Author Sue Monk Kidd once said, “Stories have to be told or they die…” It’s something I thought about while editing the following email interview with Vaishnavi Patel, author of the novel Kaikeyi (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), a retelling of the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana.
For people who haven’t read it, what is the Ramayana about, and who is Kaikeyi?
The Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic. It tells the story of Rama, the Hindu god Vishnu reincarnated as the prince of a great kingdom. Just as he is about to be crowned king, Rama is banished from his home by his stepmother, and sets off on a fourteen-year exile accompanied by his brother and his wife, Sita. Most of the Ramayana follows the kidnapping of Sita by a demon king, Ravana, and the war Rama wages to save her. He travels across ancient India on his quest, amassing allies like the monkey god Hanuman, and ultimately defeats Ravana in a great battle. Rama returns to his kingdom triumphant and takes his place on the throne. And Kaikeyi? She’s the stepmother that kicks off the whole conflict.
And then what is your novel Kaikeyi about, and how does it change her story from the Ramayana?
Kaikeyi tells the story of the eponymous Ramayana character. There are three major plot points in the Ramayana that concern Kaikeyi: first, upon her marriage to Dasharath, Dasharath promises her father that Kaikeyi’s son will become king. After her marriage, she saves her husband’s life in battle and is granted two boons by him. And many years later, she exiles Rama using those same boons so that her own son will be king.
All of these plot points from the Ramayana appear in Kaikeyi, but the novel takes these and expands on her life, filling in the gaps and giving Kaikeyi an inner life — motivations and desires and relationships — so we can understand why she takes the extreme actions that she does. There are also events in the novel that are inspired by stories from the Ramayana but modified for Kaikeyi — for example, the story of Ahalya is in both the Ramayana and Kaikeyi but it plays a very different role in the novel.
Of course, there are some plot elements that are changed from the Ramayana, but the arc of the epic remains the same. Kaikeyi ends before Sita’s kidnapping, so it doesn’t cover much of what would usually be considered the major parts of the Ramayana. But I have tried to include important elements from later in the Ramayana in Kaikeyi, either by reference or by using the characters in other roles, so I hope the story will still be satisfying to readers who know the Ramayana.
Where did you get the idea for Kaikeyi? Did you start out wanting to do an adaptation of the Ramayana or did you come up with the idea for the story and then realize it would work well as an adaptation of the Ramayana?
When I was growing up, my grandma used to tell my sister and I stories from the Ramayana. We loved them, and we would ask to hear them over and over again. One time, my mom overheard my grandma telling us how Kaikeyi exiled Rama, and my mom jumped in and said something like, “You know, there would be no Ramayana without Kaikeyi. Exiling Rama was necessary to rid the world of evil, so her actions ended up being good.” My grandma didn’t fully agree, because she thought it was wrong for Kaikeyi to exile someone she viewed as her child. That disagreement — the fact that Kaikeyi ends up helping society but is considered to be a villain — stuck in my mind.
As I grew older, I would occasionally look to see if anybody had written stories about Kaikeyi. I saw that there were books like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace Of Illusions about Draupadi, a female character in a different Indian epic, but I never found anything about Kaikeyi. Along the way, I’d been 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 are not motivated by spur of the moment jealousy, but rather decisions based on her life experiences.
It sounds like Kaikeyi is an epic fantasy tale. Is that how you’d describe it?
Kaikeyi definitely has fantasy elements, but I think of Kaikeyi as a “retelling” rather than an epic fantasy. I also think it fits in the historical fiction genre. The Ramayana is an important part of the Hindu religion, so Kaikeyi is set in what many people believe to be our past. As a Hindu, I’m not sure that I can definitively say that these events occurred — certainly I don’t think they happened exactly the way they are told in the verses of the Ramayana — but I do think the stories are based at least in part on historical figures and kingdoms. In the novel, I have drawn on elements of South Asian culture, technology, and practices from before 0 CE, so I have also made an effort to keep Kaikeyi grounded. Because it’s not set in a secondary world, I don’t think of Kaikeyi as epic fantasy — it’s retelling stories that have some amount of historicity, situated in a distant or slightly different past.
People who’ve read Kaikeyi have compared it to Madeline Miller’s Circe, a retelling of The Odyssey; Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne, which reworks the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur; and Genevieve Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart, a reimagining of some Norse myths. Do you think Kaikeyi is like any of them?
I love all three of these books, and I’m still so excited that Kaikeyi is being compared to them. Kaikeyi has similarities to these novels in that these books take a mythic woman that has not always been looked upon kindly and retells the story from her perspective. These three novels and Kaikeyi imagine how familiar narratives might have looked from a different viewpoint.
But I also think that Kaikeyi is different from these novels in some ways because Kaikeyi is retelling a myth from a religion that’s still very widely practiced and has great modern weight. The critiques that the book touches on are grounded in present day interpretation and belief and trying to navigate current religious waters. But I am honored every time somebody compares my book to Circe or Ariadne or The Witch‘s Heart because I think they’re all fantastic. If I can be half the writer that any of those authors are then I’ll have succeeded with Kaikeyi.
Do you think they had an influence on either what you wrote in Kaikeyi or how you wrote it?
