In April 2022, a story of the infamous queen from the Indian epic Ramayana —of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak— was released. As a reimagining, it places Rama’s stepmother at the centre of the tale and seeks to understand what prompted her infamous decision to exile Rama. The growing space for mythological retellings surely excites readers for this debut novel and The Washington Post understandably praises it as “a powerful, feminist retelling of the epic”. In the homeland, many have loved it and some have also criticised it —especially with respect to the Hindu identity it carries while taking inspiration from an epic often revered religiously. One such critic, Inosh K Rukman, is here to elaborate on how Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel doesn’t live up to their expectations, in what aspects, and how such criticism for a highly recommended book should also have space to exist.
Inosh K Rukman on Kaikeyi — an exercise in white feminism.
Hailed as a fiercely feminist retelling of the epic Ramayana, Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi hit the shelves with flair, destined to be a bestseller. In the vein of Circe and other Greek retellings, it claimed to give voice to the vilified queen of King Dasharath, and use Kaikeyi’s arc to examine the South Asian patriarchy rooted in Hinduism. The author implied she has critiqued casteism too. So obviously, I, being an agnostic Hindu reader from South Asia, was beyond excited for its release.
For the uninitiated, Ramayana is one of the two staple Indian Epics every Hindu kid grows up with, telling the story of Rama, reincarnation of God Vishnu, who is exiled for fourteen years by one of his father’s wives, hellbent on making her son the king. In his exile, he goes on to defeat the evil king Ravana. But we are getting ahead of ourselves because Kaikeyi is the queen who exiled him.
Kaikeyi has been nominated for several prizes and hit the NYT bestselling list in the first week of its release. For all purposes, it has been the myth book of the season. Critics have said Patel rescues Kaikeyi from ‘the pantheon of wicked stepmothers’ in this novel. But the novel has faced enormous backlash too, mainly from Indians and Hindus hailing from South Asia.
It’s often implied that most of the novel’s critics are purists and nationalists, enraged at the novel critiquing casteism in Hinduism. While I have no doubts some of them are, I am enraged for different reasons. Here, I will try to shed light as to why I found the characterization of Kaikeyi disturbingly white feminist and the novel stripped of the social nuances of the South Asian society. Note: I will not be delving into the craft or the queer rep, both of which I found to be excellent as an ace writer.
The White Feminist ‘Kaikeyi‘
First lines shouldn’t be this deceiving. The novel starts with an iconic one.
“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions — much good it did me.”
From this alone, you would predict the novel would follow an enraged and unapologetic woman determined to burn down the patriarchy. You would be wrong.
Kaikeyi’s characterization depends on one thing: All Men Are Terrible. This is not a rhetoric I normally disagree with except for the fact it feeds into the extremely orientalist and white feminist take that brown women should be liberated from these big, bad brown men.
From the beginning to the end, Kaikeyi is the only female character in this novel who has any kind of agency. For a feminist novel, it sure does relegate all other major female characters into ‘Damsels In Distress’. Kaushalya, Sumitra and Sita were all key players in the original epic but in Kaikeyi, Patel sees them only as the tool to show how girlboss and third wave feminist the protagonist is.
I agree Hinduism often reinforces South Asian patriarchy but there is nuance in it. One cannot flatten down centuries of tradition, the power women wielded in the royal courts, especially in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharatha to fit a girlboss narrative. The entire world is built upon this narrative, irrespective of the actual myth and circumstances surrounding the Ramayana. Ramayana was composed around 2nd Century BC, the height of the Vedic era where education of women was considered to be of paramount importance because if they aren’t educated, how would their sons be? Very patriarchal but there’s nuance in how it operates in ancient Indian society. Kaikeyi, by pushing a non-existent narrative, erases great women of the period such as Vidyotma who bested dozens of men with her intellect, the philosopher Gargi, and the warrior queen Vishpala.
I do not begrudge Patel her creative liberties. But it must be asked, when South Asian and Hindu representation in mainstream media is smaller than minuscule, why build a world lacking the nuance and complexity of ancient India, and claim it represents the myth? Especially when the untrue world portrays brown men as monsters, brown women as helpless damsels in distress and our gods as abominations, we must ask who this book is written for. Is it written for us, the Indian people and its diaspora or is it written to reinforce the white narrative of the oppressed brown woman who needs to be saved from brown men?
Furthermore, Patel erases the original Kaikeyi of Ramayana, who was a fiercely ambitious woman who wanted the throne for her son and her promises be kept but was vilified for it. Instead, we get the misunderstood, righteous and loyal wife and mother—the exact stereotype of a South Asian woman presented in mainstream media. What is feminist and revolutionary about reducing an unapologetic queen who fought for her desires and promises to a stereotype of what the world wants South Asian women to be? Why should each one of Kaikeyi’s destructive and manipulative actions be justified as having some noble intent? Why should Kaikey’s flaws be erased, her desires suppressed, and her rage chained in favor of turning her into a good wife and mother? Above all, why couldn’t Patel let Kaikeyi keep her ambition?
