Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel

I’m glad that I read Vaishnavi Patel’s essay on how the Ramayana and its stories have been retold in Indian culture and politics before I read her own electrifying retelling, Kaikeyi. I had only the vaguest idea of what happens in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, only what I’ve gleaned from some quick skims of the relevant Wikipedia articles. Patel’s essay added some important subtext to this novel and why she wanted the long-maligned Kaikeyi, the woman who exiled Rama to the forest and kicked off one of the greatest epic tragedies ever written, to finally tell her side of the story.

Kaikeyi was (in Patel’s version) a very gifted but isolated girl who was forced to grow up very quickly after her father exiled her mother. At a very young age, Kaikeyi had to take on her mother’s duties of running the palace and host her father’s subjects and other high-ranking visitors when they have business in the northern Indian kingdom of Kekeya. Aside from these roles, her father ignores Kaikeyi so much that she is able to wheedle lessons in charioteering, archery, and swordsmanship out of her twin brother…at least, she is ignored until her father realizes that Kaikeyi is of marriageable age. Before she can figure a way out, Kaikeyi finds herself married to the king of Ayodhya.

It’s in Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finally comes into her own. Her kind husband, Dasharatha, is more than willing to give Kaikeyi power, especially after she saves his life in spectacularly martial fashion during a battle against an upstart warlord. In fact, Dasharatha seems to be one of the few men in Kaikeyi’s life (or in Kekeya or Ayodhya or any of India’s many kingdoms) who is willing to upset the status quo enough to give women more freedom. His advisors—especially his religious advisors—warn him that doing so will not only annoy many of the men in his kingdom; it will also anger the gods. And there they are, the central conflicts of Kaikeyi: the old ways versus the new ways, the secular versus the divine, the men versus the women.

Kaikeyi, Rama, and other figures depicted in a Mughal-era edition of the Ramayana. (Image via Wikicommons)

The events that follow Kaikeyi’s marriage begin to take on the kind of epic weight that I associate with the Greek or Norse or Egyptian legends, when the gods sput their divine noses into the human’s lives. Everything that happens feels inevitable. Because we’re following events from Kaikeyi’s perspective, we understand the decisions she makes. We know why she fights so hard for women’s rights. We know why she tries to avert war at every chance. And we can’t help but feel her frustration and fear when everything around her conspires against everything she wants, especially when her court and her own children start to turn on her. This book does everything those great epics do. It draws us inescapably into a great but very human story, with larger-than-life characters whose actions are still retold today.

I highly recommend this story, whether or not you’re familiar with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Wikipedia and the essay I linked in the first paragraph are more than enough to catch you up. Please read this amazing book and then tell all your reader friends about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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