A car accident, perhaps the central flashpoint of this story, introduces us to Age Of Vice. A Mercedes (naturally) has rammed into several people sleeping on a pavement in Delhi. They are all dead. The drunk rich man behind the wheel, it is suggested, has been wheeled off to safety, and an underling, Ajay, gets to take the blame and is carted off to prison. Inside the joint, Ajay almost rips out a guy’s tongue in a fit of rage. But that is OK; he is associated with the Wadia clan, and these things happen. In this soaring novel by Deepti Kapoor, the action never stops—a raucous and turbulent crime thriller that dissects the moral decay of the ultra-elite of India of the 2000s.
Age of Vice
From here the book, densely plotted and set in a sprawling world, jumps back in time and forward. Kapoor presents us with the three central characters of the novel—Sunny Wadia, Neda Kapur, and Ajay—and explores how their lives intersect and diverge. The story is an ambitious one: it is as much a character study as it is a simmering family saga, an uncomfortable romance, a heart-breaking examination of entrenched class and caste hierarchies, a violent tragedy. Of aching ambition and crippling inertia. At well over 500 pages in length, the whole thing can at times feel a bit bloated, and it falls apart somewhat in the frantic final act, going a little too broad. But Kapoor has an effortless control over the rhythmic beats of storytelling. The prose, unintrusive and largely in service of the narrative, has an informal comfort to it. It rarely dips in energy and thus, the novel remains, even at its weakest, a gripping read.
Kidnappings, one-on-three hand-to-hand combat sequences, physical assaults, assassination attempts, shadowy mob bosses and schmoozing politicians, gang wars, human trafficking, land-grabbing, obscene corruption—are all depicted with a thrilling sense of urgency and frenzy. Like any good noir, the reader feels that persistent burr of anxious excitement, with dread lurking in the shadows just as often.
The principal characters are all easily identifiable types. Sunny is the reluctant heir—the prodigal son—to an empire of crime and corruption, with ambitions that go against the will of his mysterious father, Bunty Wadia, a cold, menacing presence who runs all of Uttar Pradesh through an extensive syndicate built on crime, fear, favour, and wealth. Well-travelled, suave, and cultured, Sunny is the nouveau riche archetype suffering from a severe case of arrested development and poor little rich kid syndrome. He drinks heavily, he does all sorts of drugs he can get his hands on. He has a self-destructive streak, forever seeking the approval of his father, forever rebelling against him. He wants to give in to the dark side, and he wants to resist it in equal measure.
Unable to forge real connections, Sunny ambles through high society, splashing his money around and surrounding himself with a coterie of acolytes. Until he meets his match in the formidable Neda, a young journalist who is both dismissive of and fascinated by the life Sunny leads. He is the bad boy who can lead her astray, but he has substance. Neda may not have the preposterous wealth of Sunny, but she has something that she, with her humble countryside upbringing, believes to be just as valuable. She is the cultural elite of New Delhi, possessing an intrinsic social cachet he can only dream of. She just belongs; she can simply drive up her battered Maruti to the porch of a five-star hotel and waltz in and no one would bat an eyelid.
She, too, is lost—somewhat aimless and searching for a purpose; battling with morality and the righteousness within her. Theirs is a relationship of push-and-pull rhythms and contrasts; each eyeing the other with envy, affection, fascination, scorn. Kapoor, having worked as a journalist in Delhi herself, is perhaps able to draw on her own experiences here, as she creates a sparkling portrait of Delhi through Neda’s eyes. Little bursts of nostalgia abound, especially for people from Delhi such as this reviewer, as we get departures to the Chonas of old for a beer and shop-talk, or Market Cafe at Khan Market, or a long, desolate, ominous drive back from a still undeveloped Greater Noida in the dark.
