In 2002, a Toyota Landcruiser belonging to Bollywood superstar Salman Khan allegedly crashed into a bakery in Bandra, a trendy suburb in Western Mumbai, running over five unhoused men asleep on the pavement right outside. The trial dominated headlines and sparked dinner table debates for months, until Khan’s driver testified that he was the one behind the wheel, and the lower court’s conviction was eventually overturned. The case, however, has clearly inspired a number of South Asian crime writers: just such an incident is the inciting event of Arvind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, and also serves as a capture spiral in Deepti Kapoor’s sprawling sophomore novel, Age of Vice.
Age of Vice is the ambitious first installment in a trilogy that weaves the sweeping pathos and entangled fealties of a mafia family saga with performative violence and operatic debauchery, set in a landscape that evokes the stark, earthy cinematic style of recent crime drama hits like Gangs of Wasseypur and Sacred Games.The novel begins with zero throat-clearing, in media res: five pavement dwellers lie dead on the side of Delhi’s inner ring road on a frozen February morning in 2004. Not far from the carnage is the speeding Mercedes that mowed them down. The vehicle is registered to a hotelier and aristocrat, but behind the wheel is a man named Ajay, a chauffeur, a man Friday, a nobody. Later on in the chapter, it comes to light that Ajay works for a shadowy figure, the head of a vast crime syndicate. The police’s attitude towards Ajay switches from brutal to fearfully solicitous the moment they uncover this fact, as is evidenced from Ajay’s exchange with the warden in his office at Tihar Jail, where Ajay is held as an undertrial:
The warden asks him to sit. “Have a cigarette. Help yourself. There’s been a mistake. I wasn’t told,” he says. “If I’d been told. This would never have happened.” […] “You should have said something. You should have made it clear. You should have let us know. Why didn’t you let us know?”
Ajay stares at the food, at the cigarette pack.
The warden smiles.
“That you’re a Wadia man.”
Through a journalist’s quashed exposé, we learn that Bunty Wadia has tentacles in liquor, land grabs, transport, politics, the police, etc.; there is no institution in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh he has left untouched, uncorrupted. Bunty Wadia’s lust for power is naked and covert at the same time: he stays out of the headlines, steers clear of public events, and works through proxies. His only weakness is a yearning for dynasty, embodied by his son, Sunny Wadia, a dissolute twenty-something financier and flaneur who (at least at first) wants to get as far away from his father’s murderous legacy as he possibly can.
“I love beauty. I want to create beautiful things. But that’s the last thing they understand. They want me to have a beautiful surface and be rotten to the core, like they are.” Sunny renders his world and his family in these words to Neda Kapur, a journalist who is drawn to him for all the terrible reasons people are drawn to chimerical, powerful men. Kapoor paints Sunny as the quintessential anti-hero: part soul-destroying and part mesmerizing. In a sort of Fifty Shades of Grey type interlude, Neda is swept up in secret trysts all over the city, in luxurious hotel rooms and elaborate dinners behind lacquered private screens. “She came to understand,” Kapoor writes about Neda, “going for a meal with Sunny was not about the food. […] It was the performance, it was waiting to see what would happen next […] in this world they had conjured.”
In turn, Sunny is in awe of something in Neda, something that all his money and connections cannot buy: a pedigree. With her home in tony Malcha Marg, her scholarly parents from “highly educated families risen to prominence in colonial days,” Neda’s cash-poor, prestige-rich inheritance comprises a shibboleth—the vocabulary of class—that nouveau-riche families like Sunny’s take many successful generations to acquire. Sunny marvels at the fact that Neda can pull up to a five-star hotel in her beat up old Maruti and swan inside knowing that she doesn’t need any outward markers of privilege. “I’m nothing without my suit,” Sunny tells Neda, “without my car, without my watch. Without these props, I barely exist.”
Viewed through Neda’s eyes, Kapoor manages to widen the novel’s scope from being just an entertaining thriller to a work with something important to say about modern India, a country in flux, where the anxieties of class-passing often dominate conversations about the new post-colonial paradigm. Sunny Wadia believes he has an essential role to play in the struggle between the entrenched and aspirational classes. “We romanticize poverty too much,” he asserts, “India doesn’t need to be this way.” The aria of Sunny’s grandiose plans to turn Delhi—Delhi, with all its old-world idiosyncrasies and byzantine social mores, its pockets of beauty amidst the ugly Darwinian hustle and transactional opportunism—into a modern, global city in the style of Singapore or Dubai, with shopping malls, cafés, promenades, skyscrapers, etc.—is quickly drowned out by the discordant reality of having to displace thousands of laborers, domestic workers and hawkers. These are people at the margins eking out a living by working for the white collar, relatively moneyed, upper middle-class. A brutal incident during the bulldozing of one such unauthorized colony invites too-close journalistic scrutiny into the Wadia family’s dealings, and things swiftly begin to fall apart for the main characters. Sunny is left with an impossible set of choices: either he leaves his father behind to pursue his own dreams with Neda or he gives in to the vertigo of his father’s unchecked power, of his unassailable, unstoppable wealth and influence. On the night of the Mercedes’s accident, Sunny makes his choice, succumbing to the cruelty and chaos of his father’s world the way an addict succumbs to a high.
When the narrative camera pans to Ajay, the driver found unconscious at the Mercedes’s steering wheel, it focuses on his gestalt from an idealistic rural youth to a cold city killer. We watch Ajay transform, first in the employ of Sunny Wadia, later in the bowels of Tihar Jail. Ajay, sold by his destitute mother as a child. Ajay, gaping in awe and reverence at the fantastical wealth on display inside Sunny’s house. Ajay, in jail with a razor blade tucked under his tongue. Ajay, who naively believed that unquestioning loyalty to his masters, to Sunny and his father, would be “rewarded with protection, purpose, even love in the end”. Until one day, he stops believing. As the story builds to a manic, violence-fueled crescendo, Ajay’s character pivot has an unwitting role to play in the grizzly scene of the final pages. A complex mandala of a novel, Age of Vice contains stories within stories. It takes a certain dauntlessness, a certain off-hand disdain for approbation to attempt to impose a narrative structure on such an anarchic, trenchantly bizarre and unwieldy universe. Doubly so if it is a woman working in a genre dominated by well-established South Asian men. Kapoor’s writing is muscular, pithy and highly visual, and the sort fans have come to expect from crime heavyweights like Vikram Chandra and Suketu Mehta, but her sensibility— watchful, probing, contemplative—remains uniquely her own. In mirroring the anatomy of Delhi and the messy, complicated lives of its inhabitants, the novel strives, above all else, to break conventions of form. So, it is not too surprising that it frays towards the end; the last hundred or so pages seem to escape authorial control and unravel in puzzling directions. One hopes that this ambiguity is intentional and that future installments of the trilogy will gather these stray narrative strands and knit them back together in a way that holds. It’s worth staying with these dazzling characters, and this incredible, wild story, to find out.
Age of Vice
By Deepti Kapoor
Published on January 3, 2023