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Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor: A ruthless world of sons and godfathers

Deepti Kapoor’s compulsively readable novel, ‘Age Of Vice’, is a gripping saga of wealth and violence

Deepti Kapoor’s book straddles the worlds of crime pulp, literary fiction and Bollywood melodrama. Photo: iStockphoto

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Living up to lofty expectations can be difficult, particularly when a network of hangers-on depend on your success to revitalise their fortunes. This is true whether you are the heir to a vast criminal empire or the newly anointed international face of Indian Anglophone publishing.

The good news is, Deepti Kapoor’s second novel, Age Of Vice, largely lives up to the pre-release hype that has accompanied it. This is a work that skilfully straddles the worlds of crime pulp, literary fiction and Bollywood melodrama. With a title harkening to the Kali Yuga, the age of vice in Hindu cosmology, and a map that helpfully lays out the geography of north India for the non-Indian reader, the novel conjures up comparisons to Westeros in Game Of Thrones. Substitute fire-breathing dragons with the more visceral threat of fire-setting mobsters.

The result has echoes of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Preti Taneja’s King Lear adaptation We That Are Young, and the HBO series Succession. It’s not surprising to see why this novel, the first in a planned trilogy, has had publishing rights sold in over 20 languages and a multimillion-dollar television development deal at FX.

Age Of Vice opens with a recognisable newspaper image of the worlds of the uber-rich and the destitute colliding. In 2004 Delhi, a Mercedes careens on to a pavement and kills five roadside dwellers, recasting the lives of the novel’s three primary characters into chaos. Sunny is the morally conflicted prodigal son on a golden leash to his father’s vast criminal empire, built on liquor and land-grabbing. Ajay, the person who willingly takes the fall for the crime, is the right-hand man of Sunny, having worked his way up into the upper echelons of power from the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh. Neda, Sunny’s paramour, is a young journalist from a culturally elite Delhi family who finds herself caught between her conscience and her attraction to Sunny. The vast and intractable narratives of capitalism, feudalism and corruption in India are distilled through a cast of less than a dozen characters.

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This is a work that skilfully straddles the worlds of crime pulp, literary fiction and Bollywood melodrama
This is a work that skilfully straddles the worlds of crime pulp, literary fiction and Bollywood melodrama

Age Of Vice is undeniably entertaining. In a ruthless world built on transactional relationships and civil wars between sons and fathers, there’s always a violent car crash or a grisly murder around the corner to shake things up. Kapoor’s control over the momentum of the narrative and her world-building evokes cinematic effect. Early on in the novel, she deftly conveys Ajay’s experience of lost childhood after he is sold into slavery: “…tendrils sprout and the night is done, the yolk of a sun cracks over the peaks and the blue death that filled the final hours is cast away. Pure light and the victory of dawn. Ajay examines the faces of the blinking boys, stirring dazed within their blankets. Faces older: fourteen or fifteen, a face that is younger, maybe seven. Checking to see if they have changed. They have not. But they have passed through a portal. There’s no hope of home now”. When Ajay first comes to Sunny’s vast mansion, Kapoor establishes its gloomy façade, one in which the servants reside in its “working bowels”, as a gilded prison: “The building is a solid, dark impregnable block, five floors high, its smooth, muscular walls obscured by creepers and vines and mirrored glass holding secrets inside.”

The strongest sections in the book tap into a rich understanding of ambitions around wealth and class, particularly in the conversations between Sunny and Neda. He tells her, “I’ve had to construct myself. I’m reminded daily, in the mirror, I’m nothing without my suit, without my car, without my watch. Without these props, I barely exist.” Wealth in Age Of Vice is an oppressive force that binds people in toxic relationships and corrupts everything. Sunny tells Neda, “Money’s a fucking curse, he said. It cuts out all the hard work. Before, you had to be kind of funny or fun. Interesting, intelligent. You had to take the time to know people. You had solidarity with them. Then you’re rich. It annihilates everything.” Even as Sunny occasionally demonstrates a semblance of a moral conscience, he sees wealth as his birthright and the bridge between ancient and modern India. During a standoff with a Spanish woman, he says, “Don’t tell us about our culture. We’re not zoo animals for your pleasure, not the smiling native to accessorize your enlightenment…. If you knew our culture, you’d know respect is one currency, but at the end of the day money talks.”

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The propulsive storytelling and rich world-building papers over the fact that the novel’s characters sometimes work better as mythic figures than flesh-and-blood characters. Before Neda meets Sunny, the narrator notes: “She’d been hearing the name for some time. Sunny this, Sunny that. Tall tales circulating through the veins and arteries of the city, until it felt like he was the city himself.” Yet, the more they occupy centre stage, the more they feel like slightly generic pawns, not players. Ajay, arguably the novel’s only sympathetic character, is seeking to avenge the murder of his father and the rape of his sister in the vein of 1970s Amitabh Bachchan revenge sagas. Sunny is a drug addict, who, more than anything, craves the approval of his father, the shadowy Bunty Wadia, who demonstrates his authority over his son through acts of violence. Neda is conflicted about her attraction to Sunny. In an email, she notes: “I knew injustice when I saw it, in a novel, on the news, but I never understood the process of its creation. I never considered complicity, or the obligation to guard against it in yourself.” Even while Neda is jagged in welcome ways, her moral discordance feels thinly etched.

There’s also a bit of a schism between the specificity afforded to Ajay and the other two protagonists. It is understandable that Ajay is largely taciturn within Age Of Vice, a deliberate narrative choice for a young man trying to find himself. The close third-person narrative notes, “What stories can he tell when he barely knows to speak?” Yet, he’s also the only character who’s presented primarily through bodily labour instead of speech. Hopefully the sequels will let him find his voice.

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The final pages of Kapoor’s novel, set at a wedding, thrillingly upend the hierarchies of power and even introduce a beguiling female character. This is a compulsively readable novel, one made for those with their eye on the news of JCB bulldozers carrying out demolitions and the JCB Prize for Literature shortlists.

Karthik Shankar is a Chennai-based writer and editor.

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