My thoughts on ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

As the feminist re-telling of the Mahabharata, Divakaruni’s work stands out distinctly  amongst the scores of adaptations and renditions of the ancient Hindu epic.

Set in a deeply patriarchal society, this is the story of Drapuadi – a fiery, outspoken and fearless princess who, despite all her virtues and achievements, was known and remembered only for her vengeful and manipulative nature.

The Mahabharata is complex, with characters, episodes and incidences that overlap and/or stretch for over decades together, but Divakaruni’s story-telling is masterful. Her writing flows beautifully and effortlessly, allowing the reader to absorb, pause and reflect.

Draupadi’s perspective unfolds in a way that the reader is fully invested in her cause and immersed in her narrative.

Draupadi (or Panchaali, her favoured name), is by no means someone who can be defined or described in a sentence. Divakaruni urges the reader to empathise with this character’s multi-layered persona – even her pride, and her all-consuming thirst for revenge. Panchaali, is strong-wiled and isn’t afraid to put her needs and desires first – qualities that may not be necessarily likeable, but are certainly relatable, especially for the modern woman.

In a society where polygamy was the norm and royals or noblemen were accustomed to taking many wives, Panchaali was constantly chastised for marrying the Pandava brothers. This, despite the fact that it was never her own choice or intention.

In the ‘PG-rated’ version of the televised Mahabharata in the 80’s (which I watched as a child), I always thought of Panchaali’s character as only the victim of dubious situations – such as her mother-in-law declaring that she must marry all five of her sons instead of one, or her husbands ‘losing her’ to the villains in a wager of chess. It was only now, I realized that Panchaali was made to take turns to live with each brother for two years as a wife and repeat this cycle for the rest of her life. Little wonder then, she was never in love with any of her husbands.

As cringe-worthy this situation may be, I realized where some of her motivations came from and why she was considered to be cold-hearted. Could I blame her, after being passed around by all the brothers, each of whom had wives and children of their own, on the side? It was unfair that she was made to live such a strange and loveless existence, as ordered by her mother-in-law.

The antagonists, Duryodhan and Karna, had their ego bruised by Panchaali in public, which why they took the first opportunity to humiliate her. The public disrobing and shaming of Panchaali is the crux of the story of Mahabharat, making her the all-important character in the great epic.

After her public humiliation, she used her position as wife to five of the greatest warriors in history, to rally them against those who insulted her. She made sure the fires of vengeance burned brightly in them for twelve long years, in exile. She appealed to their sense of duty and justice, reminded them that her dishonour was theirs too and systematically propelled them towards the greatest war that mankind had ever witnessed. Manipulative? I call it being human.

Divakaruni makes the reader root heavily for Panchaali right till then end, when she is finally united with her soul-mate – Karna, in after-life. Her inexplicable draw towards Karna, her husbands’ half-brother and arch enemy, made for one of the most compelling and intriguing parts of the book.

The book ends in the aftermath of the war, where Panchaali was repentant for the war, having lost her beloved brother and her own sons in battle. As she ascends the mountains along with the Pandavas on their Final Journey, Divakaruni pens some poignant words which stay with the reader long after finishing the book – those of duty, sacrifice, family and vengeance but most of all, of love.

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When I found the exact spot which was used for the cover of the book, at Jaipur City Palace, Rajasthan

“We are like this only!”

We Indians are suckers for free stuff. Free coffee, free water, heck, even free advice is heartily welcomed. 

Name almost anything free and the average Indian will grab it, regardless of its use to him. To us, free is priceless… but while that is a fact, it’s not always applicable.

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to observe some peculiar denizens of the Great Indian Middle Class. On one particular trip, I had time on my hands, a granny to watch over and approximately 27 co-passengers on a ‘package tour’ trip to tolerate. 

So, on a guided city tour of Singapore, we were herded into a gemstone factory outlet, with the promise of grade A gemstones with ISO certification. The commission-hungry tour guides left no stone unturned (excuse the terrible pun) to induce the bus-full of Indian tourists to buy jewelry from this gemstone factory.  
 
The local tour guides had no idea who they were dealing with. 

We charged towards the jewelry counters much to the delight of the tour guides but that changed rapidly.

We came, we saw, we inquired about the price of everything – I mean everything- including the salesperson’s watch and the ceiling fan.  And ofcourse, we conquered… the complimentary beverage counter! 

Out of the multi-ethnic congregation at the location, I was not proud to see our motley Indian crew attacking the free beverage section with a ferocity that could put the Spartan army to shame. My compatriots were seen climbing on top of each other, pushing, tugging and elbow-ing each other out of the way to emerge victorious from the crowd.

By the end of the tussle, each of my co-passengers from the tour bus from hell was seen holding one cold coffee, two cups of hot tea and one green tea. Each.

It didn’t matter if no human being of sound disposition could attempt to ingest all of these beverages at one given point of time. It didn’t matter of their bodies reacted unpleasantly to the cocktail of hot beverages in the enclosed tour bus. 

All that mattered that the drinks were free. 
 

On the same trip on another day, I was witness to what I now call Mutiny of the Singapore Flyer.

