The Ramayana is an epic poem, a Hindu text dating from 1200 B.C.E. (Syracuse University). As with all classics that are ancient texts, there will be variations in the story (e.g.while all versions I’ve seen agree on who the first of Raja Dasaratha’s wives was, I’ve seen variations on who was second and third). The big picture however: Dasaratha granted his wife Kaikeyi two boons (or undeniable requests) after she saved him in battle. Many years later she used one of those boons to exile his eldest son, Rama, for 14 years, during which time her son Bharata would sit on the throne that Dasaratha is abdicating.
Kaikeyi, Google commons
Was Kaikeyi evil or tricked by her old nursemaid? In early tellings, the older woman is often portrayed as a hunchback, a classic example of using visible disability to portray inner flaws in personality. While debates have spanned the decades of who the real villain is (this story has been turned into movies and TV shows) Vaishnavi Patel has written an exciting reimagining, told from Kaikeyi’s point of view, where neither woman is evil, yet both are human.
In Kaikeyi, Patel shows how our heroine, so often at the mercy of decisions made about her by men, manages to carve out a life for herself and in so doing, improve the lives of women in her kingdom. Kaikeyi remains human, having moments of doubt, jealousy, anger, and feelings of abandonment, she also remains a woman doing her best not just for herself but for those around her. She truly seeks what is best both for the kingdom she has married into, as well as the kingdom of her birth, and all the weakest members of society. One of the triumphs of her life is to witness women in other regions being allowed previously unheard-of liberties (running businesses, allowed religious education) based on the examples set in her kingdom.
Most of us need to make an effort to read outside whatever our typical habits are. This includes reading outside our culture. And for those who share Hindu culture or who are familiar with Hindu literature, what a bold reimagining of a traditional story. This is a perfect bookclub text because whether one is familiar with the background epic poem, this is an incredibly compelling and nuanced telling.