#FiveDesiFaves: Vaishnavi Patel on the books that speak to who she is as a reader and writer

Desi Books Ep 78 w/ Vaishnavi Patel Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 78 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in #FiveDesiFaves, we have Vaishnavi Patel, who has a debut book out this year: Kaikeyi: A Novel. She discusses the five desi books that speak to who she is as a reader and writer. Spanning genres and age groups, these are by Roshani Chokshi, Madhusree Mukerjee, Tasha Suri, Amia Srinivasan, and Tanvi Berwah.

#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH VAISHNAVI PATELINTRODUCTION

Vaishnavi Patel is a law student focusing on constitutional law and civil rights. She likes to write at the intersection of Indian myth, feminism, and anti-colonialism. Her short stories can be found in The Dark and 87 Bedford’s Historical Fantasy Anthology along with a forthcoming story in Helios Quarterly. Vaishnavi 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 reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana, weaving a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—and an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales 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 stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak–and what legacy she intends to leave behind.

The transcript of this episode with all the books mentioned is also up on the website at desibooks.co.

And now, here’s Vaishnavi Patel with her #FiveDesiFaves.

Vaishnavi Patel’s novel, Kaikeyi, reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the Indian epic, the Ramayana, weaving a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—and an extraordinary woman. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH VAISHNAVI PATEL

Hi, my name is Vaishnavi Patel and I’m the author of Kaikeyi. I’m really excited to talk to you all today about five desi faves, which for me are five books by South Asian writers that I have really enjoyed reading and that connect to me and my own writing in some way. So I have a mix of middle grade, young adult, adult, fiction, and nonfiction. All sorts of different types of books that I think really speak to who I am as a reader and writer. It was also important to me to make sure that I was centering the voices of desi women in particular. So all five of the books on my list are by women authors.


So my first book is not actually a book. It is a series, a middle grade series, called The Pandava Quintet. And it’s a series of five books by the author Roshani Chokshi, who wrote these books as part of the Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint. The first book came out in 2018 and the series just concluded this year, 2022, with Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality. The first book in this series is called Aru Shah and the End of Time and it follows the character of Aru Shah, a young Indian girl who meets the other Pandava sisters. All of them are the reincarnations of the Pandava from the Mahabharat, the ancient Indian epic. And the book series follows Aru Shah and the other girls and characters that she meets along the way as they go on a quest to stop various threats inspired by Hindu mythology.

These books are so well written. They’re engaging not just for middle grade readers, so you know, young teens or people in middle school, but also for adults. I mean, I began to read this series as an adult because it came out when I was an adult. And I still found that it awakened my imagination and that I enjoyed following the adventures of these kids as they tried to stop the awakening of Shiva, who will end time (that’s the plot of the first book) or when they are battling asuras or rakshasas throughout the quest.

What I love most about the series is that it’s able to introduce young readers, who might not be familiar at all with Hindu mythology, to Hindu stories and the Hindu pantheon and to various myths, not just from the Mahabharat. But in Book Two, there’s parts inspired by the Ramayan. There’s all of these other elements, as well as just being, you know, timely for kids and the struggles that they experience in their day-to-day lives. So I really love this series, I highly recommend it. My little brother, who was at the age that these books are intended for, also loves and highly recommends this series. So I think that it’s just absolutely wonderful.

“I also am a huge admirer of Roshani Chokshi because . . . reading her writing made me feel like there might be a place for my writing in the US publishing world . . .” Vaishnavi Patel #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

And the reason why it’s number one on my recommendation list is because it’s perhaps the most similar to my own book, Kaikeyi, which is a retelling of a particular Hindu myth. And that both of these books are series, are trying to introduce readers who are potentially unfamiliar to these myths to some of the Hindu stories, while also bringing a fresh perspective for people who grew up with these stories and want to see themselves represented on the page. I also am a huge admirer of Roshani Chokshi because when I read Aru Shah for the first time, and when I read one of her previous books, The Star-touched Queen, reading her writing made me feel like there might be a place for my writing in the US publishing world because she was unapologetically writing about these myths that she had grown up with. And it made me feel that somebody from my background could have a voice in publishing. So for that reason, there’s that extra added connection element of why I love these books so much.

