Thursday, May 12, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

A feminist exploration of the events leading up to the Ramayana attempts to do a few too many things and can't quite live up to its main character's promise.

Cover art by Lisa Marie Pompilio

Kaikeyi tells the story of, well, Kaikeyi (shock twist), a wife of Rama’s father Dasharath, and her role before the events of the Ramayana. In the original tale, it is she who causes Rama to be exiled from Ayodhya for fourteen years, and her own son, Bharat to sit on the throne in his place, while the story follows Rama’s exploits accompanied by his other brother and his wife, Sita . Kaikeyi, however, begins much earlier, in the childhood of Kaikeyi herself, beginning with the exile of her mother, leaving her the sole woman in a family of men.

This is meant to be a deeply moving, sad childhood, of this poor girl surrounded by her brothers, and a father who does not care for female children, so leaves her to her own devices. Because the story is told from Kaikeyi’s perspective, we get a lot of her feelings of how terrible and unfair and awful it is, that she should be ignored as she is, and how horrible her life has been made. And at the beginning, that feels very genuine – the parts about the loss of her mother and her confusion at not being told why feel very real. But as the story progresses, we see Kaikeyi flourish with little supervision, learn the arts of war with her encouraging brother, and develop magical powers that allow her to manipulate those around her to get what she wants nearly all of the time. But while this is happening, the story still focusses on how sad her life is, rather at odds with the events as we see them described. At one point, a maid who has been close to Kaikeyi refuses a request, and highlights how others in the world have things much worse than the princess, and it looks like a moment that may actually get through to her, and that she’ll see that though she has her struggles, the lot of many of those around her makes her seem extremely privil- oh, nope, she regrets it for a bit but then continues on her merry way.

And it’s difficult to read and feel like this, because some of her struggles are entirely present and sympathetic – I can hardly say that I wouldn’t object to having no say about my life and marriage either. But so much of Kaikeyi’s life sits in contrast to the serving women she spends much of her time with, especially the maid Manthara, that it’s hard not to feel a touch of exasperation at her.

It doesn’t help that we spend a long, long time with young Kaikeyi doing… not a great deal besides being sad about life and training alone or with her brother. The book suffers from a serious issue of pacing, where around 2/3 of it feels like prologue, and so by the time we get to Ayodhya and Kaikeyi’s marriage to Dasharath, we’ve been sitting with her for what feels like an age.

It is only when we reach Ayodhya, however, that most of the real happenings of the book begin. We get to see Kaikeyi deprived of her relationships and the power they bring her in her native Kekaya, and the struggle with this lack of influence, only broken when her maid Manthara shakes her out of it, practically dragging her to the market. And after a few visits there, she begins to come back to herself, kickstarting her efforts to make friends with Dasharath’s other wives, and also to see that there exist women in the world less fortunate than herself. 

If this realisation had come earlier in the book, I think the entire tone of the novel would have been different for me. But because it feels like we have spent so, so long with young Kaikeyi, it’s very much a situation of too little, too late. Doubly so, because the initial realisation on her part is somewhat overshadowed by, in this part of the book, her going off to war with her husband and being great at charioteering, which wins her a role as a minister in his government.

Eventually, the thread of Kaikeyi’s championing the poor women picks up again, and she and the other wives do what seems to be genuine good for the women of Ayodhya. And this (finally) brings us to one of the central conflicts of the story – Kaikeyi and her assertion that women can exist equally to men in the world, and the faction of traditionalists in Ayodhya, alongside whom the young Rama numbers one.

But this conflict loses some of its weight because of the way we’ve got there. For all that the reader agrees with Kaikeyi (I hope), it seems often that her argument is less one of principal, and more one of self-interest – Kaikeyi enjoys having power, having influence, and the traditionalist faction threatens that. So even when Kaikeyi is in the right, I found myself struggle to be completely sympathetic to her.

That being said, the latter third of the book, with this conflict and a lot more action, is by far a much better story than much of what came before, to the extent of almost feeling like a different book. There’s a sudden explosion of turmoil, where all the various threads that have been floated around throughout the beginning of the story suddenly all become relevant and dramatic at once, and while it was enjoyable to read, it threw the stuff that came before into even worse contrast – why couldn’t it have been like this all along?

And I’ve barely even touched on the magic yet – but like the various other aspects of the story, the relevance of the magic Kaikeyi has to her life, and to the progression of the plot, waxes and wanes constantly. Sometimes it feels like a critical element that will make or break the entire story, and sometimes it feels almost an afterthought, not used in situations where it might have made sense to include it.

On the whole, there’s a simultaneous sense of too many ideas being put together in one book, so none of them get the time or development they deserve, while at the same time a very slow, ponderous start without much in the way of drive to get you through the buildup to what feels like the actual story at the end. It’s a shame, because a lot of the concept here is really appealing, and I feel like Kaikeyi as a character, and as an actor in the story of the Ramayana, has a lot to recommend her, and it’s just not really drawn out here. Despite living inside her head for the whole book, I felt kept very much at a distance to her actual thoughts, and this didn’t help my already limited sympathy for some of her struggles.

In many ways, Kaikeyi struggles with the same thing Madeleine Miller’s Circe does – taking an incredibly compelling character from myth, with a lot of scope for exploration… and then somehow managing to make her less compelling than she is in the source material. There’s a lot of promise, a lot of potential redemption of an antagonistic female figure demonised for wielding power… but then a lot of navel-gazing and self-absorption, rather than the drama the original myth might promise. Both I think are novels where in an effort to make the protagonist more sympathetic, more relatable, they’ve defanged them and lost what made them exciting in the first place.

That being said, the last third of the book was genuinely a fun read, and once I got there, it had the pace and the excitement that I really wanted to keep on going. If the whole thing had been like that… it still wouldn’t have been my favourite book of 2022, but it would have had a lot more to recommend it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10 

Bonuses: +1 for taking controversial female figure of myth and attempting to retell from her perspective

Penalties: -1 for very self-involved main character and her somewhat inconsistent focus on the problems around her

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference:  Vaishnavi Patel, Kaikeyi [Redhook, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea