The cover of the novel "Kaikeyi" by Vaishnavi Patel in front of a black-and-gold art deco background.
Cover art for “Kaikeyi” owned by Hatchette Book Group

When I was growing up, my father regaled me with stories from “The Ramayana” for years. As one of the great Hindu epics, its influence cannot be understated. Written by the poet Valmiki in Sanskrit over 2,300 years ago and containing 24,000 verses, “The Ramayana” is the story of prince Rama, the son of King Dasharath and an avatar of the god Vishnu. The meat of the epic comes from Rama’s travels through the forest during his exile at the hand of his stepmother, Kaikeyi, and his subsequent battle against the evil demon king Ravana who kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. The motive for Kaikeyi’s exile of Rama, and the character of Kaikeyi herself, was never truly explored, despite thousands of existing verses in the epic. Instead of relegating Kaikeyi to the category of “evil stepmother,” Vaishnavi Patel aims to examine the vilified queen and give color and clarity to her actions in her debut novel, “Kaikeyi.”

The novel begins with Kaikeyi’s early life as the yuvradnyi (princess) of Kekaya. Seen by her father as inferior to her younger brothers, including her twin Yudhajit, Kaikeyi is determined to rival her brother in every way as she becomes skilled in the arts of combat and politics. After the sudden exile of her mother, Kaikeyi finds a text that allows her to harness the magic of the Binding Plane, which allows her to visibly see the connections she has with those around her in the form of shimmering threads. It is with the manipulation of these connections that Kaikeyi ultimately finds a place as the third wife of King Dasharath of Kosala.

Once Kaikeyi reaches Kosala, Patel focuses on the new queen’s relationships in the court, and the politics that go along with it. Gods and magic — usually the center of every story in “The Ramayana” — take a backseat in Kaikeyi’s tale. In fact, Kaikeyi doesn’t even care about the gods. As Patel makes clear, Kaikeyi has only ever cared about mortal affairs, specifically those of women. In a land that considers women as second-class citizens, where even the gods relegate women to a subservient role, Kaikeyi makes it a point to stand up for their rights. The new queen proves herself first, saving her husband’s life on the battlefield and then using her newfound influence to gain a seat on the king’s panel of advisors. Through this, Kaikeyi suggests a number of reforms for women’s rights: allowing the women of Kosala to gain an education, sell goods in the market and own property. Through the empowerment of the women of Kosala and the creation of robust relationships founded on mutual respect, Kaikeyi finds her place as the warrior queen of Kosala.

It is important to remember when reading “retellings” of this kind that they exist entirely on their own. No matter how compelling the story is, just like Madeline Miller’s “Circe” and other mythological retellings, “Kaikeyi” is fiction. Despite this, Patel captures the message of “The Ramayana” in her novel. All Hindu epics are centered around the inherent behavior of the universe — that no matter how hard an individual tries, their cosmic duty leads them to their actions all the same. “Kaikeyi” is no different. Its titular character knew from a very young age that the gods had forsaken her. They would never answer her prayers and would never come to her aid. It is only when Agni, the god of fire, appears before Kaikeyi during a holy ritual conducted by her husband that she truly understands why. Agni, as well as all of the other gods, know that Kaikeyi is destined to commit an awful act. Because of her, a great battle will ensue, and the world will not be the same as it once was. 

Reading “Kaikeyi” forced me to look at “The Ramayana” in a new light. Hearing the story as a child, I used to think that Rama’s exile from Kosala was tragic — after all, he was a god that could do no wrong! Just like centuries of readers (and likely Valmiki himself), I diminished Kaikeyi’s decision to nothing more than a fit of jealousy. Patel’s novel forces me to reconsider the situation in a much more progressive manner. She refuses to pit Kaikeyi against Dasharath’s two other wives. It is not a story about a woman against a woman — it’s a story about a woman against the world. Perhaps Kaikeyi did what she did for the greater good of the kingdom and, ultimately, Rama himself. Without her, he never would have been sent on his divine quest to vanquish evil. Without her, this ancient story wouldn’t exist at all. 

Patel’s Kaikeyi is assertive, passionate and, most importantly, not without flaws. She is far more human than ever before, and despite the fact that a god is born and raised during the novel, the focus remains entirely on her. The gods are far removed from the fates of mortals, leaving the world an unjust place. Kaikeyi lived her life for the women of Kosala, so when Rama’s misogyny threatened to undo all those she had helped, Kaikeyi fulfilled her destiny by exiling him. She was content with being remembered as a villainess in a god’s story. The book ends shortly after Rama’s exile, and though the novel does not cover the other “main” events of “The Ramayana,” it feels complete. Vaishnavi Patel reminds us that it isn’t always gods who change history. As Kaikeyi says in the novel, “Before this story was Rama’s, it was mine.”

Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at