At first, I almost dismissed it as yet another book on the Mahabharata. I have read quite a few of those and did not really look forward to discovering anything new in Chitra Banerjee Divakurni's 'The Palace of Illusions'. But then,a small caption on the cover said 'Panchali's Mahabharat' and that got me hooked. Draupadi has always been an enigmatic character in the epic, and yet, I believe, has been sidelined as far as popular literature on the subject is concerned (considering that most major characters have their own interpretations of the Mahabharata). In fact, that seems to have been one of the reasons for the author to write this book. As she admits in her preface that she was 'left unsatisfied' by the portrayal of the women of the epic, though the women were 'powerful and complex characters that affected the action in major ways'. And so, Chitra Banerjee delves into the mind and heart of Draupadi, probably one of the most powerful characters in the story. And some might say, may be even the driver of the entire epic itself !!
The story begins with Draupadi's birth from the ceremonial fire along with her brother Drishtaduymna ('she was as dark as he was fair'). As soon as she emerged from the fire, she was destined to change the course of history. The book is a decent journey through Panchaali's life, from her swayamvar (where she was specifically told by her brother and Krishna to reject Karna), going on to describe her life with her five husbands, the incident where Duryodhan falls in the pond thinking its solid marble (interestingly, the book claims that it was not Draupadi, but one of her maids, that said those fateful words :'a blind man's son will be blind'). the the disgraceful events during the game of dice at Hastinapur and finally, culminating in the terrible massacre at Kurukshetra. Each of these events are well described from Draupadi's view and her, the author is faithful to the generally-accepted version of the Mahabharata. There are not too many factual deviations.
However, it is not the factual events, but the inter-personal relationships that Draupadi had, that enliven the book. Firstly, Draupadi's relationship with Kunti comes across as a typical saas-bahu relationship, both trying to hold their own against each other with an undercurrent of tension beneath. The book does not talk much about the Pandavas and how Draupadi regarded each of them. Krishna is shown as her friend, philosopher and guide, always there for her, not least during the vastra-haran. But the sauciest portions of the book are reserved for Draupadi's fascination for Karna. That is probably the only genuine new insight that the book gives us. Draupadi's longing for the eldest Pandava is always spoken of in hushed tones in popular literature, but here, Banerjee portrays Draupadi as being almost head-over-heels in love with Karna. As Draupadi says in the book of her five husbands : '"I see that I didn't love any of my husbands in that way... even during the best of times, I never gave it (her heart) fully to them. How do I know it ? Because none of them (her husbands) had the power to agitate me the way the mere memory of Karna did". Throughout, the book is littered with examples of Draupadi's longing for Karna. And towards the end, Karna too confesses to Bhishma on his bed of arrows, that while the promise of the throne and power never tempted him to switch sides and join the Pandavas, when Kunti offered him Draupadi as almost a bait, he was truly tempted and had to use all of his famed willpower to keep him from deserting Duryodhan !!. All in all, this is one heck of a fascinating relationship, and just for this one, the book is well worth a read !!
So finally, what does one make of Draupadi after reading the book ? Apart from her extra-marital longing for Karna, Draupadi is portrayed as mostly a character bounded by her destiny ('to change the course of history') and most of her actions are portrayed as a natural outcome of the way her destiny plays out. Probably the only issue that one might have with Banerjee's Draupadi is that she is portrayed in lighter shades of grey than probably what is popularly imagined.