Anti-Bollywood novel ‘Age of Vice’ lifts lid on corruption, inequality and organized crime in India

Novelist Deepti Kapoor addresses the complex tensions in her country through three characters bound by fate in the first installment of a trilogy that will be published in 16 countries

Deepti Kapoor India
Novelist and journalist Deepti Kapoor.João Henriques
Tereixa Constenla

Cultural codes can determine how things are read. Already described as a publishing phenomenon, the novel Age of Vice will not be read the same way in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh – where its author, Deepti Kapoor, was born – as in Los Angeles, where producers are rushing to turn it into a television series.

While Indians navigate the different tensions within their society – from the old caste segregation to the more contemporary income-based divide – Americans can be entertained by the legal mafias and forbidden passions that dominate Age of Vice, in the style of The Godfather.

The novel – published in early January – has also drawn comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium crime saga. Like the deceased Swedish author, Kapoor X-rays the darkest side of her country, examining sexual violence, abuse of power, collusion between politicians and organized crime, as well as the alcohol and drug addictions of her protagonists.

However, the most unexpected literary reference was offered up by the writer herself at the end of an interview with EL PAÍS at a Lisbon café. Kapoor settled in the Portuguese capital four years ago with her English husband. On a cold winter morning in mid-January – before posing for photos in the Praça das Flores, a famous square – Kapoor shared her enthusiasm for Rafael Chirbes. A prominent Spanish author who died in 2015, Chirbes published several novels about the post-war state of his country.

“I read Crematorium [and was] totally fascinated, because I saw my story reflected in that world of corruption and speculation that he tells.”

Age of Vice is a 600-page novel. It will be followed by two more installments, which will complete a trilogy that will total nearly 2,000 pages. In 2019, it was the most sought-after work at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It has everything that attracts readers: crime, corruption, tyranny, conspiracy, debauchery and – in small doses – love, admiration and loyalty. There are also three main characters handcuffed by a tragic fate that rarely appears in Bollywood musicals.

Unsurprisingly, the book sparked a bidding war between 20 television production companies, who are all fighting to gain the audiovisual rights to a novel that will be distributed in 16 countries. The author is still digesting the success of her work.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before. My first novel [A Bad Character] was short, with few reviews… let’s just say it died out early. This is a trilogy that will have a series on television: it’s a kind of product. I’m still trying to figure out how to fit all of this together. It’s a strange feeling.”

Kapoor’s second book had an even tougher road to publication than her first. Set in the world of yoga – an activity she knew well from her time as an instructor – it didn’t arouse editorial interest.

“My agent at the time encouraged me to write about wealthy people that I knew who had crazy stories – sort of like the Delhi Gatsby, with very rich people who cause a lot of pain because they have power and hide behind their wealth.”

Contempt for the suffering of others drives Age of Vice. It begins with the imprisonment of the false culprit of a hit-and-run, which leaves five “pavement dwellers” – who were sleeping on the side of the road – dead. According to Kapoor, this is a very common occurrence in her country.

“There are traffic accidents in which, suddenly, the person who was behind the wheel stops being behind the wheel. A poor driver goes to jail in his place.”

Kapoor composes a literary puzzle with three basic pieces: Ajay, the outcast, Sunny Wadia, the heir to a mafia family and Neda Kapur, a disbelieving journalist. She was content to leave behind the novel about an Indian Gatsby and instead showcase the social complexity of the country.

“India was never perfect and it was always a poor country. But in the 1990s, there was a financial crisis and reforms were introduced. We slowly moved from a semi-socialist economy to a capitalist one. Suddenly, money started flowing in many cities.”

Writer Deepti Kapoor poses in Praça das Flores – a square in Lisbon, Portugal – in mid-January.
Writer Deepti Kapoor poses in Praça das Flores – a square in Lisbon, Portugal – in mid-January.JOAO HENRIQUES (JOAO HENRIQUES / EL PAIS )

Out of these freedoms and economic opportunities, a new middle class was born. This benefited people like Kapoor, who studied journalism in New Delhi. However, all this urbanization and economic expansion – with the arrival of multinational corporations attracted by opportunities and the world’s largest English-speaking population – generated new social gaps. The suburbs grew quickly, thanks to executive salaries.

“The foundation of this world was built on extreme inequality and suffering,” the author notes. “I wanted to show the glamor, the opulence and the privilege, but also draw back the curtain to show the rot behind it.”

The new rot is superimposed on the old social segregation of Hinduism – India’s principal religion – where the Dalit caste has no rights. Despite the political advances made since the 1940s, with positive actions to favor their integration, discrimination is commonplace.

“I think there is more knowledge about the atrocities committed against Dalits, but the violence, the inequality and the pain remain. Every day, you can read a story about some Dalit being beaten or killed. In rural India, ancient customs are maintained, although in the cities, [these individuals] can find a space to have an anonymous life.”

On her last trip to India, Kapoor met with a young couple for her research.

“They’ve gone to university and they work, but no one in the boy’s office knows he’s a Dalit, because if he says so, he thinks they’ll start treating him differently. There are still a lot of painful stories.”

In the novel, the falsely accused driver is Ajay, a Dalit who, when he was a child, was sold by his mother to settle a debt. He grows up to become the assistant to Sunny Wadia – the son of an all-powerful mafia boss. Sunny dreams of being greater than his father, all the while abusing drugs, alcohol, food and sex – something typical of the nouveau riche.

Western readers – and Los Angeles producers – love Ajay.

“He’s the heart of my novel. I got the inspiration when I was in the mountains, traveling through the Himalayas. I met a boy who had been sent by his family to work. He lived alone, like an orphan, but he was full of hope and optimism. I decided to combine his story with that of the young people who worked in the mansions of the rich.

“When I was a journalist, I attended many parties where these young men were servants or chauffeurs. They were always somewhat withdrawn and always watching to make sure you didn’t need anything. I wondered about their lives and their origins.”

It’s easier for an individual to break traditions than for an entire country to do the same. Kapoor broke some codes in her conservative family, which was impacted after the death of her father when she was only 19. That loss was followed by that of her first boyfriend.

In addition to burying idealized dreams about college life, she became the official rebel of the family. She burned the pain and rage by stepping on the accelerator of her car, racing through the streets of Delhi, then a city rushing full speed towards furious capitalism, with all of its opportunities and drawbacks. This fire burns in Age of Vice. The pain and rage have formed her as a writer.

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