Title: The Immortal King Rao
Author: Vauhini Vara
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre: Literary Fiction
When I started reading this book, I didn’t know where it would go at all. In fact, even when I was mid-way, I didn’t have a clue about the progression of the plot. There is so much going on in this close to 400-pages book of love, family, climate change, death, of how memories function, and magic as well somewhere down the line. I was also kind of shaken by the way the Internet is reimagined in a sense – of how it will take over the world, and the role the corporations would play in this.
The Immortal King Rao breaks genres. Yes, it does seem literary on the surface, but it also goes beyond that – it is speculative fiction, historical fiction, dystopian even, and not for a minute does Vauhini Vara make you stop turning the pages.
There were times I was reminded of Moustache by S. Hareesh while reading the book. Then, I was reminded of Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar, given the lyricism of the prose. There is also only one way to read this book and that is to give in.
The story begins in the India of the 1950s. A young man is born into a Dalit family of coconut farmers in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh. He is named King Rao (I love the irony about this, which is also seen in other instances throughout the book). He studies in Seattle and rises up the ladder in the Silicon Valley to become a famous CEO of a tech-company, aptly titled Coconut Corporation. This is where of course the author’s skill of being a technological journalist shows, in the way that she makes you believe it all. In all of this, we meet Athena – the very talented daughter of King Rao who is trying very hard to escape him after being implanted with his memories (the idea to make him immortal – hence the title) is extremely fascinating. She is raised by him on a remote island after her parents’ divorce. This aspect of a single-parent and that too a father unfolds itself very cleverly later on in the book.
The core of this novel perhaps is not technology as it seems at first glance. There is an almighty algorithm as well that will run everything, and humans aren’t needed to apply in the company but after all it is humanity and the need to be keep it all together that will run the planet.
Vauhini’s writing appears to be simple but it is so layered and dense (all in a good way) at almost every page. It is reflective of the past, of how we are living now, and takes into account the entirety of the future or perhaps what is coming for mankind.
As Athena grapples with her father’s memories and what they stand for, forever jostling between his reality and hers, I could see traces of Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, where a world unfolds slowly but takes the reader to this completely believable alternative reality where technology and capitalism have replaced human emotions as we know it.
Fathers and Daughters have always been depicted in literature so very often with a lot of emotion at play. Vara tends to not do that, which is quite refreshing. The relationship between King and Athena is very Shakespearean (had to be) – reminding the reader mainly of King Lear and the Tempest. The constant back and forth of wanting to be loved by her father and constantly seeking his validation makes Athena also seem weak but that is not the case. She is her own person and yet seeks the anchor in her father.
There is the Dalit narrative that is told through flashback – painful memories that come to fore – told by Athena as she spends time in a jail cell. The revolution, subjugation, and the collective consciousness through one man is repeatedly communicated and done so in a satirical and sardonic manner.
Not once does Vara lose the believability factor when it comes to her characters or even the fantastical plot for that matter. I would also like to mention the role of wit and humour in this book that Vara employs to the fullest. The oddness of certain situations – of dreams merging with reality, of Rao’s internal musings through Athena’s recollections (well, not really hers) could only have been managed by a writer who sees and recognises the absurdity within.
There are three distinctive timelines in the book only for them to merge seamlessly, not seeming separate at all. Vara forces us (well in that sense, almost) to look at the world that we want to look away from. The world full of its eccentricities, absurdities, the greedy world, about Shareholders, and how it all comes together with one Dalit family’s lives and histories. It is almost fascinating, but also heartbreaking to read those portions – just to understand that the technique of magic realism is employed to make the reading of Dalit lives bearable.
In all of this, there is also a lot of beauty and grace in the novel that cannot be missed. It is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live and continue living, no matter what. The resilience of Athena, King Rao, and even King Rao’s wife Margie is what makes the reader grow to love them despite their inherent flaws and warts for all to see.
The Immortal King Rao is no less than an epic tale of human relationships. Of a daughter getting to know her father in death more than when he was alive. Of how relationships are so estranged not only between lovers but also parents and children, who cannot see eye-to-eye. It is about the future and yet looking into the past at all times, realising that one cannot work without the other, almost to the point of it being inside your head. The book is about moments that pass us by and in the grander scheme of things, while may not seem much, they do account for something.