We all love a good villain, right? Seeing their origin story, watching them walk down the road to being evil, and learning what makes them tick. But what of those who were never really bad, just villainized? That’s what Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel sets out to do! Kaikeyi retells the story of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, from the perspective of one of the most demonized figures in Hindu history, Queen Kaikeyi. We got to chat with Vaishnavi about her book, what drew her to Kaikeyi and what went into weaving her story. Read below to check out my chat with her, and make sure to preorder Kaikeyi here, coming out April 26th!
Keshav Kant: I have so many questions, but one of my first ones is why Kaikeyi? Of all of the Hindu stories to retail and perspectives, you could go from Why?
Vaishnavi Patel: Yeah, so I think Kaikeyi has always been a character for me, like growing up hearing these stories confused me. And I remember, you know, really early on, I heard the story of the Ramayana, my mom and my grandma sort of had a conversation that went like without Kaikeyi, there would be no Ramayana. So how can she be evil? And then the response is, well, her actions were wrong. So that’s why she’s the bad guy. So this sort of back and forth really stuck with me. Her actions are critical to what happens in the Ramayana, so how can she be bad?
Without her, you never get there, and she uses her power to kick off this epic. So she is a massive contradiction. I always wanted to explore her side of the story. So I found myself researching her of my curiosity. Then, at some point, I was like, this would make a great.
Keshav Kant: Yeah, honestly, I love when you know, you get stuck in, as I call it, ADHD brain when you get stuck in like those info research periods, and you’re just tunnelling and tunnelling. Okay, so it’s wonderful to hear that there was a natural curiosity for you that eventually became the book.
Now, having looked into Kaikeyi before I went reading. I found there isn’t much about her; there are little bits here and there. She is the only girl in her family; she is as fierce as her brothers, but not much. Your story, specifically, gives her a little bit of like a supernatural power. She’s touched by the gods; where did that inspiration come from?
Vaishnavi Patel: That part was sort of entirely me. I wanted there to be some sort of magic because I love magic in my stories. And I’ve always had, independent of Kaikeyi’s origin, this idea of like magic that allows you to see your bonds to other people. So that it sort of felt like a natural fit, because I think it really, it kind of is like a physical illustration of soft power. That’s something I was trying to explore in this book. And so I was like, this is the time to use this idea. But that’s not, you know, she doesn’t have any magic to herself or anything specific like that in the myths. So I just wanted to give that to her.
Keshav Kant: It reminded me of the Chinese lore of the red string of fate and how it binds romantic partners together and can’t be broken. But in Kaikeyi, it can be, and I think that’s wonderful a reference to how the Gods can bestow these boons upon people in Hinduism, and they’re not always invincible.
Vaishnavi Patel: Yeah, I don’t subscribe to hard magic systems with specific rules and drawbacks. I mean, that’s wonderful to read about. But that’s not what I want to write about. But, you know, I wanted there to be some sort of weakness because if you think about soft power, using people skills to get what you want. The flip side is that sometimes you go too far or say the wrong thing. And now you’ve made an enemy out of somebody, or somebody feels like you’re manipulating them. No, they’re not going to interact with you anymore. So I wanted there to be a similar consequence: if you go too far, your relationship is dead. And, you know, this person is never going to like you.
Keshav Kant: I read it as it stuck to the core principle of free will in Hinduism. You may be influenced by fate and outside factors, but your actions are your own at the end of the day. So, Kaikeyi can never override free will, only influence it.
Vaishnavi Patel: I think that’s what I wanted to show how she can’t just sit there and just use this ability to get what she wants. Ultimately, she realized that she has to build those relationships; she has to convince people that her way is the right way. But some people are never going to agree with her. Some people you just can’t get through to or won’t like you, and that’s because people get to make their own choices. You know, free will is a big concept in this book, like, do people have it? How much do they get to decide? Does it matter what choices you make? So I was also thinking about that element throughout the whole book.
Keshav Kant: That perfectly segues into my next question, which is, in the books, there’s no singular antagonist. There’s no big bad final boss battle. It’s undercurrent misogyny and societal pressures shaping the way you view the world and like the choices you make. Which is a complete flip of Hindu epics which are always about this colossal battle between good and evil. Think of Rama versus Ravana in Valmiki’s Ramayana or Krishna in the Mahabharata. In Kaikeyi, we see these repeated moments of deeply entrenched misogyny in cultural beliefs that Kaikeyi and other women in the story keep facing. What was that creative choice like for you, deciding to take that path when it comes to storytelling instead of pursuing the whole epic battle?
Vaishnavi Patel: I love epic battles. Growing up, I loved the Ramayana specifically because I loved that final battle. But with Kaikeyi, I feel like her whole journey was about figuring out who she wants and what she wants her legacy to be. So it is much less for her about having some final confrontation than her internal journey. It’s about experiencing the consequences of her choices and having inner realizations about them.