Patel plays the same game with Sita, wife of Rama. Sita’s characterisation as someone who will soften the bullish, war mongering Rama also plays into the white feminist and patriarchal theme of marrying a woman to a man in hopes she ‘fixes’ him.
Hinduism is not a religion that even has the concept of blasphemy and I personally believe that as a Hindu woman, Patel has the right to engage with, explore and critique the religion as she sees fit. However, as Hindus, we have the right to critique her work explicitly based on the religion millions of us practice without being labelled as purists and nationalists for it. Again, it becomes imperative to ask whose gaze is Kaikeyi written for and what narrative it feeds. Is it already not enough that our gods are mocked as cartoons by the West?
Some claim the novel critiques the caste system entrenched in Hinduism. I, for one, couldn’t find any critique in the novel because it is about Kaikeyi, a high caste Kshatriya woman. If Patel wanted to critique the caste obsessed patriarchal society of India, and by extension, the Hindutva rhetoric pushed by the Indian government, then she chose the wrong story and the wrong character to focus on because these two are not connected at all.
Kaikeyi’s framing of Ravana and his character reads disturbingly like a Judeo-Christian Bible story. The author clarifies she couldn’t add nuance to a rapist, so she turned him into an inventor punished by the gods for inventing. Hinduism is not Christianity where the pursuit of knowledge is considered a sin. We revere knowledge. This framing is not a critique of the religion but a plain misrepresentation of its core tenets.
The story also missed several instances where it could have critiqued actual patriarchy in Hinduism instead of the imagined and grossly misrepresented issues it presented. For example, Kaikeyi’s marriage to King Dasharath was basically a sale where Dasharath paid an exorbitant bride price to her father. But beyond a passing mention, this issue is never highlighted.
I will not delve into the representation of Gods as malicious entities but all in all, the religious concerns surrounding the novel cannot be wholly dismissed as ‘puritans hating the critique of a casteist society’. However, claiming the novel to be Hinduphobic is puritanical and plays right into the hands of the fascists. Kaikeyi and its take on Hinduism and Hindu reader’s critique can exist simultaneously without devolving into fascist claims.
Do I believe Vaishnavi Patel meant actual harm when writing this novel? No, I believe Ms Patel did it with the best of intentions. But intentions are not synonymous with impact and the impact of her book is it pushes a third wave white feminist, Judeo-Christian agenda on an ancient South Asian society without understanding the nuances and structures within it.
In Kaikeyi’s goal to dismantle the South Asian patriarchy, it forgets one has to understand the South Asian patriarchy first, how the nuances differ from the Global North. In seeking to represent us, Kaikeyi flattens ancient India as an oppressive and barbaric land where women are without rights while the diverse kingdoms of ancient India each upheld different values and traditions. For anyone familiar with the original texts, the diversity of India cannot be ignored.
The truth is, for most people, Kaikeyi would be the only novel around Hinduism they’ll read. Untruthfully framing a religion still practised by millions — however flawed— as barbaric and filled with malicious gods, is looking at it from a colonial and very white gaze. This is not Greek mythology where the practitioners are long dead, and calling genuine concerns by Hindus, especially those from the mainland the book seeks to represent, as puritanical or nationalist serves no one.
What is clear here is authors should first do the work of decolonising internally to ensure their internalised colonial gaze doesn’t bleed into their work. Especially when authors of diaspora engage with narratives seeking to represent the mainland, I hope they listen to main-lander voices too and consider the merit in their criticism. Our shared identity doesn’t give them a free pass to write us as stereotypes. Also, us not wanting to see ourselves or our religion misrepresented is not nationalism. We are not voiceless. Try not to silence us or speak over us while claiming to represent us. Please note: this isn’t gatekeeping — everyone has a right to engage with their culture, heritage and religion as they see fit, but I hope they do it with nuance.
Vaishnavi Patel is obviously a talented writer and I wish her all the best in her career.
Note: Historical details of the Vedic Era in this article are provided by @/Kaya Ra who is a Literature postgraduate with a special focus on Ancient Indian Literature.
Disclaimer: The term “Judeo-Christian” in the post is well accompanied by the word ‘agenda’ to imply the term’s meaning as a western-political influence rather than forceful clubbing of religious values often used by radicals.
Inosh K Rukman
Inosh K Rukman hails from Sri Lanka—a country known for its tea and sandy beaches but more recently, revolutions. They dabble in all genres but harbor a deep love of SFF and speculative fiction. An avid consumer of stories, he can often be found buried in books, animes and K dramas. Inosh goes by They/He and you can find him tweeting about his novel writing struggles on Twitter @inoshwrites!
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the guest writer’s comments and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.