Our greatest national epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, bristle with irony. The ostensible root of the misfortunes visited upon the protagonist is also the bedrock on which the epic is founded. Would the world have the Song Celestial, if Dhritarashtra, the veritable trunk of the tree of adharma, had not asked Sanjaya to relate what was happening on Dharamakshetre Kurukshetre? And what would be left for the Adi-kavi to relate in the life of Rama devoid of fourteen years' exile? The Mahabharata story can exist, its epic status unimpaired, without the Gita; but without a Kaikeyi, the Ramayana? It degenerates into a tame "and they lived happily ever after" fairy tale with the marriages of the four brothers. Yet, over the millennia, Kaikeyi has been bracketed with Shakuni as the villain-of-the-piece and her role ever seen as on par with Dhritarashtra's. Actually, Kaikeyi's fate has been worse than Shakuni's.
As far back as 1924, the actor playwright Manoranjan Bhattacharya sought to redeem Shakuni's character from the indelible stain of "motiveless malignity" in his brilliantChakravyuha, depicting an intriguing understanding existing between him and Krishna. In the 1990s, Dr. Dipak Chandra attempted to justify Shakuni's conduct in a novel of doubtful success.
Kaikeyi, however, remained a character no one appeared willing to touch with the magic wand of redemption. For, does she not present a picture of heartless selfishness womankind at its most degenerate, driving the avatara himself into exile, for the sake of her son's inheritance? It is this "horrible woman" about whom Amreeta Syam dares to write. Her daring is all the more astonishing coming, as it flies in the face of universal condemnation typified in the reaction of the author's own mother recorded in the "Dedication": 'To my mother who asked, "Why are you writing a book about Kaikeyi? She was a horrible woman." 'And then grew to like the "horrible woman" for herself.' Syam's Kaikeyi is by no means Valmiki's one-dimensional character. She is fully fleshed out through a series of dramatic monologues; not pristinely pure like Kaushalya, so uninterestingly Satvik; nor, like Sumitra, a dumb shadow mutely serving the elder queens with not a thought to spare for herself or her progeny. No wonder, Kaikeyi was Dasharatha's favorite, as the only interesting feminine company he had been able to acquire in his large harem!
There are overtones of Greek tragedy in Syam's portrayal of her character. For, Kaikeyi tempts fate by "Forever grabbing/at things/not hers" - imagining that all four are her sons; that Rama is her first born (although Bharata resembles her husband the most, she neglects him, even berates her brother for favoring Bharata instead of Rama, and has to be reminded that Bharata is his nephew); that Dasharatha and Ayodhya are hers only; and, later, that Bharata belongs only to her, forgetting that he also belongs his father, his brothers and most of all, to himself. In a Sophoclean touch, she dares to question the blind sage's curse on childless Dasharatha, for where is the son to fructify it? Caught in the maelstrom of her ego's obsession, she invites destruction by scorning Dasharatha's importunate reminders about the curse as she insists on being granted her two boons.
Syam's depiction of the sequence leading to the reversal in Rama-doting Kaikeyi's attitude rings completely true psychologically. When Rama ignores her desires for the first time and leaves her apartments to spend the night before the coronation in Kaushalya's chamber, Kaikeyi suddenly awakens to the realization that Kaushalya and not she will be the Queen Mother, and it is not her son Bharata who will be crowned. 'Reason' and 'Instinct', in Syam's words, "the ego's grasping claws and the heart's selfless love" are at war. The interaction with Dasharatha over the two boons is utterly engrossing writing, pulsating with the flow and counter-flow of differing emotions, punctuated by the repetitive death-knell of "My two boons/My King", till exulting "reason" wins the day at the cost of her life's greatest love, leaving Kaikeyi "with victory/cold and gloating". She is left in complete isolation, pictured forth in a superb image: "The apartment closed around me' the walls/of the room/grew cold with/a forgotten curse."
