DEEPTI KAPOOR grew up in northern India and formerly worked as a journalist in New Delhi. Her debut novel, A Bad Character was shortlisted for the 2015 Prix Medicis literary award. Her latest novel Age of Vice is a tale of gangsters, forbidden love, greed and the consequences of corruption. As AKINA HANSEN writes, it’s a compelling crime novel that looks at injustice and inequality.
As a child, Deepti Kapoor spent her summers visiting her grandmother in Firozabad, a city just an hour away from the Taj Mahal and located in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The area is known for its many temples, diverse cuisine, festivals and agriculture. Yet, it also has a darker reputation, one that has roots in organised crime. This history of corruption goes back decades – and according to Deepti, during the ’70s and ’80s, political parties were using gangsters to win elections through threats of violence. Deepti tells me, ‘in the mid-90s as India started to accelerate and modernise, you saw all the changes that were happening … [and] gangsters became politicians.’ Notably, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms, one-third of the candidates who ran in election for Uttar Pradesh in 2017 had criminal records.
During her summers in Uttar Pradesh, Deepti would hear many troubling stories about the gangsters and the violence of the area. This would ultimately leave a deep impression on her and it’s against this backdrop that she has set her latest novel, Age of Vice, which takes you from the villages of Uttar Pradesh to the city of New Delhi. The story weaves between the 1990s and early 2000s and follows three characters, Ajay, Neda, and Sunny.
Age of Vice is part crime thriller and part family saga, and over the course of the novel we see how the lives of the three main characters intersect. When eight-year-old Ajay is sold by his mother into servitude, he eventually finds himself working for Sunny Wadia, the son of a corrupt and wealthy businessman. Sunny’s world of excess wealth, parties, and glamour seems alluring at first, but we quickly learn that this is a world founded on violence, corruption and greed. When Sunny meets Neda, a smart and beautiful journalist, things take a turn for the worse and each of their lives are changed forever.
People who are wealthy will create bubbles around them to have the same kind of privileges or to have a comfortable life.
‘I was really interested in exploring corruption and power and abuse of power,’ Deepti tells me. In fact, it was the 2012 Delhi rape gang case that ultimately got her thinking about these systemic issues. In 2012, 22-year-old, Jyoti Singh, was sexually assaulted and murdered on a private bus while travelling with a male friend. The brutality of the case shocked the nation, leading to mass protests and riots. According to Deepti, corruption was at the centre of this case.
‘If you start to look at why it happened, it was because of private buses being allowed to operate during times that they were not allowed.’
This case ultimately prompted her to look at her own life and position of privilege: ‘I had fun in Delhi, and at some point, it stopped being fun. And I wanted to interrogate why. This was one of those moments in time where we all felt like there was some terrible thing that had happened and how it had been allowed to happen. And then, I started to go into investigating the corruption.’
‘I wanted to write again about this life. And I kept circling back to the life I led in Delhi in my 20s, as a journalist driving around in the day, speaking with people, having a very kind of open brief,’ Deepti says.
During the late ’90s when she was living in Delhi, she saw first-hand how the city was rapidly changing as a result of India’s liberalising economy. A new art scene was popping up, cities were being developed on the outskirts of Delhi and a new nightlife emerged.
‘I wanted to bring it all together. And in my 30s, I started to explore this idea of this life of semi-privilege I had in Delhi, and I realised that it was based on a lot of the inequality and suffering of others. And then when I wanted to write about modern India, I realised I wanted to fit it all together. So to bring the Sunnys and the Ajays of the world together, the Masters and the servants.’
Fascinatingly, many of the characters in Age of Vice are based on people Deepti knew or observed during boarding school.
‘I knew boys like Sunny growing up. There were these privileged, wayward young men, who were the sons of very powerful men in India, and they could be business leaders or politicians, often.
‘So we kind of grew up with these boys. Later I realised that these boys were set to become powerful themselves. Now they’re in their 30s and 40s and some of them are members of parliament or businessmen themselves. So it’s very strange to see that transformation happen and it just felt inevitable that I would write about it.’
Importantly, Deepti’s novel also delves into the other side of this world. One of extreme poverty and inequality. This is done through her character Ajay, who witnesses extraordinary violence, and is trafficked and exploited. ‘What happened to Ajay is something I made up, but it’s also not made up in the sense that there are stories every day,’ Deepti says.
What she’s referring to is the caste system and the resulting discrimination and exploitation of a social hierarchy. Despite being officially abolished in 1950, according to Deepti it’s ‘extremely present and prevalent and all around us. And this is something I felt was a big gap in my understanding of India because I come from a kind of liberal, high caste family, where caste doesn’t exist for us.’
Ultimately, through her character Sunny and the Wadia family, Deepti highlights just how embedded the caste system is in aspects of life in India.
‘People who are wealthy will create bubbles around them to have the same kind of privileges or to have a comfortable life. And you can create these bubbles by employing lots of people from cooks to drivers, to gardeners, and then you can always assuage any guilt you might have by saying that you’re creating jobs.’
Yet, while she admits that ‘it would take a full scale revolution, to get rid of it altogether’, there is an increasing awareness about the injustices being perpetrated and a growing community of people fighting back.
While Age of Vice is a compelling and thrilling crime novel, it also sheds light on some very real issues. In light of that, I ask Deepti what she hopes people will take away from her book and in response she asks me if I’ve watched The Wire.
‘So, David Simon in an interview once talked about how, what audiences want is ice cream but what they really need is broccoli. So, I always thought, how do I smuggle broccoli into the ice cream? So that’s what I hope, that you can smuggle in these ideas of inequality and injustice but also at the same time, give people and readers a thrilling ride.’
Undoubtedly, Deepti accomplishes this and much more. Age of Vice is a triumph of a book and luckily for readers, it is the first in a three-book series which Deepti has already begun working on. And while she divulges some of the details of what we can expect from the characters in the next book, one comment struck me as particularly telling.
‘I believe that characters don’t actually change that much, so their circumstances might change but they don’t change,’ she says.