I did play around with her having this big confrontation with Rama’s tutor at the end of the book, but it didn’t feel right. It’s mainly because it’s not even this one man who is the antagonistic force. It’s the overall misogyny and patriarchy that’s imbuing society. So, it will never be about defeating one person in an argument. It will always be about more significant give and take and tug of progress. So, that’s sort of why I ultimately decided not to have some big final scene where the hero emerges triumph.
Keshav Kant: I can see that for sure because there are aspects of that in Valmiki’s Ramayana, too, if you think about it. Kaikeyi is never a villain in the original story; she is a loving stepmother. She was beloved by her husband’s other wives. Yet, even after Rama’s exile is over and she’s apologetic, people see her decision as her defining moment and villainize her even now, millennia later.
And your interpretation reimagines the story so beautifully because it highlights the morally grey areas of the original epic. It shines a light on the ways women are held to ridiculous standards and aren’t allowed to be flawed or capable of change and growth. Like, even the female deities in your story are shown to be conscious of that reality, but they never explain what or why it is.
Vaishnavi Patel: I love these myths; this is my religion. So I didn’t want this book to be super critical of it. Even though it’s from Kaikeyi’s perspective, she doesn’t like acting like a lot of these characters. I wanted it to be more like everyone has their perspective of what they think is right and wrong. We as humans can’t fathom what the gods want from us or what it is that what their ultimate plan might be.
Generally speaking, we’re all fallible. I wanted the Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses in Hindi) to come across as something beyond what any of the characters on the page can understand. One of my favourite characters was Saraswati, who I love, and I have a statue of her in my house. But, you know, she’s the goddess of knowledge, like she has an understanding that nobody else possesses. Her being deity is something that’s to be beyond comprehension. I wanted the vastness and ineffability of her knowledge to come across.
Keshav Kant: That comes across; there are scenes throughout Kaikeyi was remind me of other Hindu epics because of that quality where you never truly grasp the gods’ plans or motivations. So you have to rely on your faith to see your way through everything.
We have to wrap up shortly, so I have two final questions. First, when I reviewed the book for TikTok, there were concerns that the book would espouse right-wing Hindu nationalist rhetoric. I clarified that it doesn’t, but was that a concern for you while writing Kaikeyi? Because I know, and I’m sure you do, Hinduvatas don’t take kindly to people being critical of the more… let’s say, problematic aspects of Hinduism.
Vaishnavi Patel: When I was writing this book, I didn’t think it wasn’t meant to be a takedown of Hinduism, which some people have since accused me of. I’m like, no, this is my religion. I love it, but there are critiques that come from a place of love and being a part of this community.
But I was writing because it would be fascinating to write the story from her perspective. To think about these different elements to it. So I wasn’t very cognizant of that at the time. I think that my personal beliefs about, you know, religious hierarchy, class. Casteism and patriarchy all came through very strongly. So once I was in the process of seeking publication, getting this book out there, that was when it became more present.
I get people already in my DMs being like, How dare you? How dare you say something like this? I try not to read my reviews, but my sister has informed me that I have some angry reviews that are like, How dare she say this about Shri Rama? And, like, if you read the book, I don’t think that he comes across as like, he’s not a villain to me. He’s confused and misled, and he’s sorted himself out by the end of the book.
Keshav Kant: Which is not all that different from the original story! After all, is said and done, when Rama came home after years of exile, he rejected his wife despite fighting this massive war to free her from Ravana. All because Sita is pregnant, and everyone assumes it’s that Ravana was fathered the children and not Rama. Which he knew was untrue before and after she went through a trial by fire to prove herself, but since she was called impure, he gave societal pressure only to regret it.
Now! My last question, is there anything you’d like our readers to know before they go into Kaikeyi and can you share anything about possible upcoming projects?
Vaishnavi Patel: I usually tell people that I’m honouring my Hindu roots as a disclaimer for Hindu readers, but I already did that, so I don’t need to give my whole spiel. But for upcoming projects, I am currently working on a project about Ganga! It’s not set in the same universe as Kaikeyi. But yes, it is about Ganga and the role she played in the Mahabharta because, you know, she’s supposed to be a river goddess, but she was cursed to be a human. She also has kids that play pivotal roles in Mahabharata. So I’m just excited to write from the perspective of someone who is a person but used to be a goddess and a river, yeah.
Keshav Kant: See, now you’ve got me excited! Can I ask when the expected release date is? Or even just the year?
Vaishnavi Patel: The hope is 2023, but we’ll see! I have a lot coming up this year; with law school, then I’m taking the bar in July, so hopefully, it’ll be 2023.
Keshav Kant: Well, then I’ll mark it in my calendar so that we have you back when the book comes out! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today; I adored the book. It’s one of the few five-star reads I’ve had this year, and this conversation gave me so much more appreciation. And if you need beta readers for the Ganga book, you have my email!
Vaishnavi Patel: I’ll keep that in mind! Thank you so much for having me and for supporting the book. It means a lot.