Anindita Ghose in conversation with Vauhini Vara

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In the American journalist’s highly anticipated debut novel, ‘The Immortal King Rao’, Dalits are not oppressed victims, but ambitious entrepreneurs and innovators

In the American journalist’s highly anticipated debut novel, ‘The Immortal King Rao’, Dalits are not oppressed victims, but ambitious entrepreneurs and innovators

A Dalit boy born into a family of coconut farmers in 1950s India “not even possessing a name” is named King. There’s something about this fortuitous naming, as the boy not only rules the world of global technology, but eventually becomes the head of a government run by corporations whose citizens are called shareholders.

Immortal King Rao is the highly anticipated debut novel by Canadian-born American journalist Vauhini Vara. Thirteen years of preparation, it draws heavily on Vauhini’s career as a technical journalist for The Wall Street Journal – she inaugurated the Facebook rhythm of the newspaper – and editor-in-chief at The New Yorker.

We’ve had multi-generational sagas and we’ve had Indian Diaspora American Dream novels. More recently, we’ve had dystopian novels by writers of Indian descent. Immortal King Rao manages to be all three while being a lucid chronicle of a Dalit success story. To read the novel from just one aspect would be doing it a disservice because its merit lies precisely in Vauhini’s trapeze game between narratives and genres.

The Hindu spoke to Vauhini ahead of the global release of her novel:

From several testimonies, you started writing this novel 13 years ago. What was the seed of the story? And how have you navigated the real-time rapid developments in science and technology? Did you have to change any important details along the way?

In January 2009, I was traveling to Peru with my father and his wife. We were on a train, and my father was teasing me about only working on short stories; he thought I should start a novel. I joked that it should give me an idea. So he suggested that I write a story based on real events in the family coconut grove where he grew up in Andhra Pradesh. At the time, I was in college, on leave from my job as a tech reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and I was also thinking about the rise and wealth of the tech elite. As I was writing, my father’s idea – about a child growing up in rural Andhra Pradesh in the 1950s – merged with an idea I was to write about a fictional tech CEO.

And, yes, because I started the novel so long ago, the world – and the technology – kept changing as I wrote. I thought I was writing about this distant dystopian future, but then the things I was making up (a Trump-like figure becoming President of the United States, technology that allows people to connect to the internet with their minds) started to happen in real life. So I would have to revise to make the universe of my novel even more foreign.

Like your protagonist King Rao, your father is Dalit and grew up on a coconut farm in rural India. Were you ever afraid to divulge biographical details in your first novel?

I was not. I made sure, after my dad gave me that initial idea, that he was really okay with me writing about a place based in part on where he grew up – in a family that looks like a bit to his family. Once he said he was okay, I grabbed the gear and ran with it. As I wrote, however, the story moved further and further away from the actual facts of my father’s life and hometown and became something else entirely – so that anyone who reads my novel won’t tell much about my real family or the village we come from on my father’s side.

In his blurb, your friend, novelist Karan Mahajan calls “The Immortal King Rao” three books in one and I tend to agree. There’s almost too much going on in terms of the father-daughter relationship, Dalit oral history, end-of-the-world speculation and more. It swims between genres, from literary fiction to speculative fiction to what some might call science fiction. Where do you stand on this gender assessment?

As a writer, I’m less interested in formal distinctions between genres than in understanding what the book I’m writing wants to do. In this novel, for example, I wanted to write about King Rao’s childhood in a coconut grove, and I also wanted to write about a future in which King moves to the United States, starts a tech company, and eventually designs a transition to a corporate-led government world. It required certain things in the writing, like needing to imagine the technologies that would exist in the future that I was building. Now that the book has to be packaged and sold, people use terms like speculative fiction and science fiction to describe aspects of it – but for me it was never about one genre or another, it was just about setting up this book the way it was meant to be set up.

“As a writer, I’m less interested in formal distinctions between genres than in understanding what the book I’m writing wants to do”

‘The Immortal King Rao’ also presents alternative modes of governance with ideas of ratings of social capital and anarchists among others. What were your political influences in this aspect of global construction?

To develop the Exes – the anarchist group that rejects the society King built – I read seminal texts by anti-capitalist thinkers; I found the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the anarchist philosopher, fascinating and inspiring. Trying to figure out what everyday life might be like for my anarchist characters, I read Emma Goldman’s autobiography, Live my life, which ties the development of his radical way of thinking and living with the most mundane, even insignificant, details of his daily life. I also came back to a book that I had read when I was young, in high school or college, the Zhuangzian important Taoist text whose philosophy feels, to me (and to some scholars), like a precursor to anarchism.

Reflecting on how King, as an adult, views the world was, in some ways, easier, because – particularly as a tech journalist – I find the rhetoric of tech solutionism pervasive, including minute by minute on my own Twitter feed. I’ve also read biographies of Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Bill Gates – all of whom started their companies in the ’70s, around the time King, in my fictional world, started his. I also read and learned a lot from Thomas Piketty Capital and ideology.

In your book, Dalits are not oppressed victims, but ambitious entrepreneurs and innovators. When you started working on this book, there were no South Asian leaders in the global tech industry. But your Dalit protagonist becomes a global tech mogul. How important was this performance to you?

For King Rao, a Dalit, to become a global tech tycoon was, to me, more than just a matter of representation. The aim was not to present a Dalit character capable of greatness in the business world; it was more complicated than that – I was interested to see what would happen when this particular character from an oppressed group (one who isn’t as sensitive to the nuances of their own oppression as some other members of their extended family ) would gain economically, social and political power. What does this power do? What world is he trying to create?

Your novel is peppered with short paragraphs punctuating the text with micro-stories, ranging from the Wright Brothers to the evolution of human tools. Do you attribute them to journalist Vauhini Vara?

Ha – yes, I do! There is a sense in which these “microstories” were just an excuse for me (i.e. the journalist version of me) to find a home for the material I would discover while traveling through all these burrows. of research rabbit.

Since your book occupies so many different fictional Venn diagrams, it’s hard to pinpoint your literary influences. Tell us who they are.

When I started this book, I had just read Moby-Dick for the first time, and I admired the singularity of the vision of this book; I had never read anything like it. I’m not comparing myself to Herman Melville, but my ambition was to try, as he does in this novel, to convey something big about how the modern world works in the space of a few hundred pages.

With my novel, I also became interested in the relationship between the domestic and sociopolitical spheres; a piece of literature that i have turned to for inspiration to write in this mode is that of Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels.

The interviewer is a Mumbai-based journalist and arts editor. Her first novel The Illuminated was released in 2021.

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