Books will often find their readers when the time is right. Recently, Mythical retellings have found me. And I have fallen hard for their spells.
Some memorable fictional retellings that I have read over the years include Madeline Miller’s Circe, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, or our very own Desi, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantment. These stories use the framework of fiction to reimagine an established narrative, often through the point of view of a minor or lesser-known character who may or may not be a woman, or a woman character who is the main counterpart to the hero of the story.
When I came across Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi, the one-word title was enough to grab my interest. I simply attributed the instinct to curiosity. Other than knowing Kaikeyi as the ultimate mean stepmother who was responsible for Rama’s exile, I did not know anything about her. She was and remains a woman supremely maligned by myth. She is tainted, evil, selfish and vicious. And yet, the great epic, Ramayana, would not occur without her. She is the one who held power over the circumstances to decree Prince Rama, the heir- apparent to the throne of Ayodhya, into exile. Thus, she got her own son Bharata to rule the kingdom. But as an avid reader of literature, I know better than to believe that motives can be so simplistic.
A Strong Woman
Patel’s bold novel begins with, “I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.”
In the first-person voice of Kaikeyi, we learn that she was the only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she had to fend for herself in a world full of men. Here, Patel uses magic realism where Kaikeyi discovers the powers of entering the binding planes through which she can detect and tamper connections that exist between people. She uses this power to her advantage at every turn possible.
Her life takes her on a journey where she commands influence over her husband King Dasharatha, whom she marries on the condition that it will be her son who will rule his kingdom. With her husband, she becomes a warrior, his trusted charioteer who saves his life to receive two more boons. Over the years she becomes a diplomat who helps the people of Ayodhya and earns the favor of being Dasharatha’s favorite wife.
A Counter Narrative
Interestingly, Kaikeyi also fosters something akin to a friendship with Ravana. She encounters him on several occasions, one of them being Sita’s Swayamvar. It is interesting to note that in this, and many other things Patel draws from various iterations of the Ramayana. She plays on the South-Eastern interpretations, where Ravana is not seen as a purely evil anti-hero. Similarly, in Adbhuta Ramayana and Jain Ramayana, Ravana is in fact Sita’s birth father. Patel weaves that idea into her story.
Because Patel writes so defiantly at the intersection of myth and feminism, some may stumble upon her complicated portrayal of Rama as a counter-narrative. Similarly, the relationship between Rama and Lakshmana, and between Sita and Rama is not idyllic as we are used to believing. Like any good fictional story, Patel’s novel is full of conflict and flaw.
An unheard voice
In the Author’s note, Patel says, “This book does not strive to be an exact retelling of any version of the Ramayana—it is Kaikeyi’s story, and thus it is its own story.”
To readers, I would say, do just that—view this story as a fierce and compelling story of a woman whose voice has finally been dared to be imagined. Through this book, Kaikeyi claims her troubling place in history when she says, “Before this story was Rama’s, it was mine.”