Perhaps the one thing that sets humans apart from other animals is ambition – the desire to rise above one’s ranks, do better than their forefathers, and build a legacy that is equal parts daunting and inspiring. The insatiable need to perfect our ambitions and nurture new aspirations could very well be the crux of humanity and the motive behind all our actions.

One such man is Vauhini Vara’s protagonist, King Rao, born into a lower caste but prosperous family in Kothapalli, Andhra Pradesh. Though his mother died during childbirth, King hardly felt her absence for his aunt swiftly assumed the role of his mother and living with his extended family meant he never lacked for playmates.

The Raos, owners of a vast coconut plantation in Kothapalli, made their fortune by selling the humble fruit. Unlike his forefathers, King is armed with education and wealth, yet the indignities that the caste system brings with itself never really escapes him. He is acutely aware of his position in the caste hierarchy and knows that the land, historically denied to families like him, was more a matter of chance than “rightful” inheritance.

...If he and his siblings took on a Brahmin surname that would be good for the business. Henceforth, the Burras would be the Raos.

A troubling legacy

The firstborn son of the firstborn son, King’s destiny is already determined – he will inherit the plantation after the death of his father. It’s not a bad bargain and life would be comfortable, predictable. But someone who is christened King is naturally inclined to test rough waters, conquer new lands, and build a legacy that will be entirely his own.

After successfully getting his engineering degree in India, King decides to do something unthinkable – he will move to the United States in the singular pursuit of greatness. He meets Margie, the equally ambitious daughter of his professor, who is determined to make it big. The two team up to form Coconut Corporation, a brand that creates sleek personal computers. Soon they capture markets and the user’s imagination.

Before long the corporation turns into a juggernaut – what started off as a utilitarian gadget quickly becomes a tool of disruption. A computer is no longer just that. Coconut Corporation, with its unimaginable wealth and presence in almost every home around the world, leads to the dismantling of democratically elected governments and accelerating the climate crisis.

Citizens are “Shareholders” now. The government is renamed “Shareholder Government” – independent decision-making is no longer part of democracies; it is now the job of the “Master Algorithm” developed by Coconut. Each Shareholder has a “Social Profile” based on which the algorithm will take decisions on their behalf. Dystopian? Think again. Vara’s world has elements of sci-fi and dystopian, though in reality, I would say it is neither.

In the era of Meta where we can make our 3D avatars, interact with each other on the metaverse, and trade money for virtual artefacts – the fictional Coconut Corporation is not very different from what we are already a part of. As we are inclined to hail the Zuckerbergs and Musks as technological messiahs of our times, Vara too portrays King as an eccentric genius whose childhood memories shape his entrepreneurial spirit. He is quite literally immortal too, for when we meet the elderly King, he is more than a century old.

But the shackles of the past are not so easy to shake, King continues to be haunted by his identity. In a way, the disastrous outcomes brought about by his creation result from severe identity issues that force King to invent and reinvent software until he can assert his dominance in homes as well as parliaments.

He was almost charcoal-colored. It was clear – with his sideburns, his handlebar mustache, his plastic-rimmed glasses – that he was trying too hard to fit in. Clearly, he was a villager. An untouchable.

The dangers of innovation

Despite our crippling dependence on technology, we have also tried in our own small ways to keep a check on it. Methods include limiting screen time, endlessly looking for more “secure” search tools, and demanding end-to-end encryption. It’s our attempt to contain the flood with a rag cloth. The Blanklands, islands outside of Shareholder Government’s jurisdiction, is home to such anti-tech resistors (or Exes) who lead analog lives and reject King’s new method of order. They are few but fearsome.

Caught in this mess is King’s seventeen-year-old daughter Athena, who makes her way to the Blanklands after she is accused of a heinous crime. Though the Exes seem to be disapproving of the quest for soft power by the likes of King, they wield sexual violence and other methods to justify their fight against technological autocracy.

The backlash of dissenters only invigorates King. At the height of Coconut Corporations’ might comes Harmonica – a product that will let people “communicate over the Internet just by thinking”. It is only towards the end of his life that King realises the damage caused by his inventions. Even though the harm done is irreversible, he expresses a keenness to be remembered fondly. Perhaps that would be achievable with Harmonica, an invention that essentially transfers memories between people. The first recipient of the memories is his daughter, who is also the book’s narrator.

Athena is her father’s daughter and thanks to Coconut’s technology, she can dive right into a vignette from her father’s memory and retrieve it as it is. It is deeply disturbing and inhumane, but it is the only way to convince the reader that there are reasons for King’s relentless pursuit for power – it is born out of shame and desperation, something we are all complicit in.

The Board’s software could identify a person by her facial features, writing style, speech patterns. These poor punks – who was going to tell them?

Can historical injustice ever be righted?

At some points, it is easy to think that The Immortal King Rao is an exaggeration – of both caste atrocities and technology. But is it really? Vara identifies as a Dalit writer and has a strong background as a tech journalist. These are stories that she has lived and witnessed up front. What may seem alarmist to us is a warning about the times to come. Is it indeed impossible to think of a future where telepathy is restricted to fictional superheroes? Not really. Everyday we find ourselves with more hands-free technology, virtual reality literally alters our perception, and we are continuously assaulted with more and more innovations before we can make sense of the ones we are already burdened with.

Vara employs the dystopian genre to critique how innovation is often confused with goodness, including the worshipping of tech billionaires. It also asks a vital question about social equity – can aggressive technological advancements and financial capital compensate for historical injustices? But most importantly, The Immortal King Rao is a sharply ringing alarm that asks us to wake up to the horrors that we have created (and are creating). How much is too much and when do we say we have had enough?

The problem is that we are witnessing the upper limit of human accomplishment. In time the oceans will slam over the last of our good green land and the hot lid of heaven will press down upon it. We humans have become so excellent at conquering that we have succeeded in conquering even ourselves.

The Immortal King Rao is an impressive debut. The different genres work well together and even though at times the timelines might be confusing, fortunately for Vara, none of it seems gimmicky. It’s a work of ambition and Vara’s journalistic accomplishments shine through. She is poised, articulate, and a talent to watch out for.

The Immortal King Rao, Vauhini Vara, HarperCollins India.