Friday, September 05, 2008


The first thing my son Ashu said while giving me his copy of The Palace of Illusion was: "I wish somebody would make a movie of it."

After having read it, I couldn't agree less.

While there's plenty of spectacle, action and drama in Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni's novelisation of The Mahabharata - in other words, what a shrewd filmmaker looks for in a novel before deciding to make a movie of it - most of it "happens" in Draupadi's mind. How do you show it except, maybe, using the current by-now already clich├ęd device of switching to (say) black and white footage from full colour to depict what she "saw" in her mind's eye?

Not good enough, if you ask me.

While the event horizon of the novel broadly resembles the Vyasa epic's, Devakaruni's reference point seems more in the vicinity of Dr Irawati Karve's Yuganta: The end of an epoch. She mentioned it as one of her secondary sources in a recent Sunday Mid-day interview. Chapter 7 of Yuganta, by the way, is about Mayasabah, "The Palace of Maya".

The closest a movie can come to a book is by suggesting instead of actually showing. Alfred Hitchcock knew this well. He never forgot the unique movie screen and projector each one of us possesses. His was the conjuror's art.

This is the kind of stuff The Palace of Illusion and The Mistress of Spices are made of. When you read them, you can run your own movie in the privacy of your mind.

Just after I started reading The Palace of Illusion, I thought it was a bit overwritten. I changed my mind on that score soon enough. In fact, whenever push came to shove, I found Devakaruni at her deftest. She knows her craft really, really well. She knows when not to overdo it. She is the Mistress of Spices. And, of Illusions. She is the supreme sorceress of subtlety when it comes to story-telling. Draupadi's swayamwar, her disrobing, the 18-day war and its aftermath are all written with great restraint using the power of suggestion.

The Palace of Illusion, a Vyasa redux in one sense, makes light even of its load of Advaita sagacity. Try to remember that you are the instrument and I the doer, Krishna, her platonic boy friend, tells Panchaali when he comes to help her soul's final journey.

(By the way, I owe the Krishna="boy friend" equation to Dr Irawati Karve's Marathi eponymous essay written in 1970, the year of her death. She described how her son-in-law called Vithoba of Pandharpur her "boy friend" once after her return from her journey there. It puzzled her first, she writes. On reflection, she found the descriptive tag appropriate. After all, had Vithoba (an incarnation of Vishu) not been called "mother", "father", "companion", "relative", "sweetheart" and the like? So what was wrong with "boy friend"?)

Earlier, when told to confirm if Sikhandi's narration of his past is true, Krishna says: “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.”

In reply to Panchaali's final query Are you truly divine?, he laughingly replies: "Yes, I am. You are, too, you know!"

No drum roll. No trumpets. The world is maya after all.

Got it?

P.S.: Devakaruni's feminist and pacifist concerns make their presence felt throughout, though. For instance, the initiative taken by the women of the Pandava clan as well as Gandhari to rehabilitate the widows of the war is strongly reminiscent of Maitri, the helpline for Asian women in abusive situations that she established in 1991.

Afterthought: Avantika, 15, Ashu's younger daughter, a Digital Native from New Jersey, a good writer for her age but a lazy and reluctant reader, was given the first option on The Palace of Illusion by her dad before it was passed on to me. I hope she decides to read it someday soon.