Rashi Rohatgi is an American Desi Norwegian and a writer and translator. Click through for the full bio and contributions.
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel | Redhook | April 26, 2022
The Ramayana of Valmiki | Translated by Robert P Goldman and Sally J Sutherland Goldman | Princeton University Press | January 18, 2022
Reviewer: RASHI ROHATGI
How long is the Ramayana? In my first memory of it, I am defeated, unawake to stay awake for the entirety, unaware that the chanters themselves switch off so that Tulsidas’ telling of the story can be told uninterrupted. Later, during Bal Vihar, I am shown a version that fits on a grain of rice. On neither occasion am I alone: instead, I am surrounded by the pseudo-cousins of my American desi diaspora, listening and looking at a story presented by aunties and uncles who have impressed upon us, otherwise, the importance of reading.
That the Goldmans’ new prose translation of The Ramayana of Valmiki is “now available in a one-volume paperback,” as the back cover enthuses, is not just another answer to how long the Ramayana might be. For a certain subset of liberal diaspora Hindus whose coming of age is entwined with American higher education, this story-turned-book promises to occasion further reflection, discussion, and perhaps contribution of their own responses to the multifarious global corpus of Ramayana stories.
Arriving providentially on its heels is Kaikeyi, a playfully erudite Ramayana response novel by Vaishnavi Patel, a law student from the Midwest. Patel had to do without access to the one-volume-Valmiki when writing her feminist prequel, but we can trace in its pages not only a careful weaving together of oral heritage but also of its other American-available antecedents: RK Narayan’s paperback transcreation of Kamban’s Ramayana has been available since the 1970s (most recently in an edition by Penguin in 2006), and more recently, we’ve seen Arshia Sattar’s retelling for young readers (Restless Books, 2018, illustrated by Sonali Zohra), writer Samhita Arni and illustrator Moyna Chitrakar’s graphic novel Sitayana (Groundwood Books, 2011), and doyenne Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sita-centric Forest of Illusions (2019), published by HarperCollins India but readily available in the USA. (This is to say nothing of several others inspired by, rather than directly refashioning, aspects of the Ramayana.) A reading of Kaikeyi in response to these would be fascinating, as would a reading that links it more globally to Ramayana responses by Mahasweta Devi, Devdutt Pattanaik, Lindsay Collen, and others; here, though, I want to think of it as linked to the Goldmans’ one-volume-Valmiki in opposition to the increasingly popular Hindutva understanding of the Ramayana as a story with fixed values.
Counterintuitively, part of what makes the one-volume-Valmiki translation so helpful in this respect is that it gives us a fixed sense of Valmiki’s take so that comparisons with other versions can be made not just piecemeal, but with regards to the entire narrative arc. The most rewarding aspect of this translation is how accessible it makes the dazzling natural imagery of the ancient Indian forest; the most surprising outcome, however, is related to the characterization. It enriched my understanding of Rama by illustrating the internal coherence of what had before felt like a deeply unsatisfying refrain: that Rama may make mistakes, but ultimately, he is more than them.
Valmiki works layer by layer, bringing us from a tortured, adolescent crown prince Rama, to a wiser adult king Rama. Before his banishment, there are signs that Rama feels loved because of his dutifulness, rather than his innate divine charisma: in Ayodhyakanda Sarga 29 (p166), for example, he tries to joke with a sage, but the joke doesn’t land. Rama wins over the sages by killing the rakshasas who torment them, but in Aranyakanda Sarga 2 (p265), Sita argues that he is not emotionally ready for life as a dutiful warrior, for he takes too much satisfaction in the violence. Lakshman, similarly, regularly chastises Rama for his emotional dysregulation: each time another man touches Sita, for example, Rama threatens to annihilate the entire world until Lakshman asks him to focus (for example, in Aranyakanda Sargas 61 and 62, p339). For Rama, the palace is a site of diplomacy, but the forest, as he describes to Sita, is “a place of pain . . . a place of utter pain” (Ayodhyakanda Sarga 25, p162).
