Kaikeyi – Vaishnavi Patel

“I WAS BORN ON the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.”

“Before this story was Rama’s, it was mine”

These are the first and last lines of Kaiyeki. As opening and closing lines go, I’d quite like these to hit the occasional lists of bests and classics.

For the first: as an opening to a character–you immediately know her. And as a fatalistic foreshadow–every time the world seems like it might go alright for Kaiyeki, the echo of this line returns.

For the last: as a closer, it stamps Kaiyeki’s mark, for good and bad, on her whole tale, something she does throughout the book.

In this section of the life of Rama, Kaikeyi, known as a warrior queen, favourite of the king, is usually seen as a side character. There seems to be little written about her beyond the specifically required information for her to play her part. It could perhaps seem a little odd, given the part she actually plays. But then, it doesn’t really matter where or when you look: historical texts and legends invariably downplay the roles of women.

So Patel, after doing what seems to be an epic amount of research, comes forth to present to us: the life of Kaiyeki. Some parts are gleaned from endlessly disagreeing sources, others invented outright whilst retaining the authenticity, and always striving to find the right balance, the right touch, to the timeless world the story is set in.

Kaikeyi was born first, but her twin brother, despite coming second, was a boy. Her lucky stars were also his, and where he would go on to inherit the Kekaya kingdom, Kaiyeki was worth only what dowry she could bring. Between that, and her six other brothers (all blessings, of course), Kaikeyi was pretty much out in the cold.

Now might be a time most would subtly blameshift their actions. Not Kaikeyi. On page one, and in each part, she stamps her ownership of all her actions – whether they be remembered as sins or not.

That’s all the plot you’re getting. Of course if you know the tale (and it’s easy enough to search it up) you have an idea how it goes. But bear in mind the number of different texts Patel draws from, as well as the things in which she (in the grand traditions of storytelling) adds her own flair and flavour. I guarantee the story won’t be quite what you imagine it to be.

As for me, other than a quick synopsis of Kaiyeki’s part in the wider story, I’m coming in fresh, and ready to let the evil jealous woman of legends written by men, become something more rounded, more 3D, more…written by one of the shamed and reviled. I’m ready for Kaiyeki, as told by a woman who has travelled deep into the heart of her origins.

Kaikeyi is incredible, frankly! Patel shows us a woman dissatisfied with the way of the world. Ignored and overlooked by both gods and men, she finds her own way of navigating the world. The bonds she can quite literally see and manipulate mean she can gain information, trust, and ask things she would otherwise never be able to get away with, and she utilises this–though not always well.

She becomes strong, cynical, and powerful. But she keeps her heart. She loves her husband (though as a friend–she never feels romantic love for him, or anyone else). She loves the others in her life. She adores not just her blood child but the children of the other wives, too. And she works against generations of sages ensuring women were worth nothing, to give women–and everyone–something, some justice, someone to hear and help.

Instead of the empty echo of the evil woman Kaiyeki and her evil nurse–shapeless shadows, there only to trigger an event to make the central man Great–she is her own person. In every moment, right or wrong, her choices are her own, and made for what she truly believes to be the best of reasons.

I really got attached to Kaiyeki, and most of those around her. Her twin, her husband, her sons, her nurse, her attendant, her fellow wives… Patel writes them all with sincerity and complexity. It’s ok that nobody is perfect, because they are all trying to do the best they can, in a world that is unkind to most of them.

But Kaiyeki now stands out as one of my favourite characters plucked from legend and told anew. I love reading retellings, and new perspectives, and Patel has created an excellent story.

Read this for the depth of storytelling, and the gifts it will give you. Read for new or refreshed perspective on today’s problems, as much as those of an ancient past. Read for compelling characters that stay with you long after you run out of pages. Read for excellent writing and enjoyable storytelling. Just read.

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