The build-up to the final reversal of the situation and her recognition of the unacceptable nature of her decisions is inexorable. First, when the city does not welcome Bharata, she ignores it and interprets his decision to bring back Rama as a ploy to win over the subjects. Here Syam departs from the original in not having Kaikeyi accompany her son on this mission, in order to remain true to the characterization she has painstakingly brought alive. When Bharata refuses to rule from the throne, Syam has Kaikeyi urge him in open court (again none of the other queens put on an appearance) to govern the kingdom. When he leaves Ayodhya, she realizes that she has lost her sons and her husband for nothing. That is when she longs to recapture the happiness of the past, which she had been too busy to notice in the bustling days.
Syam's treatment could have achieved even further depths of insight if she had taken into account the research of N.R.Navlekar - as Dr. Dipak Chandra did in his 1983 novel, Janani Kaikeyi - which brings out two major factors explaining the conduct of Kaikeyi. The first is that Kaikeyi is the youngest queen, which is the secret of the fascination she exercises over Dasharatha. The second is that her father, King of the mountainous Kekaya kingdom, agreed to middle-aged Dasharatha's importunate requests putting the same condition that the fisher-king, Dasaraja, put to Shantanu in response to his request for the hand of Satyavati: that his daughter's son would inherit the kingdom of Ayodhya. It is to avoid this eventuality that from early childhood Dasharatha keeps sending Kaikeyi's children to their maternal uncle's kingdom far from Ayodhya. His intentions become quite transparent when he rushes through the formalities of declaring Kaushalya's son as the heir-apparent in the absence of Kaikeyi's sons, and takes care not to inform his favorite queen Kaikeyi. It is Manthara, the faithful family retainer accompanying Kaikeyi from her father's house, much as Shakuni comes with Gandhari, who reminded the oblivious Kaikeyi of her husband's broken promise. That is when Kaikeyi sees through Dasharatha's intrigue to go back on the undertaking forming the basis of their marriage, and utilizes his commitment to grant her two boons in order to win back for her son his birthright. Dipak Chandraadds to this the further motivation of Dasharatha not wanting a son of mixed blood (he makes Kaikeyi non-Aryan Harappan) on the throne.
Kaikeyi lets nothing stop her in safeguarding her son's inheritance - the threat of widowhood, which becomes a reality; the outrage of all Ayodhya, which turns into the implacable condemnation of all generations to follow. The tragedy of Kaikeyi lies in the rejection of her awesome sacrifice by the very person for whom she went through fire: her son Bharata.
Syam has arranged her work in five parts, portraying the complex and intriguing process of Kaikeyi's development as a character in four phases: The wife, The Mother, The Widow and The Crone who introduces these accounts in a Prologue; and ends the portrayal in an Epilogue on a question mark that looks forward through the mists of time to the present day.
Syam grips our attention from the very first page, for here is Kaikeyi herself speaking to us, spanning the thousands of years separating us with the Prologue, "I". By selecting the autobiographical technique she seizes the reader per force and takes us inside this intriguing, much detested character. And what an unerring touch she uses to evoke our sympathy: vatsalya rasa! Kaikeyi is content watching her grandchildren play. This is capped with a picture that cannot but arouse a response - "Grey haired crone with withered eyes clutching at palace walls". This soft picture undergoes a complete metamorphosis in the second section of the Prologue, where the crone transforms into her past queenly person: ambitious, loving her husband, proud of her sons, glorying in her race. Since these are qualities in which all humankind shares, she puts before us the unanswerable question: Why does no one name their daughters Kaikeyi? Syam ends the Prologue with an answer to this question, which is typical of the character she brings alive before us: there has never been another Kaikeyi because, in her own words, "Perhaps I am incomparable".
