“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the most sacred position – it did me much good. In Bharat, where the gods regularly answered prayers and meddle in the affairs of mortals, the circumstances of my birth were very promising.(…) The people of Bharat often blamed my father for my sins as if a woman could not deserve her actions.
Thus begins the story of Kaikeyi, told, for once, in his own words. Anyone familiar with the Ramayana, this great epic, the meta-narrative, the reassuring story of the triumph of good over evil, will already know Kaikeyi – the evil queen, the archetypal stepmother who forced the rightful heir to the throne into exile, so that his own son might claim the kingship; Kaikeyi, “the last of her name”, unforgivable and irremediable. Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, in a defiant act of recovery, rescues the eponymous queen from eternal obliteration and allows her to tell her own story, exploring the epic world and exposing its flaws.
Epics, perhaps in all literary traditions, have lent themselves quite easily to repeated tales. the Ramayana, of course, already exists in several iterations across India and Southeast Asia. The entire epic and the stories it contains have been retold and retold in multiple versions in Indian languages.
The now controversial “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by AK Ramanujan pointedly asks, “How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas were there? The question is not easy to answer, especially as interest grows in mythology and stories as a literary genre and as contemporary writers continue to construct more and more versions of Rama, Sita and of Ravana.
Patel’s novel is do not a retelling of the Ramayana in that it does not focus on the main protagonists of the secular tale. Instead, in the style of Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint, choosing to tell stories of women that mythologies failed to give voice to, Patel brings a character out of obscurity and opens the space to write a new story. feminist.
from Chandrabati Ramayan, a narrativization from Sita’s point of view, performed the act of reclaiming women’s voices in the 16th century. In recent years, Samhita Arni The missing queen (2014) and the Volga The release of Sita (2016), shifted the narrative focus to the women of Ayodhya, after the triumphant return of the virtuous hero. Arni’s novel, indeed, has a Kaikeyi who laments the loss of her voice, the erasure of her perspective.
Kaikeyi then, is not so much a radical departure as the pursuit of a dialogue. The author’s note states that “the book does not strive to be an exact account of any version of the Ramayana – it is Kaikeyi’s story, and therefore it is its own story”. Patel tells Kaikeyi’s story but alongside, also gives voice to the other women of the Ramayana, seen but not heard – Kaushalya, Sumitra and the much reviled Manthara.
Patel introduces magic, giving her heroine the ability to influence people, a power she gains by accessing a “Binding Plane”, an alternate dimension where she can see and manipulate the emotional bonds between people. In an exercise that science fiction readers would recognize as world-building, Patel incorporates science, speculation, statecraft and feminist politics to tell a story that is both familiar and new.
Writing a feminist utopia
Princess of the Kekaya kingdom, Kaikeyi has known since her earliest childhood that she has no value in a world of men. She is “but a dowry of fifty beautiful horses”, destined not to rule, but to be wife and mother in a world where queens and mothers are expendable and replaceable. Deprived of a structured, ignored and invisible education, Kaikeyi blames the sages for her unequal world: “The sages had said it clearly: it was the will of the gods that women be left to more suitable tasks to keep our bodies fragile and delicate. minds safe.
Choice is a luxury the women of Kaikeyi’s Bharat do not have. Her only valid role is to make a good political alliance for her father’s kingdom, a duty she fulfills when she marries Dasharath, the king of Ayodhya, to be his third wife, the one he hopes will be his. will finally give an heir. Women in this world only exist in relation to men.
Patel tells the story of Ahalya, formed from water by Brahma, conquered in marriage by the sage Gautama, seduced by the cunning of the god Indra, and turned into stone as punishment for her unwitting transgression by her husband. Ahalya’s story unfolds like a leitmotif throughout the novel, serving as a cautionary tale and a reminder that patriarchy offers no protection or redress to women. Kaikeyi’s brother, Yudhajit, seems to have the measure of it when he says: “Who wants to be a woman? No worse fate, after all.
Responding to the misogyny of a hostile world, Patel writes a feminist journey for Kaikeyi. Her heroine protests, questions and refuses to be erased. She learns to handle weapons and ride a tank, goes into battle with her husband as a tank driver, saving his life, killing his enemy and earning two “boons” from him. As queen, she steps in and initiates what is known as the Women’s Council, working outside of the political system, attempting to provide redress, support, and opportunity for women.
She wants, she says, “to build a world where my daughter would not be exiled by her husband on a whim, where her opinion could be valued without having to save her husband’s life in battle first.” It’s when Patel writes this feminist utopia where women are seen and respected that the text strays furthest from the Ramayana narratives and instead morphs into a welcome little piece of wish-fulfillment.
Likely to be contentious
Kaikeyi it is also the story of mothers and daughters, of exiled women and abandoned children, of separation and loss. Kaikeyi’s mother is banished from the kingdom and excised from her children’s lives, in what looks like a harbinger of Sita’s exile from Ayodhya. The mother, Kekaya, is also Kaikeyi’s introduction to the world of stories, learning, and magic; the education denied to him by the patriarchy is smuggled to him through the scrolls of his mother.
Patel’s Manthara, a break from the much-vilified hunchback of conventional Ramayana tales, is thankfully free from the trope of disability as evil that has plagued our literary and cinematic spaces for so long. This Manthara is a faithful friend, quick-witted and kind-hearted.
Sita, in this telling of her story, is yet another daughter separated from her mother to facilitate the divine role she is to play. The women of Kaikeyi are often self-aware, aware of the constraints they must live under and, in a very post-feminist version of the Ramayana, together create a world of harmonious connectedness.
Patel’s Kaikeyi is, of course, also the Kaikeyi of Ramayana; the mother-in-law who reminds her husband of a promise made and insists on exiling the firstborn, heir apparent, Rama. The writer does something very interesting with the motivation of the queen. Son Kaikeyi loves his stepsons, treating them no differently than his own. There is no jealousy between queens, no resentment.
Kaikeyi, with her “binding” magic, recognizes Rama’s piety before all others. However, instead of bowing in supplication to the gods, this Kaikeyi interrogates them. She is appalled at the misogyny in her son’s statements about women – that women should not be seen by men other than their husbands, that women should not work outside the home, that their role main thing is to be wives and mothers and keep quiet – and know that all will not be well with an Ayodhya that is not for everyone.
Her decision, Patel shows us, is the decision of a mother with no easy options in front of her. In doing so, the writer rewrites much of the Ramayana, destabilizing its hero, forcing a reassessment of what has always been accepted beyond doubt.
Kaikeyi is likely to be a controversial book. This is certainly not going to be welcomed by anyone who regards the Ramayana as a religious text and its hero as sacrosanct. For others, magic may seem alien to the plot or even distracting from it.
However, for those of us who see the Ramayana as a rich literary text that continues to be reinterpreted from previously unexplored perspectives, Kaikeyi raises important issues of representation and agency. If, inspired by Ramanujan, we dare to ask “How many Ramayanas?” the answer will have to take into account the stories written from the margins, the stories told from the sidelines and the stories yet to be told.
Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel, Redhook.