Rama cannot take Lakshman’s advice—which is, essentially and unhelpfully, to be better. But nor can he take Sita’s advice, which is to stop carrying around weapons in the hope that the sages will put fewer demands upon him. He takes his duty to kill seriously, except that he cannot quite kill women. Starting from his very first sage-ordered killing, in Balakanda Sarga 25 (p79), Rama attempts to mutilate women rather than kill them. He speaks, valiantly if patronizingly, about this change as a response to his simultaneous duty to protect women, but the least misogynistic articulation comes in response to Valin’s indignation at being shot by Rama’s arrow when he was unsuspecting. Rama explains that his duty is not killing on command per se, but rather, as a king, he must use his contextual knowledge to mete out justice (Kiskindhakanda Sarga 18, p371); he judged Valin’s crimes to be deserving of this type of death.
When we consider the ways in which Rama speaks to Lakshman about Kaikeyi as clouding Dasaratha’s judgment with her wiles (Ayodhyakanda Sarga 4, p187), and how, when they are reunited after the kidnapping, Rama insists that Sita gussy herself up first (Yuddhakanda Sarga 102, p705), it’s clear that Rama feels that, for any self-respecting woman, mutilation is equal enough to death. Holding himself up to a higher standard than the sages hold him to—that is, making everything harder for himself by putting pressure on himself to act both as judge and executioner—is how Rama sees himself combatting the stressors of his life. When he finally meets his true foe, Ravana, in one-on-one combat—with an absolutely magnificent description of supernatural weaponry—Rama’s rage again threatens his success. However, when Lakshman is injured, Rama’s sadness overpowers his rage. And, when the battle resumes, Rama’s furious but self-possessed speech centers on how Ravana deserves death for his treatment of Sita. Rama, perhaps, takes this as a triumph, but readers are told that “since he was so eager for the destruction of his enemy, Rama’s valor, strength, zeal for battle, and the power of his divine weapon-spells were all redoubled” (Yuddhakanda Sarga 92, p692). This suggests that doubling the emotional involvement, whatever its resulting effect, is not the same as no emotional involvement—and that perhaps, if he knew, Rama would continue to choose victory over health.
Rama treats Sita poorly after their return from exile but, when Sita finally disappears into the earth, Rama is truly shocked, lamenting that he had agreed to play the long game because he thought that it would end in reunion with the woman he loves (Uttarakanda Sarga 88 Appendix, p843). His response shows us that, even though he has now been told he is a divine avatar, he is still stuck: he threatens, again, to annihilate the whole world, though his sons’ recitation calms him.
The culmination of every choice, every struggle, comes in a swift, brutal twist of fate for Rama. Just when all seems peaceful, Lakshman offhandedly insults a sage, and in response to the sage’s familiar refrain to annihilate the whole world, offers to instead be personally killed. It is Rama’s duty, of course, to kill the last person who knows him so well, and who loves him so well. He doesn’t. Rama says, instead, in Uttarakanda Sarga 96 (p851) that “for the virtuous, banishment and execution are one,” and sends Lakshman back to the forest again.
Rama ends the book worse off than when he started—when he had Lakshman—but he has also achieved something real: he judged a man using not just theoretical or patriarchal stories of duty, but based on his own understanding, and he enacted this judgment. If this banishment allows Rama to admit that the past decade and a half had felt to him as bleak as death, one-volume-Valmiki does not share that. But everyone in Ayodhya lives happily ever after, never subject to the wrathful excesses of his youth. And the book reads as though Rama has grown and may yet grow further—his humanity and divinity interwoven, an always-moving double helix.
Kaikeyi, in Patel’s prequel, also takes advantage of misogynistic tropes. By the time she does this—briefly and only during the banishment to convince her loved ones that she has become malevolent, cognizant of how this will make her look when the story is told—we already know why she feels pressed to do so. And we understand that she will feel remorse sooner rather than later because she has spent her life finding a way to live as a woman in a patriarchal world.
