The king is born | Book review: The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara

In the past two years, many first-time authors have made an impact in the world of publishing. Globally, new voices have been heard and their words read—Sheena Patel’s I’m a Fan, Alanna Lloyd Banwo’s When We Were Birds, Daniel Wiles’ Mercia’s Take and Jo Browning Wroe’s A Terrible Kindness, among others, are witness to the fact that great works need not come from great names. With new minds to weave, stories have evolved, and with them, readers. Evolved in a way that they accept multi-dimensional, layered, complex, intriguing, and dystopian-speculative fiction from a debut author.

When author Vauhini Vara thinks her first, she joins the elite list of writers who have made it big with their first publication. Published by HarperCollins in India, The Immortal King Rao is an imaginative and immersive experience that transports the reader into the dystopian world it opens the doors to.

Vauhini draws from her Dalit background, her experience as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as business editor for The New Yorker to sprinkle a few autobiographical elements in the story. She tells the story of a Dalit family of coconut farmers—their firstborn King Rao—who is destined and expected to take forward the family legacy. And he does. He grows up to be the most accomplished tech CEO globally and eventually goes on to become the leader of a corporate-run government.

Vauhini writes an extremely detailed, realistically spun speculative fiction that addresses various themes like caste oppression, a dystopian future, climate change, a family saga, exploitation in the workforce, and more. Every chapter reveals a deeper hidden layer to the story and as the novel progresses, the intricacies unravel. On the surface, the story appears complicated, but in fact, glues the readers to the book.

The story of King Rao’s birth is as gripping as it is heart-breaking. His mother of him, a young teenager Radha is fascinated with the crystal-clear composition of Pears soap at the local shop—which screamed of the British influence in the Indian commercial market. Her fascination with her leads her to stealthily pick the soap and run. “She did n’t consider it stealing, because she planned to return the item,” writes the author. She escapes to the Muslim graveyard to carefully examine and have a feel of the exotic product in her hand which would “turn bad skin into good”. However, she is caught by her husband-to-be Pedda, one of the twins of the Rao household. He threatens her and molests the young girl, who is later caught off-guard by the shopkeeper and shamed in the village for stealing her.

Radha’s teenage dreams are crushed as she is married off into the Rao household and soon conceives King Rao. She begins hating the foetus for ruining her life and curses it. Her hatred of her is short-lived as she dies as soon as King Rao is born. He is then raised by Radha’s sister Sita, who marries Pedda in order to take care of the infant. The child is named King as Sita wanted to “rebuke those who pitied him for having been born under a bad star”. And so, she begins the King’s regal journey.

Few authors reach the level of finesse and perfection in their first works as Vara does. The satirical take on the times of today that traces the arrival of capitalism and technological peaks that humankind has touched is a clear picture of the road ahead, and a must read.

The Immortal King Rao
Vauhini Vara
HarperCollins
Pp384, Rs699

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