It so happened that our little tour group was made to pay 30 SD for a ride on the Singapore flyer-a major tourist attraction. Now, the disgruntled lot, who were just made to part with their precious green papers hopped on the ride, hoping it was going to be worth their sweat and blood and the horrid exchange rate they got their dollars at. 

“Hey, we thought everything was included in the tour price!” some of us retorted.

Thankfully, they found the ride worth it. They were a happy bunch returning to the bus after the ride when all of a sudden there was an outcry in the back. News spread like wildfire inside the coach and soon, there was a cacophony of Gujrati, Chinglish, Hinglish and English, each trying to either fuel the uproar or drown it. I couldn’t tell, and I suspect neither could they. Chaos and pandemonium reigned.

I thought someone was lost or killed, perhaps. But no, the uproar was over a free scoop of ice cream that allegedly came with every ticket…which the entire group was deprived of. 

Apparently one family from the group had sneaked off the previous day, to take a ride on the now infamous Singapore Flyer. Everyone got a complementary scoop with the ticket but not this particular tour group.

The family loudly declared that they had infact begotten the free scoop of ice cream along with their tickets yesterday. It was chocolate and mint flavored and oh so precious.

“How dare they! This is daylight robbery!” exclaimed one gentleman, after he heard this story.

“They’re frauds!” cried another.

“These tour guides have collected all the complimentary ice cream vouchers and are probably selling it somewhere!” shouted one lady. 

“Scam! This should be in the papers. I know a reporter in the Times of India!” declared another.

The bus was livid with rage. Afterall, free ice cream scoop denied was justice denied. There were wild accusations and threats and demands for a refund of the tour tariff. 

Only after a profuse apology from the tour guides, international calls to the Indian head office of the tour agency, a clarification from the ice cream promotion guy and an elaborate explanation from the Singapore Flyer management did they finally seem settle down. Moral of the story? You never fuck with an Indian’s free ice cream scoop.

Given the fact that India gave birth to the significance and importance of ‘zero’ it’s only fitting that we Indians realize its true value best. 

If it’s free, we must have it- don’t worry, we’ll somehow find use for it. We love free stuff and we’ll fight for our rights until our very last breath. Please feel free to sneer at us, too. As someone very wise pointed out, “We are like this only!”

The Singapore Flyer

How to overcome ‘writer’s block’?

Firstly, stop calling it that.

What if I told you its a make-believe monster? That it doesn’t exist?

Now you may argue that every writer faces this creative impasse, when things don’t come naturally, there’s friction in the thought process and hindrance in the flow of writing.

Ofcourse, that’s true.

But writing is a CREATIVE PROCESS – one can never expect it to be consistent and mechanical. There’s bound to be a point when the creative juices dry up and all you can do is stare at the keyboard instead of typing away. But then, you’re a creative writer and not an Excel monkey!

The more you think of this pause in creativity, by giving it fancy names, shapes and forms, the bigger it becomes in your mind, ultimately overwhelming you to a point of giving up. So there are a few things you can do, to overcome this creative impasse.

Here are some of the things I do to get my writing mojo back.

Read
Set some time apart everyday to read something in the genre you’re writing in. Even better, read your ultimate favorite book again, so it gets you in touch with your love for the written word. Read something that inspires you to hit that keyboard again, and hit it hard.

Reading also helps you get in touch with your own motivations to write- takes you back to the basics. Let’s face it, a writer writes because of his love for reading!

Automatic writing
This is a new trick I’ve learnt, which has worked wonders for my writing. Before you begin writing for the day, spend just 10-15 minutes with a pen and notepad and simply write anything that comes to mind. ANYTHING. It could be absolute nonsense but just make sure the tip of the pen does not leave the paper for those ten minutes. No pressure, no one will ever read what you’ve written.

This is an excellent exercise to unlock your subconscious mind and bring your inner thoughts, motivations, fears and emotions to the fore, on paper. You’ll be surprised how those ideas and thoughts will make their way into your writing, later. Its a great way to unplug your mind and purge your ideas when you’re feeling stuck.

Free write about your work
As a variation of the automatic writing technique, where you simply jot down whatever comes to mind, I often free write within a structure- that is, think about my story or characters and then free write about them, making sure I keep writing for atleast 15-20 minutes without stopping to think.

My best ideas and plot twists have been born out of this exercise.

Take free online course on writing

Let’s face it- staring at the computer screen is no better use of time, so you may as well learn something new. Select from hundreds of free online writing courses and listen to experts talk about the craft of writing. Work through some of those writing exercises- it will give you the push you need.

Soon, you’ll be itching to apply those tips and tricks to your own work and you’ll find yourself well on the way to finishing your manuscript.

Take a break!
Sometimes, its just about mental fatigue. Or boredom. Whatever it is, give your mind a break – but don’t let it wander too far.

No phones or TV or games. Give your mind a visual or sensory break by doing something different, but still in the creative space. CREATE something else.

Like painting, or coloring books, cooking or pottery or even music and dance. This will give your mind a break but not let it slip into zombie mode (yes I’m talking about flipping through TV channels/ Netflix- DON’T go there).

When you come back to writing, you’ll be refreshed and rejuvenated.

So these are some of the things I do to give myself that creative push. Hope it helps!