The Palace of Illusions

Hardcover $23.95

Doubleday | Feb 12, 2008 | 384 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9780385515993

  • Paperback$14.95

    Anchor | Feb 10, 2009 | 384 Pages | 5-3/16 x 8 | ISBN 9781400096206

  • Hardcover$23.95

    Doubleday | Feb 12, 2008 | 384 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9780385515993

  • Ebook$11.99

    Anchor | Feb 10, 2009 | ISBN 9780307472496

Praise

“A radiant entree into an ancient mythology virtually unknown to the Western world. . . . Remarkable.” —Houston Chronicle “A mythic tale brimming with warriors, magic and treachery. . . . Divakaruni’s sentences dazzle; the images she creates are masterful.” —Los Angeles Times “Complex, beautifully wrought. . . . Divakaruni’s feminist reading of Indian lore offers readers a magical lens into the political interplay of gender, castes, birthright and life in the monarchy. . . . A writer to watch.” —Rocky Mountain News “Divakaruni’s prose is as spirited as Panchaali herself, written with energy and humor.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel "Epics are intended to be accessible to the most extensive of audiences. And with The Palace of Illusions Divakaruni likewise makes this reimagining of the "Mahabharat" easy to understand through the simple, straightforward narrative. Moreover, Divakaruni masterfully describes the lyrical beauty of Indians and the elegant logic of Hinduism."—San Antonio News Express "The Palace of Illusions is not only an exciting, action-packed read, but also an educating one, and will likely encourage those curious enough to delve into the original Mahabharata."—Erin Kobayashi, Toronto Star "Enchanting…. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl—now we can add Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions to the list."—The Miami Herald "The Palace of Illusions is unique, amongst Divakaruni’s very best. It is particularly refreshing to read an author who breaks the mold as clearly as Divakaruni does…. A creative, illuminating feminist work that compels us to re-examine the original text…. As in all great cathartic tales, Divakaruni’s novel grasps our attention from beginning to end and is a healing, aesthetic experience."—India Currents "Divakaruni has taken a male-centered story and breathed new life into its female characters, giving us a rich tale of passion and love, power and weakness, honor and humiliation. Whether or not readers are familiar with the "Mahabharat" epic, still fascinating and relevant several millennia on, they will enjoy this entertaining, insightful, and suspenseful story."—The Union, Nevada City"Known for writing on the modern Indian immigrant experience in novels such as "Queen of Dreams," Divakaruni goes back in time, this time with a novel look at the ancient Indian epic "The Mahabharat" (think: an Indian "Iliad"). With hundreds of characters in the story of a great war, she tells the story from the point of view of a woman – Panchaali – who is married to five brothers"—New York Post "Divakaruni has woven a lyrical tale imbued with the scent of ancient incense, yet simultaneously rooted in modern-day relevancy. Brimming with betrayals, religious fervor and war-torn streets, The Palace of Illusions is a journey experienced from the vantage point of Panchaali, a powerful woman dfiven by love, honor and, in the end, a fate that unfolds despite her resolve."—Karen Ann Cullotta, Bookpage"Your truly epic narrative myth calls for bitter experience descending, avalanch-like, down dynasties, incorporating dramatic turning points of ineradicable impact; curses; looming fates; tricky and meddlesome gods; feuds; sages, sorcerers and wars. These elements and many more are found in abundance in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel, The Palace of Illusions, which ambitiously encapsulates the Indian epic "Mahabharat" within a 360-page novel.—Elsbeth Lindner, San Francisco Chronicle "By rendering the women characters as complexly as the men, and fully illuminating the "insanity of war" and the fragility of civilization, Divakaruni’s historic and transporting variation adds new and truly revelatory psychological and social dimensions to the great epic’s indelible story of sacrifice and spiritual awakening. Divakaruni has triumphantly fulfilled a profound mission."—Donna Seaman, Booklist "Divakaruni has taken a male-centered story and breathed new life into its female characters, giving us a rich tale of passion and love, power and weakness, honor and humiliation. Whether or not readers are familiar with the Mahabharat epic, still fascinating and relevant several millennia on, they will enjoy this entertaining, insightful and suspenseful story. Recommended for all fiction collections."—Joy Humphrey, Library Journal "The Palace of Illusions is as grand and tragic as the epic poems by Homer. The story is complex, as political relationships grow and develop, and friends and enemies are created, leading to battles and wars that will eventually destroy them all. I was captivated by the tragic storyline and the fate into which Panchaali was born. This admirable attempt to recreate the epic Mahabharat from the viewpoint of a strong woman is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s best work yet."—Marie Hashima Lofton, Bookreporter.com"For more than 20 years now, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has been telling stories of Indian women from her home in California. Her women are desperate, wonderful, complicated, lyrical, memorable, even magical…. Chitra’s women experience love, loss and longing through tangled marriages, bitter divorces, childbirth, abortion, abuse, violence, racism, poverty and riches. Now, in a daring novel out this month, Banerjee Divakaruni returns to a fantastic world, inhabited by kings, queens, villains and sorcerers."—Vogue India "Vivid and inventive…. Divakaruni’s rich, action-filled narrative contrasts well with the complex psychological portrait of a mythic princess."—Publishers Weekly"Divakaruni offers a quasi-feminist retelling of the great Hindu text known as the Mahabharat…an intimate, feminine portrait that is both contemporary and timeless. An ambitious project effectively executed."—Kirkus Reviews

Author Q&A

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 halfmagical 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 retell 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.

 

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 halfmagical 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 retell 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.

 

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 halfmagical 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 retell 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.

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