The epic tells of the life of Rama, a young prince of the ancient kingdom of Kosala and an avatar of the god Vishnu. In traditional tales, Rama’s adventure begins when he is banished by his stepmother Kaikeyi, one of the wives of Kosala’s Raja Dasharath. Kaikeyi’s biological son, Bharata, appeared to inherit the throne, but the king decides to install Rama instead. Kaikeyi, a loving stepmother to all of her husband’s children, first takes this news with joy. But then, encouraged by his maid Manthara, Kaikeyi suddenly changes her mind and summons two blessings that the king owes her. In Arshia Sattar’s abridged translation from 1995, the scene turns out to be something from a fairy tale:
“Dazed by Manthara’s words, the golden Kaikeyi threw herself on the ground. ‘Manthara, go and tell the king that I’m lying here dying. Unless Rama is sent into the forest and the Bharata anointed in his place, I will kill myself! ‘ ”
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With this whiplash twist from devoted wife and parent to planning queen, Kaikeyi joins the pantheon of wicked stepmothers – an eerie list she is rescued from in “Kaikeyi”, Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, a powerful, feminist retelling of the epic from the reviled epic. point of view. Patel, a Chicago native and student at Yale Law School, brings a no-nonsense approach to Kaikeyi’s story: Gods and magic play a subordinate role in gender politics and a refreshingly warm depiction of the relationship between the many wives and children in a vast royal household.
“I was born on the full moon under a promising constellation, the holiest of positions – very well, it did me,” Kaikeyi says as the novel opens. But when her twin brother enters the world a few minutes later, “I was just a dowry of fifty fine horses waiting to happen.” Over the years, six other brothers have joined the family. Under the guidance of her twins, Kaikeyi becomes adept at riding and using weapons. When she is 12, her mother, Kekaya, is banished from the kingdom, apparently for no reason. Kekaya “never put me down.… Instead, she taught me to read.… And even then, she did not praise me. But she gave me rolls and listened while I picked out stories.”
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Kaikeyi finds a magic scroll that allows her to enter the binding plane, a liminal space where she can perceive the invisible bonds that connect her to others – glittering threads that grow and diminish depending on how strong her connection is with an individual. But Kaikeyi not only sees the ties: she learns to pull the unseen strings to get her will, without someone else’s knowledge. 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 shows up quickly when she follows him to battle. She acts as his haulier and saves his life, and Dasharath gives her two blessings. “I put no limits on these,” he tells her.
Kaikeyi does not collect these services – yet. Instead, she uses her supernatural power and royal influence to overturn laws that sentence women to life in slavery and poverty.
“Open the right for women. Allow women to learn in the open market schools. To allow women to maintain their own stalls in the market – and maybe even hold real estate. Being unmarried would no longer be a life sentence.
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Kaikeyi’s loving relationship with her husband is defined by mutual respect and friendship, not romance. In fact, there is virtually no erotic frisson in Patel’s retelling of an epic that glows with passion. There is no jealousy or rivalry between Kaikeyi and Dasharath’s two other wives who become her devoted friends and comrades. As the three women participate in a ritual designed to produce a male heir, Agni, the god of fire, appears. All those gathered fall to their knees – all except Kaikeyi. Her rejection is not born of defiance; when Agni asks why she does not bow, she answers honestly: “I do not know.”
But the infernal Agni knows it, as does any reader familiar with “The Ramayana”: Kaikeyi is destined to play a villain in the great game about gods and mortals. Nothing will change that, especially when Dasharath’s sons are born, and it becomes clear that Rama is an avatar of a god – and not always a good god. Like his stepmother, Rama can get into the binding plane that he uses to make the women that Kaikeyi has worked tirelessly to help, incapacitating. Inspired by his misogyny, she demands her husband’s two gifts with tragic results.
Patel’s enormous narrative unfolds at a measured pace, its meticulous depiction of a woman’s struggle to bring justice to an unjust world lit up by intriguing battle scenes and encounters with gods who do not care about people or their destinies. The novel’s climax comes long before the main events of “The Ramayana,” after which Kaikeyi joins the worn-out long list of powerful women whose motivation is questioned, but rarely described, yet only explored. In “Kaikeyi”, Patel resets the balance of power and creates an unforgettable heroine who understands that it is not necessarily kings or gods who change history, but a disgraced woman who can look at a group of girls and see “a child, freer than her mother had been. ”
Elizabeth Hands new novel, “Hokuloa Road,” is coming out this summer.
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