To understand the brilliance of Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, Kaikeyi, we must step back—way back, to ancient India, when humans walked a strict line of tradition, sacrifice and devotion to Hindu gods in exchange for a life free of curses and other bad surprises. Questioning authority was not part of the human agenda.
The ancient Indian epic Ramayana is one of South Asia’s most famous and important religious texts. It tells of King Rama, the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is banished to the forest by his stepmother, Kaikeyi. Full of miracles, virtues and vices, the epic has been passed down for generations, making it an indispensable part of the cultural consciousness and, more importantly, providing a clear distinction between good and evil.
Into this long history comes Patel with her bold reimagining. A student of constitutional law and civil rights, Patel grew up hearing stories from the Ramayana from her grandmother, and during one of these storytelling sessions, Patel’s mother planted a seed of doubt regarding Kaikeyi’s characterization. Patel now recasts Kaikeyi, who has always occupied the role of wicked stepmother, a source of doom and the cause of unimaginable suffering for an entire kingdom and beyond. In Kaikeyi, she becomes the protagonist, the feminist, the godforsaken underdog.
Born on a full moon as a princess to the kingdom of Kekaya, Kaikeyi grows up knowing that her destiny is to be powerless and ornamental, yet she is resolute in her determination to change the world. With her twin brother’s help, she secretly learns how to ride horses and fight like a warrior. At 16, she is married off as the third wife of a king, and she gives birth to Bharat, who is promised to succeed his father, even though he is not the firstborn son.
For better or worse, the events of Ramayana unfold no differently with the reinvention of Kaikeyi’s character, but Patel’s changes certainly make the story much more engaging. Even readers unfamiliar with the ancient Indian epic will find a lot to love in Patel’s spellbinding details of mythological characters and ancient times.