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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel (reviewed by Shazzie & Mihir Wanchoo)


Order Kaikeyi over HERE
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Vaishnavi Patel is a law student focusing on constitutional law and civil rights. She likes to write at the intersection of Indian myth, feminism, and anti-colonialism. Her short stories can be found in The Dark and 87 Bedford's Historical Fantasy Anthology along with a forthcoming story in Helios Quarterly. Vaishnavi grew up in and around Chicago, and in her spare time, enjoys activities that are almost stereotypically Midwestern: knitting, ice skating, drinking hot chocolate, and making hotdish.

OFFICIAL BLURB: “I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.”

So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.

Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.

But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (SHAZZIE): I remember being really excited about this book, and confident that I would really love it, for some reason. The cover looked so traditionally Indian, and I thought Kaikeyi would be a great titular choice, being one of the only few in an epic that mostly painted characters in black and white.
I tried my best to base my opinion of this book from the eyes of a modern-day reader, though I still remember the days my Ajji (grandmother) would tell me stories from our Indian itihasas. She did her best to ensure that I knew of all the major characters, and many references made in their name, that seem so trivial when spoken on a daily basis. The author's note reminded me of those days, with Vaishnavi Patel crediting her Ajji for giving her the idea that Kaikeyi might not be all the bad she is remembered to be. The author's note did another good thing for the Indian audience that are familiar with the story who might consider picking up the book: it set expectations.
Like with most modern-day books inspired by age-old classics, I did not expect Kaikeyi to be a verbatim retelling of the original epic, which already exists in various versions today, told through a fresh lens donned by Kaikeyi. The good thing about choosing a character that had little page time in the classic is that the author has space to shape the character, her interactions, as well as choices, with a degree of freedom that can help make the original appealing to the uninitiated audience. However, it might be hard for the author to make choices that avoid polarization of the readers who are familiar with the original. The latter is where Kaikeyi failed me as a reader.
The book tells the story of the infamous queen Kaikeyi from her birth, until a part of the events in the Ramayana, but not all of it. The pacing is crisp, and the author does a great job introducing concepts that are prevalent in Indian myths and culture in a way that make them accessible to other audiences in a manner that keeps from seeming like an infodump, and it is very clear that a great deal of research has been done behind the scenes. Vaishnavi Patel has phenomenally woven well-known tales in Indian myths like those of the churning of the ocean,  Matsya and Manu, and Savitri and Satyavan, into different parts of the book in what seems an effortless manner, in a way that would have the reader believe that there is no other way Kaikeyi had come across them herself.
"But then, this was the way of the world to Yudhajit. And standing there, I knew that I would never truly grow accustomed to it."

Kaikeyi's discontent with the attitude of the society the story is set in serves as a great tool for the author to impress upon the reader the misogynistic attitude of all the voices that shape the Indian epics as we know them today.  As Kaikeyi grows, we read about her being slighted in such casual ways by different people around her, and it is these small interactions thoughtfully included by the author that serve to create the idea of the stifling world she lived in. 

"I had been wrong, I saw now, to think war glorious. Nothing could be further from glory, from righteousness."

Just like R.F.Kuang demonstrated in the Poppy War trilogy, Vaishnavi Patel points out the obvious thing that is normally never portrayed in fantasy: the idea that war wreaks havoc, and that the victors need not find it 100% glorious. Instead of spending pages and pages describing the horror and the aftermath of war, she instead focuses on ensuring that the message stays in the narrative, and influences every choice the queen makes.
I think that the author's crowning achievement here is her characterization of Kaikeyi, as well as Dasaratha. The book reads like extreme care went into writing the queen's lines so that they are reflective of the age she is in each part of the story, and showcase all the grit, will, and determination that have been mentioned in the original epic. Dasaratha is shown to be the reasonable and wise ruler I imagined he would be, but also as a product of his time, willing to grow into a realistically progressive husband. Kaikeyi's relationship with her maid, Manthara, was crafted in a way that made her seem like a natural maternal influence in the absence of her mother, and somebody who eventually became her most trusted advisor in many ways. Her interactions with Kaushalya and Sumitra were shown to grow organically, as did her relationship with her husband. There was also the part of Ravana's characterization that showed him to be a scholar and interested in science, that I found to be apt, given what the classic says about him.
The author stays wonderfully true to the idea of Kaikeyi being extremely affectionate toward all of Dasaratha's children, and consistently shows the use of the phrase "my sons" and "our sons" in her thoughts and lines, and makes her concern for the well-being of all of the children clear. I particularly enjoyed the bits in the story that show Kaikeyi's slight pangs of jealousy for Kaushalya and her demeanor, as well as her thoughts when there were casual mentions of Rama ruling the kingdom, instead of Bharatha, like she was promised. Her remorse at the turn of events when she asks Dasaratha to grant her the boons she was given, as well as her frantic desperation to convince those around her of her best intentions made me want to see some good come to her at the end of the book.
It is true that Kaikeyi is infamous and quite vilified in the Ramayana, but I think the author underplayed Manthara's hand in the queen's most influential choice in the epic. In what seems like an attempt to present to the reader Kaikeyi's side of the story, the author seems to have managed to whitewash her and Manthara, and in compensation for that choice, has vilified other characters, and corrupted interactions that form the core of the classic story. I cannot get myself to agree with most of the choices made in the second half of the book, especially those that vilify Rama in an attempt to explain her actions, and paint them in a positive light. The wonderful thing about most of Indian mythology is the fact that it all comes together tightly in the end, but the author chose to discard the myriad of opportunities it presents to create a fine balance between the classic and her telling of the story. My only gripe with the characterization of Kaikeyi, is that she is shown to be invulnerable to manipulation, and I know it certainly isn't the case, and that it was the one trait she possessed that was needed to set the ball rolling in the old classic.
CONCLUSION: Kaikeyi does not choose to be an exact retelling of the Ramayana from the titular character's perspective, and takes the opportunity to fill in the gaps in our stories of one of the most infamous characters in the epic. This is Vaishnavi Patel's attempt to breathe fresh life into the characters in a genre that is classically filled with ideals of fair-skinned and thin-waisted damsels, and warriors who have no agency of their own, and simply exist to fulfill a greater purpose. While Patel strays from the original and certainly tells her own story, I think it will disappoint readers who expect a certain pivotal scene, along with Kaikeyi's motivation and influences to behave in that manner, but attract the readers in need an accessible entry point into the world of Indian mythology, where the magic of stories never ceases to enrapture, teach, and amaze.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel was a hugely anticipated title since I first heard about it last year. Since then with its cover release and as more information was released, with focusing on a key character from the epic of Ramayana, I was super-duper excited as an Indian lover of SFF.