I think that these books had an influence on Kaikeyi insofar as reading them gave me hope that I could publish my work, too. When I first sat down to write Kaikeyi, I wasn’t really thinking about other novels because I was thinking about this story from my personal perspective. The inspiration from these works came afterwards as a wake-up call that there might be a market for this kind of story, and that it didn’t just have to be some private project of mine that never saw the light of day.
And is there a reason why you decided to not go even further with Kaikeyi by, say, turning it into a science fiction story?
I wanted to keep Kaikeyi as close as possible to the original Ramayana. There are a few elements in the Ramayana that would actually have been considered science fiction in the ancient world — most notably, Ravana has a flying chariot called the Pushpaka Vimana that is almost like a prototype airplane. The Vimana is included in Kaikeyi as are other scientific marvels for the time period. But because Kaikeyi is set in the ancient world to match the Ramayana, it feels more fantasy than science fiction for the modern audience.
So what writers and stories do you think had a big influence on Kaikeyi? Besides the Ramayana, of course.
It’s really hard to answer this question because the things that have most influenced Kaikeyi are related in some way to the Ramayana. I owe a big debt to pieces of scholarship about the Ramayana, especially the essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by A.K. Ramanujan. I also consulted translations of multiple versions of the Ramayana. The “original” version is Valmiki’s Ramayana, but I drew inspiration from the Adbhuta Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas, and versions from Southeast Asia. I also was influenced by all the non-Ramayana Hindu myths I grew up with, because that cultural environment shaped my approach to this story. Finally, I have to give thanks to the modern fantasy authors Roshani Chokshi and Tasha Suri who inspired me to write unapologetically South Asian stories and proved that there was a desire and market for that.
How about non-literary influences; was Kaikeyi influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Kaikeyi wasn’t influenced by any specific non-literary media. But I have to say I read all the Amar Chitra Katha Ramayana comics as a kid, and I definitely watched some animated Ramayana shows, so I’m sure that’s swimming around in my subconscious. Adaptations of the Ramayana in live and animated screen media are almost ubiquitous in India.
Now, as you said, Kaikeyi ends before Sita is kidnapped. Does that mean you’re going to write a sequel or is this a stand-alone novel?
Kaikeyi is a stand-alone novel. I wanted to tell Kaikeyi’s story from childhood until her major actions in the Ramayana. The Ramayana itself is a sprawling epic with thousands and thousands of verses, and I didn’t want to retread the Ramayana‘s ground. By focusing on one person and one specific set of events within that person’s life I’ve tried to keep Kaikeyi more cabined. I almost think of it as harkening back to oral tradition, where you might hear a tale that fits into a larger epic tapestry, but the individual story is itself complete.
Earlier you said that Kaikeyi wasn’t influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’m curious if you think Kaikeyi could work as a movie, show, or game?
I would love to see Kaikeyi on screen. I think that it would make an excellent limited series — the book itself is split into four parts, which I feel would lend itself to an episodic format. The Ramayana has been adapted to TV many, many times over the years, and the character of Kaikeyi usually appears in a few of the first episodes and then disappears. It would be so cool for Kaikeyi to get to be the center of a story set within this world. And I know from having seen some of these shows, the worldbuilding and drama really lends itself to the screen.
So, if someone wanted to make it into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Kaikeyi and the other main characters?
You know, I really have absolutely no idea. If my book was adapted, I think I would leave the casting to the experts. I would be excited about whoever was chosen, as I’m always desperate to see more South Asian representation on screen.
Speaking of adaptations, Kaikeyi is not only being released in hardcover and digitally, but there’s also an audiobook. Given that your grandmother is the one who first told you the stories of the Ramayana, why didn’t you ask her to narrate the audiobook?
Kaikeyi is going to have a wonderful South Asian diaspora narrator who is very familiar with the original Ramayana. My grandma is excited about the book, but living in India, she hasn’t even had the chance to read it yet! I’m hoping when she comes to the United States later this year, I’ll be able to give her a copy.
So, is there anything else that people interested in Kaikeyi should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
This answer isn’t necessarily for every single reader. But for South Asian or Hindu readers who are doubtful about picking up this book because of who it focuses on, I want to reassure you that I love the original Ramayana and am not trying to disrespect it. While Kaikeyi feels different than the Ramayana, the critiques in it are meant to make us think about what messages these religious stories are sending, so that we can more consciously consume these myths. Kaikeyi comes from a place of love for this story and for my culture.
Finally, if someone enjoys Kaikeyi, what novel that’s an adaptation of an existing story would you suggest they read next?
This is a hard question. The retellings we discussed before are all excellent for people who want to read adaptations. Another retelling I’m excited about is Maya Deane’s Wrath Goddess Sing, which features Achilles as a trans woman, and covers events from the Iliad. If you enjoyed Kaikeyi, I think Wrath Goddess Sing‘s exploration of gender and friendships could be appealing.
For people who enjoyed Kaikeyi‘s setting or cultural critique, I also want to mention Tanvi Berwah’s Monsters Born And Made, a South Asian-inspired fantasy (not a retelling). It’s not only an amazing story but also features really smart commentary on class and caste. I highly recommend it.