Excerpted from The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Copyright © 2008 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Questions for Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. In the book's opening pages, Panchaali relates the story of her birth. Dhai Ma says that voices spoke from the fire just before Dhri and Panchaali stepped from it. Given that this narrative is a retelling of the ancient Indian epic, do you read these events as literal or symbolic? How would you describe the reality and the illusions being portrayed in the tale?
2. How does the prediction that Panchaali will change the course of history influence her character as she matures? In what way are her lessons in “the sixty-four arts that noble ladies must know” a challenge to her destiny? Were there predictions made by family or friends early in your life about your future? If so, how did they affect your choices as you grew up?
3. When Sikhandi tells Panchaali the story of his past, Panchaali asks Krishna to confirm it. Krishna responds, “He believes it to be so. Isn't that what truth is? The force of a person's believing seeps into those around him—into the very earth and air and water—until there's nothing else” [p. 49]. How does this description of truth shed light on the ideas of self-determination and destiny throughout the novel?
4. After the predictions made for Panchaali by Vyasa the sage, Panchaali marries the five sons of the widowed queen Kunti. On her wedding night, as she lies on a mat near the brothers' feet, Panchaali thinks of Karna. How does the memory of Karna guide her throughout the narrative? How would you characterize their relationship?
5. Panchaali relates, “Palaces have always fascinated me, even a gloom-filled structure like my father's that was a fitting carapace for his vengeful obsession. For isn't that what our homes are ultimately, our fantasies made corporeal, our secret selves exposed?” [p. 113]. How does the Palace of Illusions, built by Maya, reveal the fantasies and longings of Panchaali's husbands and of Panchaali herself? In what ways does your own home reflect your secret self? If Maya were to build you a palace, what would it be like?
6. After Sisupal's death, Duryodhan builds himself a grand palace and invites Panchaali and the Pandavas to be his guests in Hastinapur. What mental characteristics cause Yudhisthir to lose everything in a last game of dice? How is this catastrophe a personal turning point for Panchaali? When she is taken to court, what does she learn about her power over her husbands? About the purity of her own heart?
7. During their banishment in the forest, Dhri gently chastises Panchaali, asking her where his sweet sister has gone. She thinks to herself, “She's dead. Half of her died the day when everyone she had loved and counted on to save her sat without protest and watched her being shamed. The other half perished with her beloved home. But never fear. The woman who has taken her place will gouge a deeper mark into history than that naïve girl ever imagined” [p. 206]. What emotion does this passage evoke in you toward the characters and their fates? Have events in your own life caused you to be stronger and more determined in achieving your life's purposes?
8. When Panchaali discovers a golden lotus floating in the river, she lifts it to her face and forgets her vengeance. When the color fades and the petals droop, her sorrows return. What advice from Krishna does she remember? When she goes to her faithful husband Bheem and indicates her desire for another lotus to him, how is Panchaali revealing her true character?
9. Panchaali relates the stories of Arjun's encounter with Shiva, his visit to Indra's palace, his refusal of the celestial dancer Urvasi, and the subsequent year he must spend as a eunuch. She says of her husband, “He had glimpsed the truth of existence that extended beyond this oscillating world of pleasure and sorrow” [p. 222]. How does the author use these tales of divine encounters to support and advance the narrative? What effect do Arjun's experiences have on the restless Panchaali? What do they tell us about the nature of the world?
10. In the city of Virat, Panchaali is pursued by the lustful Keechak. When Bheem kills him, the Pandavas and Kauravas do battle, and soon preparations for war are underway. When Surya, the sun-god, comes to Karna in a dream, he tells Karna how to achieve his heart's desire. What do you think is Karna's deepest longing? How does this desire relate to Panchaali's own destiny, as originally predicted by Vyasa?
11. Before the war at Kurukshetra, Panchaali sees a falling star and is heartened. She then says, “I should have remembered how tricky the gods are. How they give what you want with one hand while taking away, with the other, something much more valuable” [p. 252]. How does the author's foreshadowing through the eyes of Panchaali enhance your experience of the tale? How would you characterize Panchaali's attitude toward the gods, and toward her own role in the affairs of the Pandavas?
12. With Vyasa's gift, Panchaali is able to see all that occurs in the war. On the ninth day, she watches Bheeshma, the grandfather, battle Arjun, who had been loved and cared for by Bheeshma as a child. What do you make of Krishna's conversation with Bheeshma during this battle? How is Yudhisthir's phrase “insidious curiosity of womankind” important to understanding Panchaali's obstacles?
13. When Karna learns he is Kunti's son, how does he relate this new knowledge to his fate? What has the “shame of illegitimacy” produced in his life? What does Kunti's having abandoned her son tell you about the relations of mortals to gods in this tale? Have you ever learned a secret about your family history that has had a profound effect on how you viewed yourself?
14. Karna insists he cannot fight against Duryodhan because he has eaten his salt. What did you discover about salt's symbolism in ancient India? Discuss the idea of loyalty brought forth in this scene.
15. When Dhri kills Drona, thereby fulfilling his own predicted destiny, what is Panchaali's reaction? As she narrates the events, what does her tone tell you about her beliefs regarding fate, vengeance, and mortality? Do you admire or sympathize with her beliefs or do you disagree with them?
16. After Karna's death and Duryodhan's defeat at the hands of the Pandavas, a messenger brings word that Dwarka, Krishna's city, has been overtaken. Gandhari's curse, it seems to Panchaali, has been realized. When Arjun relates what happened, why does Yudhisthir acknowledge that it is time for the Pandava warriors to die?
17. As Panchaali goes with her husbands to the base of the Himalayas, to the path of great departure, how do her thoughts and experiences confirm her destiny? What discovery does she make about love? As Krishna guides her through death, how does she remember her life?
18. How does Panchaali's description of death and the afterlife compare to your own beliefs? Do you share her skepticism? How is Panchaali's story “a slippery thing” throughout the narrative, and perhaps most slippery at the end? If you told the story of your life to date, how would you describe the roles of destiny, free will, and cultural ideals?
19. What themes regarding war and destiny in The Palace of Illusions could enlighten world leaders about violent conflicts around the globe? In what way do the other Divakaruni novels you have read blend contemporary relevance with ancient insight?