In India, caste can determine power and privilege. Indian fiction captures the nature of this power and privilege in different ways. Some novels depict the characters belonging to lower castes (Dalits) as victims (for instance, Mulk Raj Anand’s The Untouchables, one of the early classics of Indian English fiction) and some as villains in the sense of anti-heroes (the 2008 Booker winner Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger).
Vauhini Vara’s debut novel The Immortal King Rao breaks free of the victim/villain dichotomy. In King Rao, she creates a Dalit character rooted not in immediate surroundings of caste hierarchies in India but in global contemporary concerns around power, big tech, privatization of the commons, and global warming. The result is a rags-to-riches, from-India-to-the-US story with a difference. King’s success is not personal but God-like thanks to the techno-corporate power he wields. The message echoes analyses of contemporary usurpations of governance by tech moguls of the world: if power corrupts, technological power corrupts absolutely.
It is destined that King, born in Kothapalli village in Andhra Pradesh in the 1950s, will beat all odds. He gets his determination from his strong-willed mother (who dies in labor) and grandfather (who names him King). His role-models are people who leave the prisons of the family house run by his father, the patriarch, and of Kothapalli behind in search of better opportunities. King makes it the farthest landing at a university in the US for PhD. He co-founds a company with his supervisor and daughter Margie (whom King later marries).
There is no looking back from that moment. It goes uphill, one innovation at a time until he finds himself invited into the American Government’s plan to outsource all its responsibilities to corporations. What starts as individual corporations’ boards merges into one Board, making everyone else in the world a Shareholder: given that all countries’ economies are so intertwined, the governments all over the world cede the power to the Board. King is the first CEO of the Board. One of his greatest inventions is the Algorithm (or Algo) that decides everything. Such all-encompassing control isn’t enough for him; he invents a way to connect humans’ brains and thereby thoughts and memories to the Internet (which proves to be disastrous and causes his downfall). Those who protest his power, policies, and the Algo, are allowed to live in peace on certain islands where they do not enjoy the benefits the Shareholders do. It is to the Shareholders that Athena, King’s daughter, accused of murdering him, addresses as the reader and narrates the story.
In having Athena narrate the story going back and forth between King’s life (the past: his roots in India, his early in the US, his rise and fall from the position of the most powerful man in the world, protests against technocratic control of the world that he comes to symbolize), and her own days as in a mental asylum-cum-prison (the present), Vara manages to people her account of the dystopian near-future the world is set to witness.
The present depicts Athena’s worsening condition as she slides into some kind of neurological disorder. It affords Athena to remember the life of a genius. It all comes back to her as she King injects her with an invention that gives her access to his memory. However, the past merges the poor-Indian poverty-porn narrative (abundant in popular culture courtesy Slumdog Millionaire) with that of who’s-the-richest-American-these-days, a narrative of a gifted genius male. Margaret is the first person he meets at the university. She says to him:
My dad told me you’re supposed to be some genius … My dad tells me you’re going to make us rich.
It is just that the genius learns his lessons in conquering the world in his roots as an underprivileged Indian. A minor character tells the child King:
If you’re a person like us – a cripple, an untouchable – you’ve got to make them afraid of you. You’ve got to place yourself above them however you can.
Interwoven with the story is a sweeping narrative about the modern world and an interesting commentary on contemporary dystopic times. For instance, here is Vara on the Internet economy:
Unless you had created and sold some valuable piece of IP, your best bet on this continent, that is, if you were good-looking and charismatic enough, was to try to make it as an influencer. Otherwise, you were left to look after those who had made it – to nurse their children, scrub their toilets, trim their hedges, stencil their toenails. It’s the same as what happened at the end of the ancient regime, slavery, apartheid, but this time the Algo is responsible, and who’s going to argue with an all-knowing algorithm? How conceited would that be?
Such passages—sarcastic statements, matter-of-fact in tone—keep the novel anchored as the story keeps switching its focus: the lives of Dalits in India, the idiosyncrasies of characters who seem to be sleepwalking in the roles given to them (the mother, the grandfather, a childhood sweetheart, a rebellious cousin, a village cripple, the PhD supervisor), King’s last days in exile (as the Algo turns on its creator), and so on. The commentaries make for a scary read as they touch upon power, God, social media, globalization, and so on. Here is one on capitalism:
The defining sentiment of this late capitalist period was disaffection, and it began to take alarming forms. Mass murders became so frequent that they no longer trended on Social. Sure, you could go through the exercise of psychoanalyzing each killer in an attempt to classify him, as they used to, terrorist or psychopath, but what good did that do at this scale? The only useful conclusion was the broadest one, which was that the world order was making people murderous. But then, the politicians most equipped to address the unrest were those least invested in ending it. Race-baiting nationalists from oligarchical families began winning elections all over the world. It was the oldest trick around, promising the poor members of your own ethnic group that you’d help them become as rich as yourself, in large part by making sure that the poor members of other ethnic groups stopped stealing your group’s opportunities, thus dividing the poor so that they wouldn’t rise up together against the rich.
Yet such commentary aside does not always cohere with the many other elements that Vara wants to highlight in the story. The issues of caste, comments on Indian society, and Indian brain drain to the US can seem incidental and only loosely attached to the exigencies of plot. It is not is entirely clear why King need be a Dalit—injustice and oppression in upbringing can arise from many sources—and despite her critique of big tech and placement of a low-caste Indian at its centre, the novel passes over the current (and occasionally vitriolic) about caste-based discrimination in American tech companies. The representation of Indian society here can seem more a plot device in a book primarily for Western readers. The story and its lessons about technology and ambition that run amok don’t really need either India or caste.
The Immortal King Rao may therefore be trying to do too much. But its premise of the blending of roots in poverty and oppression with the evil nature of power and placing this in the context of modern tech, has much promise.