My next recommendation is a nonfiction book called Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee. This book is entirely different from the Aru Shah series. It’s adult nonfiction, it’s historical, and it’s about the Bengal famine of 1943, which, of course took place during the British colonialism of India, during World War Two, and was a major event in Indian colonial history.

This book completely changed the way that I looked at history as presented to me by schools and even other books and sources. I’ve always considered myself pretty knowledgeable about history. And I’ve always thought that I had the ability to look beyond what was obviously presented to me and analyze the undercurrent or to understand who the good guys and bad guys were. But until I read this book, for example, I still didn’t realize how abhorrent British rule in India was, even though I grew up hearing stories about freedom fighters, even though I grew up knowing that British colonialism was bad. This book changed how I looked at history and how I looked at Winston Churchill, who until then had been presented to me as an uncontroverted hero. And obviously, this book goes into a lot of heart-wrenching history about how the British specifically denied food during the famine to Indians, how Indians were forced to go fight in this war in Europe, or on other fronts, despite not having their own freedoms, and how Churchill himself really shaped, with both his active policies and his racism, British policy in India, and how he was able to twist the narrative to make himself look like this great protector, when in reality, he was a deeply immoral person.

“[Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee] made me rethink everything, not just this one moment of history.” Vaishnavi Patel #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

And taking this new look at history made me start questioning a lot of the stories that I’ve been told and the histories that I’ve been told in a new way. And I think one of the reasons that I consider this book extremely influential to me is because it made me rethink everything, not just this one moment of history. A huge part of writing Kaikeyi was reimagining what the story might be told if the villain of the original story had a chance to give her side of the narrative. And what if the heroes were not as pure good, as we were once told they were. And while in Kaikeyi, the character of Ram, who is the hero, is not evil the way that Churchill was evil in Churchill’s Secret War and in Indian history, he still is more complicated and morally gray than he comes across in the mainstream version that we’ve been told. And so even though this book is a nonfiction history, I think that it’s just been hugely influential on me and my writing and my thinking, because it forces you to question the way that facts and rhetoric can be weaponized and turned against the losers in a particular conflict or time period.

Switching back to fiction for a moment, my next desi fave is The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri. Tasha Suri is a desi fantasy writer. She’s written several books. But The Jasmine Throne, in particular, is a huge standout for me, because it is inspired by the history and the religions and the people of South Asia in a way that makes a new fresh world but is still clearly drawing on that inspiration rather than a prototypical medieval European inspiration that you see in so many epic fantasies. And the story itself is also so beautiful and rich with characters that truly come alive and truly have their particular stories to tell that are in no way at all stereotypical or treading familiar paths and other fantasy.

“[Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne] is just an example of how rich South Asian worldbuilding can be and how rich South Asian inspired world can be and can look.” Vaishnavi Patel #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

And I think that I love all the Tasha stories, books, that I’ve had the chance to read. But this one gets on the list because it’s just an example of how rich South Asian worldbuilding can be and how rich South Asian inspired world can be and can look. And so I found myself really inspired by reading this book even though I write it after I had written Kaikeyi, just to think more broadly about what South Asian fantasy can look like. And if I ever move out of retellings, I am sure that I will be looking to Tasha Suri’s example as to how I can still keep South Asian roots in my work even though I’m writing in a secondary world that, you know, it’s not about our real world or our real myths.

My fourth book is another nonfiction and this one is a collection of essays. It’s called The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan. It came out in 2021. And this book is phenomenal. It was written by a Oxford professor who teaches about feminism, feminist thought, and political philosophy. And it’s a collection of works about sex, sexuality, crimes, me-too, and what the future holds. Hence the title, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century.