Syam paints the child Kaikeyi (she is never given a proper name, and in this resembles Kaushalya. the princess of Koshala) as spoilt (born after 7 sons), educated, adept at fencing and riding (because of which she is able to save beleaguered Dasharatha's life when his charioteer is slain) and keen to be Queen, not consort. Syam marries her off at 13 to middle aged Dasharatha, with whose "ravaged eyes and sweet smile" she, strangely, falls in love despite her dreams of reckless men "Striding across worlds with dreams in their eyes and Empires lying conquered at their feet and only one Queen by their side". Naturally, we find her burning with hatred of timid, devout, correct Kaushalya, raging to "scratch poison-tipped nails across her smooth face", unceasingly praying for her death. In a superb tour de force, Syam turns the tables on Kaikeyi: "She did not die/ She nursed me through birth pangs". And it is here that Syam's creativity catches the eye yet again. She departs from the original in which Kaushalya gives birth to a daughter Shanta, and instead makes Kaikeyi's first child a girl, Sarayu, and has Kaikeyi determine to fight for her daughter's rights to inherit. But it is decreed otherwise, as Syam puts so epigrammatically: "My child, who lived hardly a month and brought her mother Sumitra", as Dasharatha needs an heir. Syam provides Kaikeyi with a biting comment on male chauvinism: "Did I not want children too? But I could hardly marry another man to bear them". Kaikeyi gallops out of Ayodhya in affront, causing people to shriek and drag children out of her way and spends two months in Kekaya in agony of separation from her beloved husband, before her mother-in-law visits Kekaya to ask her to return in her own interest, lest Sumitra capture Dasharatha.
True to character, Syam shows Kaikeyi grateful for this excuse of mother-in-law's command to get back to her husband, only this time she does not return alone. Her foster-sister (daughter of her wet nurse) Manthara accompanies her. Kaikeyi emerges tactless, not clever like Manthara, although she cannot abide stupidity, and driven by emotions. And Manthara? She has no hump, but is so tall ad lissom that the envious Ayodhyans call her hunchbacked, but also regard her, in their ignorance, as a demoness because her skin is ebony.
Kaikeyi is shown as Dashratha's favourite queen, with whom he goes away on a second honeymoon after Sumitra is brought to Ayodhya. He does not sped a single night with the new queen. Kaikeyi exults. But where Kaikeyi would have liked to poison a co-wife, Sumitra is more clever and wins her compassion by waiting upon her hand and foot. Beautiful Sumitra with shadows under her eyes a queen born to serve. So much so that Kaikeyi even sends Dasharatha to Sumitra's chamber one night, and sleeps peacefully! It is Sumitra alone who keeps in touch with her after the exile takes place.
Kaikeyi exults in her supremacy and yet is perversely angry that her husband does not take care of his other wives! It is during this dalliance that the kingdom is attacked, and Kaikeyi saves her husband's life, permanently fracturing her little finger in the process and wining two unconditional boons from her husband. The crooked finger and destiny are shown interlinked in tragic irony, for Kaikeyi does not even dream the occasion on which she will ask for the boons, and its terrifying impact.
The insecurity Kaikeyi suffers from because of having two co-wives, no heir to Ayodhya and lack of faith in the promises of men, despite her love for Dasharatha, drives her to cling to gems, an obsession which her subjects criticize: "I loved the glow of colours and brittle shades and shapes the cold fire in stones". She loves to be ever glimmeringly clad, every inch a queen both for the sake of her husband and because of her inner insecurity. Yet there is an innate generosity of heart in this jealous, possessive, insecure woman, which makes her, "warmed by his (her husband's) glance", give Sumitra the extra share of the sanctified fertility-gifting payesh; which leads her to regard Kaushalya's Rama as her own son, neglecting her own son Bharata in his favor; which is seen in her anger at the finalization of the marriages of the sons without her concurrence, being transformed into a deep love for Sita in whom she sees a younger Kaikeyi.
Syam alters the story of Rishyashringa and his putreshti yajna into an account of a nameless ascetic with burning eyes who is sent by the numerous progenied Kekaya Queen Madhuri, another invention of the author. Syam makes no bones over Kaikeyi pinning the cause of childlessness on Dasharatha, with a hint that she alone among the queens is fertile. But for this she has to ignore the Rishyashringa story, because this sage married Shanta, Dasharatha's daughter by Kaushalya given away in adoption to his friend Lomapada, King of Anga, much as Pritha is given away by her farther Shurasena to his friend Kuntibhoja. Dipak Chandra in his novel on Kaikeyi also pinpointed the cause in Dasharatha's own infertility caused by his large harem, and portrayed Rishyashringa as a sage-physician conducting the king and his queens through a year-long regimen of medicinal treatment to restore fertility and potency.
