In trying to categorize this book for this blog, I marked it as both “historical fiction” and “fantasy” because it has elements of both. The novel tells the story, not exactly of the Hindu epic Ramayana but rather of the backstory leading up to it. More specifically, as the title indicates, it is the story of Kaikeyi, who in most tellings of the saga gets the godlike Prince Rama exiled to the forest out of her jealousy because she wants her own son to succeed to the throne instead of his half-brother Rama.
As with the last book I just read about Freydis Eriksdottir, this novel takes a woman maligned in legend and tells the story from her point of view. While I don’t know the Hindu epics very well, my point of entry to the Ramayana is the movie Sita Sings the Blues, so I’m already predisposed to think of Rama as less than perfect (even if he was an avatar of Vishnu) and to see the story through the eyes of the women characters.
Kaikeyi is a compelling, fascinating woman, one who believes herself from childhood to be forsaken by the gods, their ears deaf to her pleas. She is not, however, jealous of Rama; she loves him and all the other sons of her husband’s other wives equally; the picture here is of a large, loving family in which three sister-wives all get along and share in raising each other’s children. Kaikeyi’s concerns about Rama spring from a different place altogether: as the young man becomes more convinced of his divine origin and destiny, he comes into conflict with all three of his mothers, particular Kaikeyi, in their attempts to improve women’s lot in the kingdom. A rigid, “fundamentalist” approach to the wishes of the gods clashes with a more progressive view, and Kaikeyi begins to see Rama as more of a danger than a savior.
While the story is clearly set in a past India, it’s a mythic one rather than one tied to a particular historical era. The gods and their interventions in human life are very real, as is Kaikeyi’s mystical power to see connections between herself and other people as visible lines, like auras, and influence those connections to become stronger or weaker. The story is rich, vivid, and compelling, and feels like being immersed in a myth.