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Mythology for the Millennial: Why Kaikeyi, the Cersei Lannister of Ramayana, is the epic's most interesting character

It's Ram Navami as I'm writing this, and I thought that was quite fitting since I have been reading a few reinterpretations of the Ramayana. In terms of plot and characters, I have always preferred the Mahabharata, so much more scope for the imagination, but I'm beginning to realise that just because a story is more linear with its one good guy vs one bad guy, doesn't mean there isn't room for shades of grey in there too. And in this case, I'm thinking specifically of that one Wicked Stepmother, the villain of the piece, the Cersei Lannister, the Mommy Dearest: Kaikeyi, one of the three queens of Ayodhya.

Let's recap: Kaikeyi, wife number two to King Dasharatha. Not the senior wife, that would be patient and loving Kausalya, not the junior wife, that would be Sumitra, who had twins, and isn't really mentioned a lot. Kaikeyi was Dasharatha's favourite wife, you get the feeling that theirs was a marriage of true soulmates, he respected the other two, but it was to her he turned whenever he needed advice or comfort.

Even her name is a little harsh, no? Kai-ke-yi. It sounds unpleasant, like a dog barking. Not soft names like Kausalya and Sumitra, Kaikeyi is a name you are not likely to forget, nor remember lovingly.

 Mythology for the Millennial: Why Kaikeyi, the Cersei Lannister of Ramayana, is the epics most interesting character

Kaikeyi and Manthara. Image courtesy: WikimediaCommons

The moral of the story, I always thought, was that Dasharatha was paying for loving one wife more than the others. You favour one, you lose everything. The ancients believe in fair play.

Kaikeyi's father, Aswapati, was the king of the Kekaya kingdom, now believed to be in modern day Pakistan. Aswapati, in a strange echo of his future son-in-law Dasharatha, also despaired about not having children, but after some sage worship etc, had a set of twins: Kaikeyi and her brother Yudhajit, who shows up a lot in Valmiki's Ramayana, and takes a great interest in the welfare of his nephew, Bharata.

Kaikeyi herself was raised by her wet nurse, Manthara, who is also a lovely evil figure for writers and makers of TV shows to play up. An old ugly woman, who is beset with jealousy on her darling's behalf. An unverified story goes that the reason Kaikeyi didn't have a mother was because her father could understand birds, see? But the condition for this gift was that if he told anyone what he heard, he would promptly die. So, one day he's going for a walk in the garden with his queen, and he hears two birds telling each other a joke — apparently they were swans, but I don't think swans would be capable of being very funny, they are too beautiful for humour — and this tickles him so much he starts laughing. Now, obviously, his wife is all, “Tell me also!” and he's very insulted by this because how dare she ask him the joke, does she want him to die? So she's packed off, and never heard from again.

A lot of the Kaikeyi story — and as a result, the Ramayana — is based on bad emotions. Anger from Aswapati to his wife, anger from the hermit and his wife when Dasharatha shot their only son, mistaking him for an animal. Jealousy from Kaikeyi towards Ram and his mother being favoured over her, jealousy from Manthara urging Kaikeyi onwards. And maybe even jealousy from Ram when Sita is freed from Ravana's clutches, which made him make her walk through fire and go into exile. That sort of jealousy is woven into the epic, even when Lakshmana refuses to leave Sita, though she is convinced something has happened to Ram, doesn't she accuse him of jealousy, of always secretly wanting her?

But from all accounts, Kaikeyi's overwhelming jealousy is the crux of the Ramayana. Everyone is happy until this person, a woman they all trusted, betrayed them. On the other hand, she was only married off to Dasharatha because he agreed to make her son king — he had been married to Kausalya for a long time, so, man-like, he obviously assumed the problem lay with her. And after Kaikeyi, he married once more, one more attempt to see if it was just the women he was picking, but by then it was pretty clear that that was not the case. Was it so wrong then, for Kaikeyi to demand her rights, the rights she felt should be her son's? Okay, maybe she didn't have to send Ram off into the forest, but what choice did she have? As long as he was around, he was going to be the popular vote for king.

Kaikeyi is a flawed woman, the most human of all the characters you encounter in the Ramayana. Not fully good and pure, not blastingly evil. Just a person, trying to get by in the world by asserting her rights. I think that makes her the most interesting character in the entire epic.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 11:42:11 IST