope the readers will find her sympathetic.
Q: Although Panchaali is married to five brothers at once and cares for each of them, she is secretly in love with a sixth man, the great and mysterious warrior king Karna. And by the end of the novel, we learn that perhaps her greatest love was someone else altogether. Is romantic love important to Panchaali? Do her views change over time? How does love figure in the Mahabharat and what wisdom on the subject does it have to impart to modern-day readers?
Love is very important in the Mahabharat. But the idea of love I wanted to explore is vast and not limited to romantic love, although certainly romantic love is very important to Panchaali—both the marital love she tries to reach with her husbands, and the forbidden love she holds unspoken inside herself all her life. The protective love she feels for her brother is very important in this novel, as well as the regretful love she feels toward her sons—but too late. The love she feels for her nurse—the only mother she knows—is also significant. Most important is the spiritual love she discovers at the end of her life.
I don’t know about imparting wisdom! I just want readers to think about the wealth of love that is possible in our lives—in so many guises—and how it can transform us. Opposed to love in the novel is vengeance—and whenever it overpowers love, the result is disastrous. So I guess I want readers to think about the cost of vengeance, too.
Q: Many of your novels, including this one, deal in a matter-of-fact way with the spiritual, mystical, and magical in everyday life. The Palace of Illusions, like the Mahabharat, is set in a half–magical world populated by gods and sages who have supernatural powers as well as by humans, some of whom manage to harness magical powers for their own gains (though generally not without consequences). What is the place of magic in Indian culture? In Western culture?
My own view—influenced by my culture—is that the universe we live in is a magical one. It exists on many levels. The world that we perceive with our senses and understand with logic is only the most obvious level. The other levels are available to us—but we have to attune ourselves to them. Those are the levels I explore in many of my novels, which are peopled with characters who, for one reason or another, have gained access to them. On its most subtle level, the world is spiritual in nature. That is what Panchaali comes to understand at the end of her life.
Q: A bloody civil war between brothers is central to the plot in The Palace of Illusions. You carefully detail the battle and its consequences both immediate and far-reaching for your characters, especially for Panchaali’s husbands and sons. Although the story is an ancient one, it will resonate with a great many American women today whose own husbands and children are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Was this part of the reason you chose to re–tell this section of the Mahabharat? Does the Mahabharat advocate peaceful resolution to conflicts or is it more complicated than that? What about your own feelings about war?
Yes, one of the reasons I was attracted to re–telling the story of the Mahabharat is that unfortunately we continue to live in a war-torn world. Americans today—men and women both—are certainly feeling the effects of war. So are people in many other countries. War is particularly hard on mothers—seeing the life that came out of your own body being maimed or destroyed is devastating. But women aren’t the only sufferers. Remember, Panchaali suffers in one way, but her husbands don’t suffer any less. Yudhisthir goes into a long–lasting depression when he considers what has happened to the earth and to society as a result of the carnage he has helped bring about.
In this novel I wanted to focus on the immense and debilitating costs of war, and (as we are re–learning to our sorrow in this country right now) how easy it is to begin a war and how hard to end it.
In the Mahabharat—as in most epics—the attitude to war is a complicated one. Mine is more simple. Like Mahatma Gandhi, a man I greatly admire, I believe in non violence as the best method of resistance.
Q: The novel’s title, The Palace of Illusions, refers in part to the beautiful and fantastical palace that Panchaali and her five husbands build and that she considers her one true home. Are there other illusions that Panchaali and the novel’s other major characters must face? What role does illusion play in the Mahabharat? In everyday life?
I love that palace, rising from the ashes of a forest the Pandavas set on fire, fashioned by an architect whose previous “clients” were gods and demons! I hope the readers will be as fascinated by it—and by the idea of needing to belong, the idea of home that haunts Panchaali throughout the novel—as I am.
Yes, the novel is full of illusions (just as it is full of palaces). Panchaali has many illusions about who she is—and so do the other characters. Are the men’s ideas about heroism and war illusory? Is what Panchaali believes about romantic love an illusion? I want readers to draw their own conclusions–and, I hope, examine some of their own illusions. Ultimately the novel—and Indian spiritual philosophy—suggests that this entire world is an illusion, is Maya—and invites the reader to contemplate the true, unchanging, amazing essence of things.