After finishing Kaikeyi, I knew I had to see if I could interview Patel. And my wishes were answered! This reimagining is thrilling and I loved the character dynamics. So please continue reading this special interview!
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.
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Kaikeyi is a reimagining, but it’s also almost a bit like an origin story. Can you talk about the research you did and also elements that you may have known you wanted to play with or change from the get go? How did you approach this line between established stories and the story you wanted to tell?
I didn’t want to rely on my personal religious and cultural knowledge of the Ramayana alone, so I did a lot of research before and during writing Kaikeyi. I used the Ralph T. H. Griffith English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana as my main reference for the original story. But I also read a lot of scholarship about the Ramayana’s evolution and breadth across its many retellings, as well as material about the portrayal of gender and ethics in the Ramayana.
The biggest insight I gained was just how many versions of the story existed—there are multiple iterations of the Ramayana in Sanskrit alone, each with a different focus or purported author, as well as versions in a multitude of languages across South, Southeast, and East Asia. I drew on a lot of these retellings to shape different pieces of Kaikeyi. For example, in some versions, including the Adbhuta Ramayana and the Jain Ramayana, Ravana is in fact Sita’s birth father. The idea of Ravana as a tragic or misunderstood figure who may not be purely evil is present in many Southeast Asian tellings.
As you allude to, I ended up making a lot of changes that were all my own. My research helped me decide where I wanted to make up my own plot point, so I could make informed decisions to change the story (such as the length of the exile, changing Rama’s teacher, the swayamvara, and others). I knew I wanted to end where the main narrative of the Ramayana begins—that is, with Rama as a heroic prince starting his journey to defeat Ravana. I approached this by making sure that while the changes I made altered the motivations of characters, the actual Ramayana plot line still progressed. I also made sure that every change was absolutely necessary for the story I wanted to tell, and this process helped strengthen the story itself.
Her relationship with her mother was one of the most emotional and fascinating for me to read. What it was like to write this relationship? I feel like in these famous stories, the mothers can often be overlooked sometimes (or even vilified). How were you able or willing to put your own mark on this relationship? How do you think that their relationship develops especially as Kaikeyi becomes a mother herself?
Thank you for asking this question! I loved writing and exploring Kaikeyi’s relationship with her mother, and I haven’t been asked this before. Kaikeyi’s mother is mostly a mystery in the original Ramayana—she is exiled after a fight with her husband, and that’s the end of her story. So she was really a blank slate I got to invent. Mothers in myths are often either perfect and virtuous or abandon and hurt their children. Kekaya, Kaikeyi’s mother, gets to be both. She hurts her children and is forced to leave them, but she also loves her children deeply and gives Kaikeyi the skills she needs to succeed.
When Kaikeyi is a child, she can’t understand why her mother would ever leave her. To Kaikeyi, it feels like the children are the only ones hurt; that her mother doesn’t care about them. But when Kaikeyi is a mother who knows more about the world and about power, she is able to have a lot more compassion for her mother. She can see what a difficult choice it was to leave, and how someone might be forced into doing so. In a way, the relationship between Kaikeyi and her mother is a mark of how much Kaikeyi herself has changed!
Motherhood is another extremely important theme as you showcase not only the joyous moments, but also the ones of fear and conflict. Since Kaikeyi, to some, might only be seen as Rama’s mother, how did you approach her own feelings towards motherhood and her relationship with her children? I loved how even though Rama isn’t her biological child, their relationship merely reflects their bond and doesn’t stress her lack of shared DNA. Sources I’ve read seem to always stress that Rama is her stepchild, did this influence your handling of their relationship?
In many versions and portrayals of the Ramayana, Kaikeyi often falls into the evil stepmother trope. It is emphasized that she didn’t want Rama to be on the throne because he wasn’t related to her by blood. Instead, she tore her family apart so that her blood son Bharata would take the throne. But before that point in the story, we hear that Kaikeyi (as well as Sumitra and Kaushalya) love all their sons the same. I personally find it reductive to claim that DNA matters above all else and it’s hard to imagine a person having that as their sole impetus for tearing apart a family and kingdom she loves. I thought the story would be much more interesting if she truly loved all her sons and was motivated by fears besides jealousy. So the fact that Rama is her stepchild encouraged me to portray motherhood more expansively and to flip that narrative.
Speaking of powerful women and the tendency to vilify women, why was it so important for you to give Kaikeyi a voice? What are some of your favorite other women from KAIKEYI that you enjoyed writing? What character was the most difficult to write and why?
When I was growing up, my grandma used to tell my sister and I stories from the Ramayana. Once time, my mom overheard my grandma telling us how Kaikeyi exiled Rama, and jumped in to point out that without Kaikeyi there would be no Ramayana, so her actions ended up being good. That disagreement stuck in my mind, because it was true that she had been extremely vilified even though without her there could have been no Ramayana. That’s why I wanted to tell her story—to write a version where her actions were not motivated by spur of the moment jealousy, but rather considered decisions. It was important to me to give her an inner life rather than judging her by an external view of her “worst” moment.
I loved writing all the other women in Kaikeyi as well. In particular, I loved writing Kaushalya because she’s such a force of nature, and yet so different from Kaikeyi. She’s confident in who she is, and her love for everyone around her makes her one of the strongest characters in the book. The character I struggled most with writing was Ravana. It was difficult to walk the fine line between showing him from Kaikeyi’s perspective and showing who he really is. Because Kaikeyi is so loyal, and Ravana is her friend, she would never see him as a threat or as dangerous. But in the background of the story, he is certainly power-hungry and making threatening moves. I’m not sure if I managed to strike the balance—that’s for readers to decide!
If you wished your readers to take away one thing from the book, what would it be? Do you have a favorite line?
I want readers to take away a sense of hope. Things may seem bleak, progress may seem impossible, and people may seem rooted in their ways. But ultimately hope and change are possible. The epilogue of the book is meant to show how everyone is capable of change, both for good and for bad, and that striving to improve the world and reclaim your story isn’t a meaningless task. And that’s related to my favorite line, which really speaks to the fact that even if something is a futile battle, it’s still worth fighting: “Before this story was Rama’s, it was mine.”
If Kaikeyi was brought to our time period, or to another time period in history, what time period do you think she’d enjoy the most? Who might she like to meet? And what might her day be like?
Kaikeyi would definitely be a politician, and I say that in both a good and a bad way. Kaikeyi takes the power that she does have (her status as royalty, in particular) for granted, even as she fights for equality in the areas in which she is unequal. She also manipulates people for her own benefit and what she believes to be the greater good. On the one hand, she cares about others deeply and does want to help them, but she definitely believes the ends justify the means. I also think she would fit in great with any 19th or 20th century feminist movements around the world!
Fate and destiny is HUGE in KAIKEYI. Can you talk about how Kaikeyi, or maybe other characters in the book, navigate this idea of our own agency versus our fate?
Both Kaikeyi and Rama in this book (as well as Ravana and Sita in the background) struggle with fate and agency, and what “fate” even is. Kaikeyi herself ultimately does commit the action she was “fated” to do. But she gets there in her own way, on her own path. And her path matters. In committing to the Women’s Council, for example, she changes the lives of many other women. I’m not sure where I come down in the debate on fate vs agency, because it’s an impossible question to answer. But I do believe that even if there is some duty we are meant to perform, how we choose to get there matters more than anything.
About Vaishnavi Patel
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. She was also a Pitch Wars class of 2019 mentee. 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.