In April 2022, a reimagining of the life of an infamous queen from a Hindu epic, Ramayana gave voice to an extraordinary woman in a world of gods and men. With an immersive and compelling voice, this novel tells the story of an overlooked girl who transforms herself into a powerful queen, exploring motherhood and magic through a feminist lens. An instant New York Times bestseller, Kaikeyi has been praised by many, including R.F. Kuang (Babel) —”marvelous”— and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves) —”compulsively readable and infinitely compassionate”. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to feature Vaishnavi Patel, the author of Kaikeyi, on this blog today! To view more such posts by women authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Women for the Win, spanning over March 2023. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.

Credit: Vaishnavi Patel

Q/A with Vaishnavi Patel on reimagining the life of an infamous queen from a Hindu epic, giving voice to a female perspective, and exploring motherhood and destiny in her debut.

Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your debut novel, yourself and the weather where you are?

Thank you so much for having me! My name is Vaishnavi Patel, and I’m the author of Kaikeyi, which is my debut novel. I’m a lawyer by day and I specialize primarily in civil rights work. I grew up in Chicago, where it’s very cold, but I’m currently living on the East Coast of the United States and I’m always surprised at how relatively mild the winters are—only a couple of inches of snow with most storms! We’re just on the cusp of spring out here, so I’m excited to be seeing flowers soon.

Kaikeyi greatly brings one of the most infamous queens from Hindu epics to the forefront, but when one thinks of the other women in our mythology, especially those who are most written about like Sita or Draupadi, it’s inevitable to be curious: why Kaikeyi?

When I was growing up, my Ajji used to tell my sister and I stories from the Ramayana. One time, my Aai 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. Ajji didn’t fully agree, and that disagreement—the fact that Kaikeyi ends up helping society but ends up viewed as a villain—stuck in my mind. Something about her story in particular got into my head and wouldn’t leave. 

As I grew older, I would occasionally look to see if anybody had written stories about Kaikeyi, but I never found anything about her. I started doing little pieces of research, learning more about her and other women in the Ramayana. One day I realized I could write her story. I wanted to tell a version where her actions were not motivated by spur of the moment jealousy, but rather decisions based on her life experiences.

Often, Kaikeyi has been regarded as a stepmother —for Ramayana focuses way more on Rama than Bharata, but especially after she demands the throne for her biological son. This shift in the epic undoubtedly reduces her to an easily influenced woman who gives into her jealousy and insecurity. But it was refreshing to see Kaikeyi focusing on motherhood as a more nuanced journey. How vital was this aspect when writing Kaikeyi’s story?

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, especially when she’s been raising and loving all four of the boys—why should blood matter to her so much all of a sudden?

I thought the story would be much more interesting if she truly loved all her sons and was motivated by fears besides jealousy. The fact that Rama is her stepchild encouraged me to portray motherhood more expansively and to flip that narrative. Plus I think Hindu mythology and the religion itself portrays motherhood in such a complex and beautiful way, because mothers educate their children and develop their morals and may even train them in the arts of war—it’s something I find very progressive about many myths, so I always wanted to include that.

Literature usually takes pleasure in subjecting women to fate; it makes for a great inescapable prison and an unavoidable fuel. Kaikeyi also runs on destiny and brings every character to its fold, but there’s a sense of hope lingering between the lines. Was this something that you were adamant about establishing or did the balance gradually steeped in the story?

I think that all the characters in Kaikeyi and in the Ramayana generally struggle with fate. Both Kaikeyi and Rama in this book, as well as Ravana and Sita, must decide what to make of their fate, 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 was always interested in having this as a major thread through the book—that choice matters more than fate, and that fate is what you make of it. To me this is a core element of Hinduism: even if you have a destiny or a path to walk, your actions, choices, and thoughts matter. I think that agency, and the fact that Kaikeyi’s choices matter, is what ultimately makes the story hopeful. 

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.

So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on legends 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 tales threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind.

Buy now: Amazon US | Bookshop UK

It’s impressive how the reimagining has an undivided focus on Kaikeyi, from her childhood to the decisions she takes in Ramayana. When the inspiration is a sprawling epic with thousands of verses and various characters, the process of writing such an earnest story about one must’ve been exciting, or chaotic —and we would love to know more about that.

I wanted to fit every element of the Ramayana I possibly could in the book, but over time it started becoming implausible. But Kaikeyi uses a first person limited POV, so we’re in Kaikeyi’s head the whole time. So as much as I would love it, there was simply no reason for Hanuman to be in the story, for example. And I couldn’t really justify putting the majority of the main Ramayana story, which takes place post-exile, into the book. Remembering whose POV I was writing from was really critical to turning the sprawling epic into a single (if chunky) book. I hope that Kaikeyi’s success shows there’s a market for these stories, so more Hindu authors get the chance to retell parts of the Ramayana in Western publishing!

An epic has to start somewhere so it’s understandable why a lot of characters don’t get their past displayed in detail. But the curiosity is always there and readers surely love how Kaikeyi fills the gap for one such character. How naturally did this perspective of Kaikeyi come to you as the author while writing her past?

The voice came naturally in some ways—the first line has always been the same, for example. I truly loved writing Kaikeyi as a character, and most times it felt very natural to slip into her voice, although it’s quite different from mine. But I think what’s more interesting is the elements that I struggled with—I had to do a lot of work to separate my voice and judgments from Kaikeyi’s. 

Kaikeyi is a very flawed character. She takes the power that she does have (her status as royalty, in particular) for granted, and she manipulates people for her own benefit without really stopping to think about the ethical implications of that. She believes that she is always right, is quick to judge people who oppose her even if they have valid reasons; conversely she believes that people who agree with her must also be good. It’s hard as an author not to pass judgment, not to make Kaikeyi realize her class privilege or see that Ravana is actually a conqueror or understand she’s being hypocritical about her use of magic.

