I am writing this in a historic time, when most middle-class pious Indian households are having the time of their lives – honing their spirituality, and pompously sending WhatsApp forwards about how Ramayana mentions the corona prophecy. Why, even the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro quoted the Ramayana while requesting for hydrochloroquine from India to treat COVID-19 patients. It is the time when reruns of Ramayana has touted to be hopefully leading to the “Return of Doordarshan”.
We had the epics, majorly Ramayana and Mahabharata, retold and reimagined, with feminist or queer perspectives, with a first person or omniscient account of the main or peripheral characters. The antagonist was no longer the chief villain or the bad guy presenting a principal source of conflict for the protagonist. He became the anti hero. We had the voice of Surpanakha, Mandodari, Draupadi and even Ravana flying off the shelves of posh bookstores and pavement sellers alike. Even the lesser known characters like Urmila, Sulochana and Shanta were hailed.
But there was one character who was left out from the several retellings and shift of perspectives when it came to dissecting the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Years ago, while doing Masters in Literature, Thomas Heywood’s book introduced me to the idea of A Woman Killed with Kindness. And in Ramayana, we have a similar character – a woman, who was metaphorically killed for her curiosity. I say ‘metaphorically’ deliberately. She is not even named, so grievous seems to her crime.
She is Kaikeyi’s Mother and King Ashwapati’s Wife
As the legend goes, King Ashwapati, the lord of Kekeya, was gifted. He could understand the language of birds. Just like any other boon that comes with a caveat, his was no different. If he ever disclosed what he heard, be it to his loved ones, he would lose his life. One fateful day, while strolling through the palace gardens, he happened to overhear the conversation of two mated swans and out of sheer amusement, let out a hearty laugh. That was enough to spark curiosity in his wife. She could not contain herself and ended up requesting her husband to reveal the source of his delight. He refused, citing the limitation he was bound by. Her persistence on knowing it all might have come across as goading to him, and he took it as a sign of her nonchalance regarding his survival and consequently, the importance he held in her life. As a result, she was banished to her parental abode.
We are not provided with any further details about the queen: Did she realise her folly and plead for forgiveness or abide by the king’s decision? Or did she engage in a debate with the king, or demand custody of her kids, thereby threatening the king and the patriarchal set up. It is to be noted that in patriarchal societies as portrayed in these epics, we have this nameless queen whose origins are utterly obscure. We don’t even see this episode running in the television show. It is mentioned in passing, as a taunt by King Dashrath’s minister Sumantra to Kaikeyi – after the fiasco of demanding Rama’s exile and Bharat’s coronation – when he wants to remind Kaikeyi of her selfishness and thoughtlessness, and how she eventually took after her mother – apparently a blot on her otherwise strong credentials.
This scene is extremely crucial to the crux of this essay, given how there is a shift in the characterisation of Kaikeyi from a gentle and docile queen to a conniving woman who has taken after her mother. That her mother is evoked in this scene and again, in a one-dimensional manner that paints the picture of a woman who wanted to see the banishment of her husband, is to be noted here.
This is where one feels sorry for Kaikeyi’s mother – why did not she get more visibility in the several tellings and televisations of the epic so that she could justify herself? All we know so far that she, the one who has no name, was curious and now, her daughter was to be known as having taken after her.
We can, at this point, argue that everything in the epics – every action and its repercussion – is depicted as preordained. If you trace it further, the reason lies in the past lives’ boons, sufferings and curses; the salvation or fruition of which very well carries over to the next birth.
I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s much loved yet seemingly cryptic quote – “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Did Kaikeyi eventually actually turn out to be like her mother? Or something that her mother would have wanted her to be? And even if she did turn out be like her mother, why would that have been wrong? Was Kaikeyi’s concern and insistence regarding her superiority and power not entirely misplaced? Was her being distrustful of men’s whims and fancies, decisions, and brutality perhaps coming from her mother’s treatment and final fate?
As a woman of the 21st century, I feel Kaikeyi’s mother and Kaikeyi are just as much part of our beings as Sita, Sulochana, Mandodari, Shanta, Ahilya, Urmila, Shabri and all the other women characters we have watched on screen, sympathized and empathized with, and even inspired by too.
Popular web searches about Kaikeyi include questions like ‘Was she beautiful?’, ‘Why was she the favourite queen?’, ‘Where was she from?’, ‘Did she repent later?’, ‘How did she die?’, ‘Who was Kaikeyi in her previous birth?’ to a ridiculous (yet unsurprising) ‘Why did Dashrath have three wives?’.
One website called National Views states that the reason king Ashwapati abandoned his wife is because he thought her nature was “not at all good for a happy family life”. One Quora user poses the question: “It is said that Kaikeyi’s mother victimized her husband in a similar manner that Kaikeyi victimized Dasharatha. What was the story?” Exactly. Kaikeyi’s mother deserved the right to have her side of the story made visible too.
Ragini Parashar teaches English and loves to philosophise literature to her students. She is an aspiring children’s author and storyteller. She believes literature (written and oral) can contribute to the mental, emotional and physical well being of kids. She can be found on Instagram and on WordPress.
Featured Image Source: Indian Express