“[Amia Srinivasan’s] feminist theories, thoughts, and underpinnings [in The Right to Sex], also, are something that I think about a lot in my fiction work . . .” Vaishnavi Patel #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

In particular, when I was writing an asexual character, in Kaikeyi, I was thinking a lot about what is sex and attraction? And what do the politics of desire say about a world or about specific characters. And this book in the nonfiction sphere really just gets down to the crux of what is the power of sex and what does it mean in society? And what is feminist about it, what is perhaps patriarchal about it, what is private, what is personal, what is social what is public, as well as talking about the issues that all people but women in particular face in a patriarchal society, when it comes to things like consent, when it comes to things like being able to make choices, live lives free of violence. And these feminist theories, thoughts, and underpinnings, also, are something that I think about a lot in my fiction work, because I like to write about patriarchy, and defiance, and feminism. And I’ve read a lot about this topic. But this was one of the first times I’d read about it by a desi writer, and she just writes so well, so clearly and beautifully, that it is truly understandable to a lay person who doesn’t have any background in this subject area. So I really recommend this book for anybody who wants to think more deeply about these topics.

My last selection is a book that comes out in September 2022. So not long now. And it’s Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah. It is a YA fantasy coming out with Sourcebooks, and you should definitely consider pre-ordering it or buying it when it comes out. But Monsters Born and Made is kind of like The Hunger Games and yet nothing like it. It’s a South Asian fantasy. It’s about class and caste. And it’s also a gripping adventure story about a competition in which a young girl is determined to win and save her family. But as I mentioned before, it really is about these deeper themes of class and caste and what it means to have a society built on these rigid hierarchies and structures where some people who are absolutely vital to the wellbeing of society are kept at the bottom and oppressed for a particular purpose. And what that exploitation means, what it says about society, what it says about everyone else who lives in it.

And it’s so well done in a way that it’s understated. It’s never hitting you over the head with it, and yet, it’s all you can think about at the end is these, you know, influences and social forces. And I think that it’s really important when we’re talking about desi literature to confront not only problems like patriarchy or religious fundamentalism but also casteism, which is a problem across religions, but especially in Hinduism in South Asia. And this book confronts that while still being an incredible adventure fantasy, which is what I appreciate about it most.

“. . . if you enjoyed Kaikeyi, you might enjoy [Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah] as well because it also has some amount of implied caste criticism in it when it’s talking about social structures and religion . . .” Vaishnavi Patel #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

And I think that, if you enjoyed Kaikeyi, you might enjoy this book as well because it also has some amount of implied caste criticism in it when it’s talking about social structures and religion and who gets to be the arbiter of knowledge or the keeper of the will of the gods. But this book makes it so much more explicit and does a better job of [not intelligible] than Kaikeyi could ever do while still having a moving narrative on top of it. And so I just very highly recommend this book.


There’s plenty of other books that I considered choosing, that I love and just wanted to briefly mention here. If you like myth retellings, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books, The Forest of Enchantments or The Palace of Illusions, which, respectively, retell Sita and Draupadi’s stories, are really engaging and interesting reads.

I also love personally reading romcoms and I love reading desi romcoms. So I highly recommend checking out the work of Sarah Desai, or Nisha Sharma, or Sonali Dev. Sajni Patel, Farah Heron, Syed Masood are the many other incredible desi romcom writers out there. They have brought me so much joy over these past couple of years of pandemic time.

But those are my five desi faves. I hope that you found something that piques your interest among them. And I’m always happy to talk more about the books I love if you find me on social media at Vaishnawrites, both on Twitter and on Instagram. And thank you so much for listening.

Vaishnavi Patel’s novel, Kaikeyi, reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the Indian epic, the Ramayana, weaving a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—and an extraordinary woman. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 78 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today, we were listening to Vaishnavi Patel, who has a debut book out this year: Kaikeyi: A Novel. She discussed the five desi books that speak to who she is as a reader and writer. Spanning genres and age groups, these are by Roshani Chokshi, Madhusree Mukerjee, Tasha Suri, Amia Srinivasan, and Tanvi Berwah.

Episode 79 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Please tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. You’ll get all the updates you might have missed as well as some new stuff. And please share this on via social media if you enjoyed listening or reading. Help raise the tide of South Asian literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.


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