It is in Section XXI of the poem that we receive a rude jolt when Syam has Kaikeyi muse on even taking a lover to resolve the impasse of childlessness. This is grossly anachronistic and spoils the atmosphere carefully built up so far with great success. Queens taking lovers is a phenomenon foreign to the Epic and Puranic world of India, and is a medieval development. It is also wholly out of character with all that Syam reveals of Kaikeyi throughout the poem.
One is also uncomfortable with Syam's sudden use of the Roman "June" sandwiched between yajna and Payesh. If the month of torrential rains was to be evoked, surely the mood could have been created far more effectively, in tune with the ambience of the poem by using the traditional Sanskrit name of the month, Ashadha?
Kaikeyi's dark side, her shadow-self feeding on insecurity and fear of subjects rebelling, is Syam's unique contribution to our understanding of this character. Unknown to Dasharatha, she weaves a network of spies to guard the royal throne - ever so ironically - for Rama. Again anachronistically, Syam has her pre-empt Kautilya in selecting wandering beggars, priests, and bored housewives for this purpose, with Manthara as the go-between. Finding Ayodhya's general Siladitya (again a name not featuring in the Epics-Puranas) too keen to launch an attack on a neighboring kingdom, which would inevitably lead to new taxes and arouse public outcry of which Dasharatha is blissfully oblivious, Kaikeyi turns Catherine de Medici, and removes the general through a gift of poisoned wine to his wife. She consistently regards her husband as too uncomplicated a man to rule intelligently enough to hold on to his inherited kingdom! That is why she never shares with him the information her spies bring her.
It is Kaikeyi who schools Rama in the tricks of kingship, the need for hypocrisy, the absolute necessity of prizing the subjects above all for they can make or break he king. She does not, however, tell him of her spy network, or of people's emotions being fickle, or of the murders, for she wants to remain the perfect mother in his eyes. Syam has Kaikeyi (queen and royal mother) put a rhetorical question to herself, which is brilliant in its incisive psychological probing:
Is hypocrisy an essential part of motherhood?
Syam sketches with swift simple strokes pen-portraits of the four wives the sons bring home. This is a major contribution, because Valmiki gives them no individuality at all, but for Sita. Syam also gives Kaikeyi the credit of drilling into the princes the necessity of keeping to a single wife - the fruit of her own experiences - instead of this being a cardinal virtue enunciated by Rama alone, as has been traditionally accepted.
In Sita, she sees a younger version of herself, possibly because of her doting on Rama, which replaces her indignation at her favorite being married to a foundling. Marble-cold Mandavi is the beauty of the family, never leaving the palace even when Bharata retires to a village, but Penelope-like constantly embroidering curtains and robes that are never used. Shrutakirti, all life and laughter, is a non-entity losing herself in Shatrughna, not "lost herself behind Shrutakirti" (sic.p.81), and remains a mere shadow. Urmila's fiery nature matches Lakshmana's and "their fights raged/around the palace". But we miss mention of her after Lakshmana's from exile. The tragic irony that dogs Kaikeyi's fate also encompasses the four princes, for none of them has a happy married life.
It is Kaikeyi who understands the agony of Sita in her chastity being questioned twice over before cheering crowds by Rama, and her disappearing forever. Kaikeyi will not be another Indumati - - Dasharatha's mother, who went to Kekaya to bring back the offended Kaikeyi - because, as she says so sensitively,
A woman can only take so much pain again and again from a husband once loved.
That phrase, "once loved" reverberates with significance and takes us back to the ineffably poignant scene Syam paints of Kaikeyi meeting Sita after the return from exile and, with "hot rage" burning through her veins, asking her whether it is true that the first question Rama had put her was concerning her chastity,
But Sita only smiled
And rested her head
On my lap
And I dared not
The shadows under
Kaikeyi urges Sita to protest against the banishment, which occurs because Rama follows the lesson she had taught him to give primacy to the subjects' wishes. But Sita acquiesces because
She was disillusioned
A love that dims
and sputters into
is often worse
than no love
It is Kaikeyi who points out to Rama the necessity of having his wife beside him for the horse-sacrifice. Rama has a golden statute of Sita made. In a pregnant statement, Syam's Kaikeyi looks into the heart of the character whose obsession was proving himself to be a greater raja, pleaser of his subjects, than any of the Surya dynasty:
The pure cold metal
was perfect for
who turned away
from a human being
kingship bled emotion
out of him.
