Vauhini Vara started writing her debut novel 13 years ago, when she was working as a technology journalist and meeting chief executives like Larry Ellison of Oracle and Mark Zuckerberg of what was then a very young Facebook.
The lack of South Asian leaders in the industry sparked an idea: Her main character, an Indian, would become a tech C.E.O. in the United States. By making her protagonist a man from the Dalit community, which ranks lowest in the Hindu hierarchical caste system, she was simply incorporating what she had a connection to, she said; her father is Dalit, and grew up on a coconut grove in rural India.
Those deeply personal decisions turned out to be prescient. Now, as she prepares for the publication of her novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” on May 3, six of the world’s largest technology companies — Adobe, Alphabet, IBM, Microsoft, Google and Twitter — are being led by men of Indian descent.
The prominence of Indian-born leaders in tech is just one of the ways in which the near future Vara painted in her sprawling science-fiction novel feels like less of an imaginative leap now than when she started writing.
“It’s almost like reality moved closer to what I imagined as a sort of speculative future in my book,” Vara said.
In the years that followed her work as a technology reporter, Vara studied creative writing, took other jobs in journalism, moved and then moved again. She had a child. She wrote the book in any sliver of spare time she had, often on Google Docs on her phone.
“I was always working full time,” Vara said. “So I would write on weekends, I would write in the evening and sometimes a year would go by and I wouldn’t write at all.”
“The Immortal King Rao” begins in the 1950s with the birth of a child — a Dalit boy who enters the world “possessing not even a name,” but who comes to be known as King Rao. His mother wants to name him Raja, the Hindi word for king, but her brother-in-law, an Anglophile, insists on using the English word instead. “A big name for a little runt,” other members of the Rao family would say.
At around the time of Rao’s birth, his family finds itself in the rare position of becoming owners of a coconut grove, which gives them the means to send the boy to school and then to college. When he is hired as a teaching assistant in the engineering department of a university in Seattle, a friends tells him that “caste would be meaningless in the United States.” So he joins the wave of Indian immigrants landing in America in the 1970s.
Imagining Rao’s childhood was initially difficult for Vara because growing up in North America — first in Saskatchewan, Canada, then in the suburbs of Oklahoma and Seattle — she didn’t have personal experiences to draw from. “That story is my family’s story, but it’s not my story,” she said. “I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to grow up in rural India, what it’s like to be Dalit in India.”
She approached the topic as a journalist: In 2010, she visited the rural town of Tottaramudi, in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, where her father was born, and interviewed the extended family she had there.
It is also why the story is not told from Rao’s perspective, but from his daughter Athena’s, Vara said.
The result is a nuanced portrayal of a community that rarely appears in novels published by major presses in the West, said Karan Mahajan, the Indian American author of “The Association of Small Bombs” and a friend of Vara’s from college who gave her feedback on the manuscript. “It brings people into the complexity of Dalit life,” he said, while avoiding exploitative portrayals of poverty or seeing Dalits “monochromatically through the lens of oppression.”
In Vara’s book, Dalits are not victims, but entrepreneurs, innovators and geniuses.
Even the fact that a major U.S. publisher, W.W. Norton, is releasing a novel by a Dalit American is uncommon, Mahajan said. Vara might be one of the first, though it is difficult to determine the exact number of writers who consider themselves Dalit Americans. Many, like Yashica Dutt, who wrote “Coming Out as Dalit” in 2019, have either published nonfiction books or have worked with Indian presses.
Breaking barriers, though, doesn’t weigh on Vara, in part because her parents — who also broke from convention when they entered an inter-caste marriage — instilled in her “a sense that we could a) pursue whatever we wanted to pursue and b) succeed at it,” she said. She also credits “some really extraordinary luck”; throughout her career, she said, she has been surrounded by many “female journalists of color, female editors of color, female writers of color and female writers of color who were writing science fiction,” so that publishing this book now “feels very natural.”
Vara’s novel nimbly leaps genres once Rao lands in Seattle. There, he begins to develop a Steve Jobs-like personality as he works with his professor, Elbert Norman, and his professor’s daughter, Margie, to invent a revolutionary new product — a personal computer — that quickly attracts a loyal consumer base.
From the moment he sells his first computer, the Coconut, for $999, Rao is hooked on the capitalist American dream. “If you’re smart, ambitious and talented, you’re rewarded!” he tells Margie. “You get to change — foreign student to inventor, businessman!”
As his company, the Coconut Computer Corporation, grows and churns out more products, Rao’s ambitions widen and the novel takes on a dystopian bent. He goes on to create a new world order — one in which the government is run by a corporation and citizens are known as “Shareholders.” He also invents a genetic code that, when injected into humans, produces “biotransistors” that bind their brains to the internet, enabling them to access all of the world’s information, to read each other’s minds and to store and transfer their own memories.
“Interestingly, as the writing went on and as time went on, Elon Musk founded Neuralink,” Vara noted, referring to the tech billionaire’s 2016 project to create brain implants that would connect humans and computers. What was once a radically imaginative part of Vara’s plot punctured the fine line between fiction and nonfiction and became real enough that she could watch explanatory how-to videos about the new technology.
When Vara finally finished “The Immortal King Rao,” she sent a copy to her father, who inspired so much of the plot. He sent her a few corrections on Dalit life and told her he loved that she quotes Thomas Piketty in her epigraph.
He had just one negative criticism. “It could have been funnier,” he told her.