Becoming Krshna: Panchali’s Quest in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions

Rajni Singh, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, India
Soumyajyoti Banerjee, Haldia Institute of Technology, West Bengal, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Women autobiographical narratives draw on the centrality of the female experience in light of the politics of representation. This paper explores that experience in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel. The study however, does not resort to standardised models of interpreting and analysing the female self, namely feminist criticism. It brings in Orientalism as a tool for interrogating that experience, primarily because the theoretical model of Orientalism supports the analysis of how the female self is created by a patriarchal hegemony and maintained through tradition. The study concentrates on the story of P?nc?li, the female protagonist of the Indian epic Mah?bh?rata as it is divulged in the novel. P?nc?li’s vision of herself and the world she inhabits is restricted by an orientalist culture that operates at the level of the nation as well as the domestic. The palaces she inhabits become more than just architectural edifices; they become embodiments of the motifs of a nationalist culture vitiated with orientalist concerns of cognitive dominance. P?nc?li’s efforts to break the shackles of tradition within the home and without it require her to counter such discourse with an entirely new aesthetic of narration and experience, one that is intimately connected to her ‘self.’ Her search for her own identity and space thus, turns out to be the search for her essential nature. Her futile efforts to construct a grandiose palace as a retributive symbol and her inadequacy at understanding the strength of the female self finally lead her to a self-sufficient, self-engaged rhetoric of completion. Hers is the story of a woman rising above the destiny which is set for her; it is the story of becoming K????.

Keywords: Orientalism, Panchali, Krishna, Quest, Identity

Krishna touches my hand…I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable—but I always was so, only I never knew it! I am beyond name and gender and the imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I’m truly Panchaali […] Above us our palace waits, the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. (Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions 360)

When she wanted her tryst with history, P?nc?li, the daughter of King Drupada, born out of a sacrificial Yjña along with her brother Dh??tadyumna, never imagined that she would be the cause of a great Indian civil war, Mah?bh?rata. She was the fruit of vengeance; Drupada’s fury to consume his adversary Dro??c?rya. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in The Palace of Illusions concentrates on this story. In the novel P?nc?li, the protagonist, narrates the story of her life, a story of her quest to find out who she is.

Her quest begins, unknowingly, at a very young age, when she muses on her father’s palace: “Through the long lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story” (Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions 1). The first lines prepare the reader for the centrality of space in P?nc?li’s life as it develops into a search for her own palace, a space she can call her own. It becomes the ruling factor in her life. Of course this search, as we shall witness, is the fundamental search for womanhood, born and bred in hegemonic patriarchy. In P?nc?li’s case, it is also an assessment of the tensions between how women see and are seen, judge and are judged, a search to carve out a space of their own; of their (“emph. Showalter’s”) wilderness (Showalter 345). P?nc?li goes on to comment: “I hated the thick gray slabs of the walls—more suited to a fortress than a king’s residence…I hated the narrow windows, the mean, dimly lit corridors, the uneven floors that were always damp, the massive severe furniture from generations ago that was sized more for giants than men. I hated most of all that the grounds had neither trees nor flowers” (Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions 6).

This description of Drupada’s palace unfolds key points about patriarchal hegemony in the narrative. Drupada is consumed by his acrid desire for revenge, which consummates in P?nc?li’s birth. She is, thus, from her inception, a child of a nationalist power struggle. Drupada’s palace and all ensuing palaces that P?nc?li inhabits become representations of this struggle. The aesthetics of the palaces become important because “any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer” (Said 272). We argue, therefore, that the politics of the discourse of women as the Other (physiological, societal, cultural, ontological and intellectual) and consequent representations of that otherness emerge from the micro-level of the domestic and gradually seep into the outside. We also contend that the domestic is the site where the identities of womanhood are constructed, de-constructed and re-constructed regularly. For women like P?nc?li, then, constructing her subjectivity, her identity, happens in the twilight zone: between the accepted discourse and her own sensitivities; between nature and nurture; between the self and its other.

Understanding the female experience, as we intend to do, in that light, becomes increasingly difficult and it is essential that due attention is given to how and why such perspectival categories are formed and maintained. This is where we deviate from traditional feminist critiques by bringing in Orientalism (as theorised by Edward Said) to form the theoretical framework of our study. According to Said, the Orient (thus the Oriental) was formed as a special category because it was defined and delimited by a set of knowledge-systems disseminated through culture. Interestingly, a similar socio-cultural delimitation is traceable for another specific category: woman. In his book Said writes, “So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the […] imaginative demonology of “the mysterious Orient” (Said 26). Something similar happens in case of women. Traditionalist, nationalist hegemony, as in the concerned text, solidifies mythical representations about women, which percolate the domestic where they are regularly played out. Said writes, “[…] knowledge—no matter how special—is regulated first by the local concerns of a specialist, later by the general concerns of a social system of authority. The interplay between local and central interests is intricate, but by no means indiscriminate”…Full Text PDF

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