“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions – much good it did me. In Bharat where the gods regularly responded to prayers and meddled in mortal affairs the circumstances of my birth held great promise. (…) The people of Bharat have often blamed my father for my sins as if a woman cannot earn her actions.”
Thus begins Kaikeyi’s story, told, for once, in her own words. Anyone familiar with the Ramayana, that grand epic, the metanarrative, 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 her own son could claim kingship; Kaikeyi, “last of her name”, unforgivable, and irredeemable. Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, in a defiant act of reclamation, rescues the eponymous queen from eternal erasure and allows her to tell her own story, in the process, exploring the world of the epic, and exposing its fault lines.
Epics, perhaps in all literary traditions, have leant themselves rather easily to re-tellings. The Ramayana, of course, already exists in multiple iterations across India and South East Asia. The epic in its entirety as well as stories from within it, have been told and re-told in multiple versions in Indian languages.
AK Ramanujan’s now controversial “Three Hundred Ramayanas” asks pointedly, “How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been?” The question is not an easy one to answer, particularly as interest grows in mythology and re-tellings as a literary genre and contemporary writers continue to construct more and more versions of Rama and Sita and Ravana.
Patel’s novel is not a re-telling of the Ramayana in that it does not focus on the primary protagonists of the age-old tale. Instead, in the manner of Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint, choosing to tell the stories of women that the mythologies forgot to give voice to, Patel plucks a character from obscurity and opens up the space for writing a new, feminist history.
Chandrabati’s Ramayan, a narrativisation from the perspective of Sita, performed the act of reclamation of women’s voices in the 16th century. In recent years, Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen (2014) and Volga’s The Liberation of Sita (2016), shifted the narrative lens to the women in Ayodhya, after the triumphant return of the righteous hero. Arni’s novel, in fact, 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 continuation of a dialogue. The author’s note states that the “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.” Patel tells Kaikeyi’s story but alongside, also gives voice to the other, seen-but-not-heard women of the Ramayana – Kaushalya, Sumitra, and the much vilified Manthara.
Patel introduces magic, giving her heroine the ability to influence people, a power she acquires by accessing a “Binding Plane”, an alternate dimension where she can see and manipulate the emotional bonds between people. In an exercise that readers of sci-fi would recognise as world-building, Patel incorporates science, speculation, statecraft and feminist politics to tell a story that is equal parts familiar and new.
Writing a feminist utopia
Princess of the Kekaya kingdom, Kaikeyi knows from early childhood that she has no value in a world of men. She is “but a dowry of fifty fine horses”, destined not to rule, but to be wife and mother in a world where both queens and mothers are expendable and replaceable. Denied a structured education, ignored and unseen, Kaikeyi blames the sages for her unequal world: “The sages had made it clear: it was the gods’ will that women should be left to tasks more suited to them to keep our fragile bodies and delicate minds safe.”
Choice is a luxury that 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 fulfils when she marries Dasharath, the King of Ayodhya, to be his third wife, the one he hopes would finally bear him an heir. Women in this world exist only in relation to men.
Patel tells the story of Ahalya, formed from water by Brahma, won in marriage by the sage Gautama, seduced by trickery by the god Indra, and turned into stone as punishment for her unwitting transgression by her husband. Ahalya’s story runs like a leitmotif through the novel, serving as cautionary tale and as reminder that patriarchy provides neither protection nor redressal 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.
In response 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 how to wield weapons and to ride a chariot, goes into battle with her husband as his charioteer, saving his life, slaying his enemy, and winning two “boons” from him. As queen, she makes interventions and initiates what comes to be known as the Women’s Council, working outside of the political system, attempting to provide redressal, support and opportunities to 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 first having to save her husband’s life in battle.” It is when Patel is writing this feminist utopia where women are seen and respected that the text veers furthest from the narratives of the Ramayana, and turns into a welcome little bit of wish-fulfilment instead.
Likely to be contentious
Kaikeyi 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 the lives of her children, in what looks like a presaging of Sita’s exile from Ayodhya. The mother, Kekaya, is also Kaikeyi’s introduction to the world of stories and learning and magic; the education denied her by patriarchy, is smuggled in to her through her mother’s scrolls.
Patel’s Manthara, in a departure from the much-reviled hunchback of conventional Ramayana tellings, is mercifully free of the disability-as-evil trope that has plagued our literary and cinematic spaces for ever so long. This Manthara is a loyal friend, a sharp mind and a kind heart.
Sita, in this telling of her tale, is yet another daughter separated from her mother to facilitate the divine role she must play. The women of Kaikeyi are often self-aware, conscious of the constraints they must live under, and in a very postfeminist version of the Ramayana, are together creating a world of harmonious connectedness.
Patel’s Kaikeyi is, of course, also the Kaikeyi of the Ramayana; the stepmother who reminds her husband of a promise made and insists on exiling the first born, the heir apparent, Rama. The writer does something very interesting with the motivation of the queen. Her Kaikeyi loves her stepsons, treating them no differently from her own. There is no jealousy between queens, no rancour.
Kaikeyi, with her “binding” magic, recognises Rama’s godliness before all others. However, instead of bowing in supplication to the gods, this Kaikeyi questions them. She is appalled by the misogyny in her son’s pronouncements about women – that women must not be seen by men other than their husbands, that women must not work outside the home, that their primary role is to be wives and mothers and silent – and knows that all will not be well with an Ayodhya that is not for all.
Her decision, Patel shows us, is the decision of a mother who has no easy options in front of her. In doing so, the writer re-writes much of the Ramayana, de-stabilising its hero, forcing a re-assessment of what has always been unquestioningly accepted.
Kaikeyi is likely to be a contentious book. It is certainly not going to go down well with anyone who sees the Ramayana as a religious text and its hero as sacrosanct. For others, the magic might seem extraneous 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 re-interpreted from previously unexplored perspectives, Kaikeyi raises important questions of representation and agency. If, inspired by Ramanujan, we dare to ask, “How many Ramayanas?”, the answer will have to take into account stories written from the margins, stories told at a slant, and stories yet to be told.
Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel, Redhook.