In a first person POV you have to trust that the reader is going to pick up on the subtle hints about Ravana setting a demon free, about the double standard Kaikeyi is using, etc. That is perhaps the toughest thing about writing—accepting that some readers may not see these implied ideas, but understanding that you must leave some things unsaid.

It’s exciting to see you mention the essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by A.K. Ramanujan as a big influence on your work, in an interview, especially since it reminded me of this particular quote from the same essay: “…no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling—and the story has no closure, although it maybe be enclosed in a text.” What was it like to create Kaikeyi as a Hindu author, especially for the Hindu readers, since it’s inevitable to capture just a fragment of the epic yet important to draw on motivations, morals, and gender in Ramayana?

I LOVE Three Hundred Ramayanas. It’s a seminal piece of work, and has really helped me examine my relationship to retellings and whether I can and should retell these stories. Kaikeyi is not a strict retelling, and it is not original. I had read this essay before, but when I started writing Kaikeyi I revisited it as a jumping off point to track down other versions of the story I wanted to read, including other iterations of the Ramayana in Sanskrit, as well as versions in a multitude of languages across South, Southeast, and East Asia. These retellings helped shape different pieces of Kaikeyi; for example, the depiction of Ravana as a misunderstood figure who is not purely evil is part of many Southeast Asian tellings. My research also helped me decide where I wanted to make up my own plot points, 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). 

As you alluded to, I view Kaikeyi as one thread in a beautiful and neverending tapestry that is the Ramayana and its many forms and retellings. Kaikeyi presented a hard line to walk—on the one hand I knew that there might be white, American Christian readers who would read it and come away with a sense of superiority about their religion (to which I say: look in the mirror), but on the other hand I knew that there were many people out there looking for an honest portrayal of the intersection of Hinduism and patriarchy. Hinduism itself is a philosophy, a moral framework for living an ethical and just life—Hinduism does not require patriarchy, and many ancient as well as modern Hindus practiced their religion without it. On the other hand, people have weaponized the Ramayana and Hinduism more broadly to create harmful patriarchal structures, not because it’s an intrinsic part of the religion but because as long as there has been religion there have been people using it for their own gains.

I know I’m not writing to everyone’s reality, but it’s enough for me that so many readers from around the world, including many living in India and experiencing its modern politics, have reached out to tell me how they feel seen by this novel. To me, the most important theme of Kaikeyi was this: gods aren’t the problem, people’s interpretations of the gods are. And that’s a message that can coexist with the moral and religious framework of the Ramayana.

While there can never be enough to talk about when it comes to a retelling inspired by Ramayana, there is certainly one aspect that I would love for you to expand on: the depiction of Kaikeyi as an asexual character —an unapologetic ace warrior queen.

Sexuality in ancient history is a complicated topic that our modern dynamics and definitions don’t fit, because ancient cultures had different and often more fluid views of gender and sexuality than we do today. Hindu mythology is filled with examples of this, and so I knew I didn’t want Kaikeyi’s sexuality to be the focus of the story but rather just a part of her rich and varied life in keeping with this tradition. I also knew that the character of Kaikeyi in the original Ramayana fits a very traditional “seductress” archetype that many maligned women get thrust into. She’s supposed to be very pretty, and unafraid to use her body to influence her husband. 

So there’s a twofold reason for Kaikeyi’s depiction as asexual. First, I wanted to write that representation and show an asexual character as the hero of a story who has many complex and loving relationships, because so often asexual characters don’t get that treatment. And second, I wanted a version of Kaikeyi’s story where her power isn’t about seduction at all—while I do love stories where women reclaim and use their sexuality on their terms, that wasn’t a story I was comfortable telling here. Instead I wanted one where her power comes from other types of connections and bonds, and that turns out to be just as meaningful and influential as sexual power.

Kaikeyi has just released as a paperback in March 2023! It was an instant New York Times bestseller when it first released last year, and highly recommended by authors like R.F Kuang, Tasha Suri, and Roshani Chokshi. How has this journey been for you and what do you hope readers continue to take away from Kaikeyi’s story?

Publishing Kaikeyi has been such an adventure. When I first got a book deal, I never imagined writers that I looked up to would read my book, let alone have kind things to say about it. And the New York Times bestseller list—unbelievable! It wasn’t even something I dared dream about. I wrote Kaikeyi for readers like me, who questioned the stories they grew up with but still had a deep and abiding love for those tales. And so despite all the amazing things that have happened for Kaikeyi, the moments I hold closest to my heart are when readers from all over the world feel themselves reflected in the book’s pages, or feel some sort of yearning satisfied by the story. Ultimately I wanted readers to take from Kaikeyi a sense of hope, and it seems that many have, which is a dream come true!

This was a great chat! But before letting you go, would you like to share what you’re currently working on or any other upcoming projects we all should be excited for? Or maybe something you enjoyed reading recently?

I’m currently working on edits for book 2, which is a myth retelling based on the stories of Ganga and Bhishma from the Mahabharata. It’s very different from Kaikeyi in themes, as it’s much more an exploration of warfare and dharma. I’m so excited, because I’m getting to explore in more depth topics like conquest and caste that I couldn’t really touch in Kaikeyi (besides oblique references to the trauma of warfare or the concentration of religious power in the hands of a few). But in many ways, I think people who enjoyed Kaikeyi might also enjoy book 2 because at its core, the story is still coming from a place of love and curiosity for the myths I love.

Vaishnavi Patel

Vaishnavi Patel is a lawyer specializing in civil rights. She likes to write at the intersection of Indian myth, feminism, and anticolonialism. She 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. Kaikeyi is her debut novel.


Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the author’s answers and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.

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