Who doesn’t love a villain? Seeing their devious plans unfold, learning their tragic backstory, watching them slowly down the road to villainy. It makes them so much more compelling and exciting than the goody toe shoes heroes. But what about the cases where you were never the bad guy, just villainized for your choices? That’s what Vaishnavi Patel sets out to explore in her debut novel Kaikeyi!
Kaikeyi is a retelling of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, told from the perspective of one of the most loathed figures in Hindu mythology, Queen Kaikeyi, stepmother of Shri Rama, the avatar of Vishnu, God of Preservation.
We meet Kaikeyi when she is a young girl, the only girl in a family of boys with a cruel father and a distant mother. The hurdles of caste and class by no means burden her life, but she walks a fine line as a princess oppressed by eons of patriarchal rule. Kaikeyi is bold, bright and unruly, she’s every little bit as fit to lead and fight as her brothers, but her father’s plans for her future are the polar opposite. But just because he doesn’t consider her autonomy relevant doesn’t mean Kaikeyi will willingly stroll down the aisle.
She uses every tool in her arsenal, including the God touched the ability to see people’s threads of fate, to carve out a path for herself. Her powers are a beautiful illustration of soft power, allowing her insights into how relationships connect her to others. Letting her sway their opinion and decisions with skillful tuggings on their strings. But author Vaishnavi Patel clarifies that this gift isn’t without its limits. When pushed too far, she can snap these strings beyond repair, turning these once-loving bonds to ashes of burned bridges.
“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.”Vaishnavi Patel interview with Off Colour
Kaikeyi uses her power to secure marriage in an unfavourable situation. In exchange for being the third and youngest wife of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, her son would be heir to the throne. She allows you to see her brilliant strategic mind and audacious personality shine through even when she’s supposed to be demure and agreeable.
Vaishnavi also skillfully avoids all the harmful tropes associated with polygamous marriages and motherhood in non-Christian family dynamics.
As the book continues, we see Kaikeyi turn from a wallflower in her new kingdom to a fierce warrior and tactful politician. She aids her husband in battle, saving him from death, receiving two boons and winning the respect of his army. She bonds with her sister wives Kaushlya and Sumitra, and they create the court of women, which resolves disputes and finds solutions for women of all castes and classes. Under Kaikeyi’s awe-inspiring and socially aware leadership, you see things change for the better in the kingdom of Ayodhya.
Despite how quickly society progresses, the book never takes you out of its set in the period. Nor does it gloss over how privilege and inaccessibility impact people of all stations. Its masterful use of the literature tool of ‘show don’t tell’ brings you on a journey of learning from the perspective of Kaikeyi.
It’s critical of the way she views the world and its problems. It regularly reaffirms that she doesn’t know all because she’s just a mortal stuck playing her part in this cosmic play written by the Gods. And it’s not just Kaikeyi or misogyny that the book takes to task; it’s the Gods themselves.
In Hinduism, the Gods are not benevolent overseers or punitive overlords. They are ineffable divine beings who simultaneously exist everywhere and nowhere. Their influence is in every breath we take, every blade of grass, and every drop of rain but rarely do they appear in our lives in earnest. Bringing Faith to an extreme that questions devotion and conviction.
Kaikeyi brings that faith to pages and makes you question why the Gods act the way they do? Even in the face of so much injustice and gendered violence enacted in their name, why do they remain silent? After all, Hinduism prides itself on its reverence for its Devis (Goddesses), so why does Hindu society show women such disrespect? All critical questions to ask, but still, this line of questioning ruffled feathers.
Hinduvatas (right-wing Hindu nationalists) took to the internet to disavow Vaishnavi and Kaikeyi. Claiming that its criticism of rampant misogyny in Indian and Hindu society is an insult to the Gods. But isn’t it a bigger afront to the Gods to abuse their imagery and teachings to oppress women and non-men?
This is exactly what Kaikeyi sets out to explain. As the book approaches its crescendo moment and Kaikeyi demands King Dasharatha honour his promises of naming their son Bharat heir instead of his eldest son Rama we see how fickle love and respect can be. Despite this move being the right decision for the kingdom, she is villainized for making the tough decision. Even after being a loving mother to Rama for years, people so quickly call her a snake and conniving. All of which Kaikeyi faces head-on, unflinchingly because she knows that this is her sacrifice for the world.
“I said, my voice shaking slightly. “Now, say it in front of Kaushalya as your witness. Will you fulfill your boons to me, Raja Dasharath?” I lifted my chin and composed my face into as haughty an image as I could muster. If they wished me to be a jealous, faithless, prideful woman, I would give them what they wanted. That was what it would take to see this task through.”Queen Kaikeyi in Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
All in all, Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi honours the original Ramayana in its most simple form. It questions, criticizes and calls on us to tackle the unjust and fight for the betterment of all. Which lies at the heart of Hinduism. As a book, Kaikeyi grabs you by the hand and takes you on a ride that leaves you with a greater appreciation for the real meaning of heroism and sacrifice. It pushes you to ponder the meaning of faith and devotion. Forces you to look at the institution of religion and the role religiosity plays in shaping society. Without a doubt, Kaikeyi is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I gladly give it a 5/5. Kaikeyi is now available for purchase, so if you haven’t already, buy it! Also, check out our interview with author Vaishnavi Patel here!