The story begins with Kaikeyi as a young child as her mother is said to be banished from her father’s kingdom of Kaikeya. Not being able to meet her mom for even a minute, leaves a psychological mark on Kaikeyi’s psyche and she is torn between her love for her mother and her respect for her father. Her maid Manthara helps her gain some sort of stability and since then Kaikeyi has to take steps to figure out what type of a woman she will be and how much control can she have in her life.

That’s all you need to know if you are a reader who’s not well-versed with the epic of Ramayana. For readers who are well-versed with Ramayana and all its retellings, well this prequel origin story will be a bit strange one. Not a bad one but strange in the way that this story definitely ends before the major events of the epic. Kaikeyi was a minor but powerful character who caused the story to be propelled in the way it was supposed to.

Let me try to crystallize my thoughts in as best and straightforward a manner as possible. Firstly I will say this Vaishnavi Patel is a terrific writer, she has written a wonderfully, innovative story that is told entirely through a singular character’s POV. Kaikeyi as a character is a brilliant, yet ruthless one. She has learnt how shaky her standing is and so she does her best to learn everything from martial skills (archery, charioteership), to learning how to gain social standing and manipulate people (not in a Machiavellian way but more from a royal position). Kaikeyi is under no illusion as to her skills but she works her hardest and she has some magical help as she learns to understand people’s emotions by exploring the binding plane between humans. This is a fascinating innovation by the author as there is no mythological basis for it. However from a story telling perspective, it was a cool feature.

The author expertly builds up the story as she shows Kaikeya as a small kingdom and how Kaikeyi with the help of the binding plane and Manthara is slowly and surely able to rise above her difficult childhood. As the lone sister to her seven brothers, her interactions with her twin Yudhajit are a treat to read. Vaishnavi Patel absolutely excels at the secondary character cast. As she builds up a whole group of people that Kaikeyi will have to deal with. This includes Dasharath her to-be husband as well her future fellow radnyis Kausalya and Sumitra. There’s one character introduced in this story that is definitely a huge spoiler so I won’t mention who it is but this is purely done for introducing tension in the story as mythologically this was impossible.

The author also does her best to display Vedic Bharat and its rituals but this is done in a bit perfunctory manner and there is no in-depth world building showcased. But it works well within the story as the author gives enough of a world window dressing to help the readers understand the world of Bharat then. Lastly the plot pace of the story is excellent as the author takes several time jumps but there are done smoothly and without the readers feeling “hey what just happened”. I have to applaud the author is writing such a smooth story and plot.

Now for my issue with this book, I apologize I have to partially spoil the plot a bit in this regards as otherwise my criticism won’t make any sense. I believe for anyone who’s read the Ramayana. Kaikeyi is going to feel a bit offkilter. Not for anything that Kaikeyi the character does. But the way the author chooses to make Ram the villain so as to speak. Every interaction Kaikeyi has with him is slightly contrived to make Ram seem prudish, a boor, a person rooted in deeply patriarchal views and more. This is deeply antithetical to what Ram’s character was as described in the epic. Not only this, the author also  creates situations with Lakshman and Sita wherein they suddenly come to the conclusion that Kaikeyi is right about Ram. Both these scenes seem highly contrived and the author really fails miserably in convincing the reader (especially ones with knowledge of Ramayana/Hindu mythology).

I do not mean to be mean, but I feel the author did some weird plot calisthenics to land the ending that all of us desi readers are aware of. Plus why Kaikeyi did what she according to the epics was due to bad advice from Manthara as she herself wasn’t a bad person. The author while giving us a fantastic character in Kaikeyi went out of her way to portray Ram as being a rigid person who needed to be shown he was patriarchal and emotionally rigid. All of this just felt wrong on so many levels. Hence this lead me to perhaps enjoy this book a lot less than I would have.

CONCLUSION: Kaikeyi is a fantastically written story and an equally fantastic debut. Vaishnavi Patel clearly marks herself out to be a writer to watch out for in the future. Except for my disagreement about certain authorial choices about the plot, I still enjoyed the book. Make sure that you don’t miss it.


Anonymous said...

Amazing review , very detailed and articulate

Anonymous said...

Very detailed and wonderfully written

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written

Anonymous said...

Detailed and informative review!

Anonymous said...

These reviews defending Ram are so confusing to me. You're trying to tell me the guy who sent his wife into a fire to prove she hadn't been raped and then sent her away anyway isn't a misogynist? Then what would you call him?


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