In an intriguing parallel, the coming of children leads to deprivation. Just as Sarayu's birth lost Kaikeyi her exclusive hold on her husband, the return of Lava and Kusha loses Kaikeyi her dearest daughter-in-law Sita, forever. Syam gives a modern interpretation to the disappearance of Sita. It is no mythical vanishing into the bowels of the earth. Kaikeyi will have no such myth-making, for
Does the earth ever crack
for the sufferings of mankind?
Her Sita wanders off none knows where.
She left to regain
a modicum of
and I let it
be at that.
With the Epilogue, the poem comes full circle, Kaikeyi playing with her grandchildren,
A face crumbling
into the blur
realizing that inheriting a throne, as she sought to achieve for Bharata, does not go hand-in-hand with happiness. She warns future generations not to imitate Rama who turned even the image of his wife into metal; implores us not to become oblivious of the man and wife in the process of their deification.
Kaikeyi leaves us with perplexing questions that hang
And thoughts lie
buried in unshed tears.
Why is Kaikeyi held solely responsible for what happened? Why did no one stand up against her when she demanded her two boons, instead of
to Kaikeyi !
As if she was an oracle.
For, could she not be confused too? What were the other two queens doing, the ministers and the royal priest? Was the personality of Kaikeyi so overwhelming, her hold on the kingdom so unquestioned that none dared challenge her will till her own son returned to disobey her?
Kaikeyi proffers two pieces of advice born of the bitter wisdom churned out of her life's tragic experiences:
Ask questions, my grandchildren,
Rule with your
But keep a little
for life and
Syam ends her poem on a note of high exaltation and nostalgia, firing the imagination, evoking echoes of Browning's "Last Ride together", as Kaikeyi's memories wing back to her golden days of love:
Two horses galloping
With the wind
The black-haired woman
And the steady warmth in
the man's eyes
the love in his
Syam's poetic genius is characterized by a vivid and fresh imagination. Kaikeyi's crowned hair is compared to
The brilliance of stars
Across black night skies.
Her horse is
Galloping - a thunder of black foam
Across the blue meadowed hills.
The most romantic images come in her description of Kaikeyi and Dasharatha's sylvan retreat in Section XI, where she speaks of the deep woods
and glistening green,
A forest idyll
Immersed in colour deep flowers
But her range exceeds this with facile ease in the vibrant, cryptic, sinewy images thronging the description of war in Sections XIII-XV, as Kaikeyi blazes through the battlefield, smiling through her terror at the acclaim of victory. After Dasharatha's death, her inability to feel anything is described, as if she were marooned on a desert island
Where no feelings
Only waves lap the
Grey walls from
Closing in on the
Seven years after his death, she feels "jagged pain" strike her for the first time, and sheds her first tears in abject helplessness when Bharata looks through her, when she demands he send soldiers to help Rama rescue Sita.
She lives on in the city, a detested legend, her isolation and misery communicated ever so pithily:
While in the palace
Ate time up.
All she has left
Prowling like scavenging
Rats in my
Yet, the spirit is not dead. Feeling Ayodhya's air hanging heavy with accusations, she laughs her old laugh and would live again,
White hair streaming
the fears about
The author had wanted to draw Kaikeyi out as "a character in shades of grey'A warm-hearted, complex woman'Gentle, stubborn, arrogant, confused. A woman bent on getting her own way even if it ultimately destroys her happiness". And how brilliantly she succeeds in this attempt! Kaikeyi is an undoubted triumph, following hard on the heels of the superb Kurukshetra, which provided new insights into the psyche of Draupadi, Subhadra and Bhanumati.