As a character, Kaikeyi is written to be understood: the novel functions in conversation with its marketplace contemporaries like Circe and The Silence of the Girls in that way. Kaikeyi, as a novel for those who know her various characterizations across various Ramayanas, is also something of a reverse murder(ish) mystery as we try to guess whose reputation will have to be killed for Kaikeyi’s to be revived. Patel makes clear early on that she refuses the often-casteist approach of blaming everything on Manthara, but the rarity of a central, happy, supportive mother-figure-daughter-figure relationship (in and outside of myth and myth-based literature) kept me worried.
Moreover, Patel does not destabilize the usual relationship equilibrium inside the palace: Kaikeyi does love Dasarath and vice versa—in a lovely depiction of a relationship that includes an asexual person and also sex. She also loves all her co-wives and sons, and this is reciprocal as well. There are enough unexplored natural seams and muddled histories—Bharata and Shatrughna’s bond, for example, and Ravana and Sita’s—to play with, all of which she does. The way in which these are resolved is formally pleasurable, worthy of keeping mum about so readers can discover them for the first time.
Ultimately, it is Rama’s reputation that is put on the line. Kaikeyi’s Rama learns he is a god far earlier in this story than in Valmiki’s, when the sages tell him so. When no one else seems to see him as he truly is, the sages take on an outsize influence that Kaikeyi finds hard to counter. Patel uses the emotional beats of Rama’s relationship with the sages and his resulting self-regard to depict a young man otherwise very similar to Valmiki’s: powerful, but uncertain in himself, and thus a danger both to his enemies and to his friends.
Rama, here, does not approve of Kaikeyi’s power over Dasarath. This is partly because, as their son, he doesn’t know the intimacies of their relationship, but mostly because of his strong allegiance to the sages. As a child, Rama understands that he is different, but not why. And before they explain the truth to him, the sages are there to teach him how to make sense of difference. There are gods and asuras, they explain, as there are men and women. Women weaken humanity, and asuras weaken divinity. Asuras can be killed, but women, alas, can only be kept in check.
As Rama grows old enough to make up his own mind about things, his natural tendency towards justice—and thus, a less patriarchal view—is tempered by Kaikeyi’s initial decision to not tell Rama about his own divinity, and her later decisions to not speak to him about what it might mean to live outside of such dualities. The sages ask much of Rama, but they also provide something crucial. Kaikeyi banishes him, but she also continues to develop her relationships with Rama’s loved ones and closest friends, Sita and Lakshman. In doing so, she hopes that they can help Rama return from his exile emotionally stronger. This more mature Rama, Kaikeyi recognizes, would be more equipped to uphold the justice he has always theoretically championed. Kaikeyi doesn’t banish Rama as a substitute for killing him, but rather as a way of ensuring he is allowed to grow.
How long is the Ramayana? Not infinite, we know, because it is contained within the Mahabharata, that most comprehensive of Hindu stories. In the introduction to his recent translation of its standalone poem, the Bhagavad Gita (Godsong, Knopf, 2018), Amit Majmudar situates himself within this liberal, American-educated Hindu diaspora tradition. A Midwestern doctor as well as poet and novelist, Majmudar sees the Gita, too, as primarily centered on an exploration of friendship (in this case, between the cousins, Krishna and Arjuna.) That Patel’s Kaikeyi and Valmiki’s Ramayana, the latter presented to us this year as a book, lend themselves so clearly to this reading as well is worth considering.
In a year when many countries, America and India included, continue to veer politically rightwards, a one-volume-Valmiki and a feminist prequel can feel slightly out of step, unlikely to register with Hindus intent on chanting the Hanuman Chalisa—not with their American-born children but on loudspeakers outside Indian mosques. The readership highlighted in this review is more demographically than religiously united. Perhaps the one thing we do all agree on, raised as we were on the refrain of many paths to truth, is that we do not need to agree, so long as our beliefs emerge—firsthand or even secondhand—out of a good faith reading of the books. If we read them our way, we may move beyond being pseudo-cousins. We may come to understand what it means, as we, in turn, become the pillars of our own communities, to truly be one another’s friends.
Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 3
Rashi Rohatgi is an American Desi Norwegian and a writer and translator. Click through for the full bio and contributions.