The epic chronicles the life of Rama, a young prince of the ancient kingdom of Kosala and an avatar of the god Vishnu. In traditional accounts, Rama’s adventures begin when he is exiled by his mother-in-law Kaikeyi, one of the wives of Raja Dasharath of Kosala. Kaikeyi’s biological son Bharata seemed set to inherit the throne, but the king decides to install Rama instead. Kaikeyi, a loving mother-in-law to all of her husband’s children, first accepts this news with joy. But then, encouraged by her servant Manthara, Kaikeyi abruptly changes her mind and calls on two favors owed to her by the king. In Arshia Sattar’s 1995 abridged translation, the scene plays out like something out of a fairy tale:
“Influenced by Manthara’s words, golden-skinned Kaikeyi threw herself to the ground. ‘Manthara, go tell the king that I’m lying here dying. Unless Rama is sent to the forest and Bharata is anointed in his place, I will kill myself!’ ”
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With this boost from devoted wife and parent to scheming queen, Kaikeyi joins the pantheon of wicked stepmothers – an unsavory list from which she is saved in “Kaikeyi”, Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, a powerful and feminist of the epic of the reviled queen. point of view. A Chicago native and student at Yale Law School, Patel brings a pragmatic approach to Kaikeyi’s story: gods and magic play a subsidiary role in gender politics and a warm and refreshing depiction of the relationships between multiple wives and children of a sprawling royal family.
“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the most sacred position – it did me a lot of good,” Kaikeyi states at the start of the novel. But when her twin brother enters the world a few minutes later, “I was only a dowry of fifty fine horses waiting to arrive.” Over the years, six other brothers joined the family. Under the tutelage of his twin, Kaikeyi becomes adept at horse riding and the use of weapons. When she was 12, her mother, Kekaya, was banished from the kingdom, seemingly for no reason. Kekaya “never hugged me… Instead, she taught me to read… And even then she didn’t praise me. But she gave me scrolls and listened to me as I chose stories.
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Kaikeyi finds a magical scroll that allows her to enter the Bonding Plane, a liminal space where she can perceive the invisible bonds that connect her to others – shimmering threads that wax and wane depending on the strength of her connection with n any individual. But Kaikeyi is not content to see the links: she learns to pull on the invisible strings to achieve her ends, without the knowledge of others. Her skills serve her well after her arranged marriage to Raja Dasharath. As his youngest and third wife, Kaikeyi is initially unsure of her place at court, but quickly proves herself when she accompanies him into battle. Acting as his charioteer, she saves his life and Dasharath grants him two boons. “I place no restrictions on these,” he told her.
Kaikeyi is not taking these favors – yet. Instead, she uses her supernatural power and royal influence to overturn laws that condemn women to a life of servitude and poverty.
“Open the court to women. Enable women to learn in open market schools. Allow women to maintain their own stalls in the market – and perhaps even own property. Not being marriageable would then no longer be a life sentence.
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Kaikeyi’s romantic relationship with her husband is defined by mutual respect and friendship, not romance. Indeed, there’s hardly any erotic thrill to Patel’s tale of an epic that gleams with passion. There is no jealousy or rivalry between Kaikeyi and Dasharath’s other two wives, who become his devoted friends and companions. When the three women take part in a ritual intended to produce a male heir, Agni, god of fire, appears. Everyone assembled falls to their knees – everyone except Kaikeyi. His refusal was not born out of defiance; when Agni asks why she doesn’t bow, she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”
But the infernal Agni knows, as any reader familiar with “The Ramayana”: Kaikeyi is destined to play a villainess in the grand game of gods and mortals. Nothing will change that, especially once Dasharath’s sons are born and it becomes clear that Rama is the avatar of a god – and not always a kind god. Like his stepmother, Rama can enter into the bonding scheme, which he uses to disempower the women Kaikeyi has worked tirelessly to help. Driven by her misogyny, she claims both favors from her husband, with tragic results.
Patel’s expansive story unfolds at a measured pace, her painstaking depiction of one woman’s struggle to bring justice to an unjust world informed by thrilling battle scenes and encounters with gods who care not for humans or of their fate. The novel’s climax comes long before the main events of “The Ramayana”, at which point Kaikeyi has joined the long list of powerful women whose motives are questioned but rarely described, only explored. In “Kaikeyi,” Patel restores the balance of power, creating an unforgettable heroine who understands that it’s not necessarily kings or gods who change history, but a disgraced woman who can look down on a group of girls and see “a child, freer than her mother had been.
Elizabeth Hand’s new novel “Hokuloa Road” will be published this summer.
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