Book Review: The Diary of Kaikeyi by Seema Jain

Review: Chaitali Sengupta

The Vanquished Queen: The diary of Kaikeyi
Author: Ramkishore Mehta
Translation: Seema Jain
Hawakal publishers, 450.00 INR

               The Hindu epic Ramayan focuses on the legend of Lord Shri Ram- the supreme man (Maryada Purushottam) who perfected righteousness. Although the epic is peopled with several women characters, they are mostly portrayed as powerless characters who not only endure extreme events but are also secondary to the status of men. The women in this epic are examples of their indomitable sense of stree dharma, be it Sita, Kaushlaya, or Urmila. The only exception is Kaikeyi, the second queen of king Dasharath, the fierce, villainous stepmother of Shri Ram.

               Ramkishore Mehta’s original book ‘Parajita ka Atmakathya’ claims to be a translation from Prakrit. It is based on the events described in the Valmiki Ramayan. Independent researcher Aishikk Sengupta says at the outset that ‘The author pens down his own narrative that he borrows from trusted translations and commentaries of the epic’. The translator Prof. Seema Jain explains that she “found the novel appealing in its logical interpretation of many aspects of the epic, which are floated as myths for public consumption.”

               In a postmodernist milieu, it becomes relevant to reinterpret both the mythological tales and the characters therein. This is not a novel path; such reinterpretations have also happened before. The plot line does not change, only the storytelling becomes different with the passage of time. In ‘The Vanquished queen: the diary of Kaikeyi’ Mehta revisits the character of Kaikeyi. She is the most despised, hated, abhorred queen of Indian mythology. She’s the one who plots ruthlessly against Shri Ram and is remembered for her dark deed of banishing him to the forest, along with his brother and wife.

Chaitali Sengupta
               Mehta, with his creative prowess, has touched the character of Kaikeyi with the magic wand of redemption. His Kaikeyi is not one-dimensional, but she appears to be extraordinarily brave, a warrior, a political diplomat determined to leave her mark not only on Kekeya, the kingdom where she was born, or on Ayodhya where she was given to in marriage but on a patriarchal society that restricts women to find their own identities. Kaikeyi writes in the diary about her girlhood, her youthful fantasy for a young sergeant in her father king Ashwapati’s army, her deep loathing for king Dashrath, and her palpable anger at being abused at his hands as an object of sex. ‘For a husband, a wife’s importance is no more than that of a plaything, a means of recreation, of relieving himself of stress, a pleasure bed, a sleep-inducing drug, something to play with or to be put aside at will...” (Page 19)

Seema Jain

               But such thoughts anger her. She is a born leader, fearless at heart, a skillful warrior, raising questions about a woman’s position in society. “This patriarchal society has equated woman to the Earth or Wealth, for the possession of which man has fought wars. My daughter, is it not insulting for a woman to be treated as inanimate, like the Earth or Wealth? Are you happy being regarded as an object of consumption?” (Page 29) The book abounds with her bold, questioning views which Sita, Kausalya and Urmila have trouble digesting. Till the very end, Kaikeyi is shown striving to ‘have a matriarchal society where women would show to men that they are much more than mere biological tools for child-bearing and child-rearing.’ (Page 20) In this regard, the advice she gives to Sita stands out. ‘My daughter! I’m talking to you of developing your potential in such a way that the other person has no choice but to regard you as his equal, this being dependent not on his convenience but on your potential and capabilities.’ (Page 29)

               While Kausalya and Sumitra were mostly dedicated mothers, endowed with ‘a supreme and fathomless capacity to sacrifice everything’, she, Kaikeyi-the maharani- could not ‘involve herself enough in the upbringing of Bharata’ (page 129) due to her anxieties and manipulative efforts, her increasing interference in the state affairs. Kaikeyi’s thoughts on having a matured spy network and state detective force, her increasing influence on the council of ministers and the unstinted support she received from Dashrath’s chief minister and priest Vasishta show her dominance in the male-dominated society. She views Shri Ram and his world through a feminist lens and although she praises him to be a clever statesman, with an expert understanding of the intrigues and conspiracies Kaikeyi hatched from the palace, she also despises him for sending Sita into exile. ‘Whatever happened to Sita, the whole mankind should never forget that.’ (Page 39)

               Prof. Seema Jain’s translation is lucid and masterful. It turns this enthralling and startling narrative into a quick and easy read. Balancing authenticity with readability is a difficult task when one is translating. Prof. Jain must receive her due credit for it. She has surely been able to ferry across the fiery, tainted, cursed Kaikeyi in the present-day context, as a strong female character. As a result, her work has indeed become ‘another pathbreaking milestone in creative and critical discourse.’ (Page 12)

Bio-note: Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, poet, translator, and reviewer based in the Netherlands. Timeless tales in Translation is her latest work of 12 translated short stories by Indian authors. Cross Stitched words, her debut collection of prose-poems, is the recipient of an Honorary mention award at the New England Book Festival 2021. Her book Legends Speak: Bengali women’s narratives in translation is a collaborative work of translation.

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