And then there is Ajay, belonging to a lower caste and sold by his newly widowed mother when he was just a boy to pay off a debt. Shipped off to the mountains to work as a household worker, Ajay knows only a life of loyalty, servility, and subservience. He has an almost savant-like ability to absorb any new skill presented in front of him, but lacks any real agency to affect his own life. He exists only to serve. A chance encounter with Sunny at a cafe in the hills, where Ajay works, leads him to the Wadias. The Wadia clan is spoken of only in hushed whispers, with awe; their legend has travelled far and wide. Soon enough, he becomes Sunny’s everything—his man Friday, his driver, his bartender, his personal bodyguard, his silent confidant, his punching bag, his emotional support human.
What is fascinating here is that Kapoor rarely allows us a direct peek into Sunny’s own emotions and motivations. The electric first section of Age Of Vice takes us through a couple of decades in the life of Ajay; how he came into this world, and what he was before it. His view of Sunny, whom he worships in a way, tends to define the reader’s relationship with him. We switch soon to Neda’s perspective, and again, Sunny the person is shaded by her own weary motivations. Her unclear aspirations in life and, in turn, the cowardice, guilt, fear, and inertia—from past trauma—that is eating her up, explain her state of mind and, in effect, a little more about the impact Sunny has on people around him. The dynamics of their relationship are laid out in full. But Sunny remains, throughout the novel, a cipher character. Someone to whom things happen. And then he reacts in ways both predictable and appalling.
“The novel has already been picked up by FX for a television project following a bidding war.”
Kapoor has a fondness for descriptive prose but there is a breezy quality that allows it to remain in the background. The dialogue can at times feel stilted and the prose remains largely unremarkable, though an uncharitable read might suggest that she is prone to lapsing into minor cliched territories from time to time: “The air is moody, pregnant with the monsoon.” Or, to describe Sunny’s mental state, soon after he has woken up with two women in his bed on his wedding day, she writes: “He pours again, first down his throat, then over his head, drenching his hair, streaming tequila into his eyes, into his beard, inside his robe. He drops the bottle to the floor, then fishes out the pack of Dunhill from his pocket, inserts a cigarette in his mouth, considers the consequence of tequila and fire…” These are minor quibbles; to the book’s benefit, Kapoor’s writing steers clear of indulgence and, given her gifts at pacing and narrative movement, propels things forward at all times.
The novel also has a significantly visual quality through it, perhaps one reason why it has already been picked up by FX for a television project following a bidding war. Her understanding of physical space allows for a very colourful, clearly defined motion to the story as it moves from different parts of Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi to Goa to London, with detours along the way. Each space that the reader spends time in—from a hotel in Rajasthan to Ajay’s village, to Sunny’s home and the farmhouse he takes Neda to—has a distinct physical and abstract identity. It lends itself to an enjoyable, immersive reading experience, as we get to live through this glitzy, decadent tale of depravity and immorality.
The final act, though, does seem to bite off more than it can chew. We get introduced to a flurry of new characters, motivations, and plot points, as some of the measured rhythmic ascension of the narrative is sacrificed for the sake of a whirlwind crescendo. Several unexpected developments—some driven by a new deus ex machina character named Sunil Rastogi, a frightening, sociopathic murderer and rapist with a relentless capacity for chilling violence—all overlap on one eventful day, even as one of the primary characters is pretty much forgotten. It is a heightened finale to a novel that already functions at an already pretty high level of adrenaline for most of its length. It does not quite do justice to the roller coaster that comes before it.
Akhil Sood is a freelance arts and culture journalist from New Delhi.
- In Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, the action never stops—a raucous and turbulent crime thriller that dissects the moral decay of the ultra-elite of India of the 2000s.
- Kapoor presents us with the three central characters of the novel—Sunny Wadia, Neda Kapur, and Ajay—and explores how their lives intersect and diverge.
- The story is an ambitious one: it is as much a character study as it is a simmering family saga, an uncomfortable romance, a heart-breaking examination of entrenched class and caste hierarchies, a violent tragedy.
- Kapoor has a fondness for descriptive prose but there is a breezy quality that allows it to remain in the background.
- The novel also has a significantly visual quality through it, perhaps one reason why it has already been picked up by FX for a television project following a bidding war.