Book World: Deepti Kapoor’s thriller ‘Age of Vice’ starts 2023 with a bang

Book: Age of Vice. Author:Deepti Kapoor. Published by Riverhead; 548 pages; $30
“Age of Vice” by Deepti Kapoor. Photo: courtesy The Washington Post Syndicated Service

Forget the fireworks in New York, London and Dubai. The most dazzling explosions to herald 2023 come from Deepti Kapoor’s novel “Age of Vice.”

Swinging from the hovels to the palaces of contemporary India, this hypnotic story poses a horrible dilemma: For days, I was torn between gorging on “Age of Vice” or rationing out the chapters to make them last. Finally free from the book’s grip, now all I want to do is get others hooked.

Kapoor was born in northern India and worked for several years as a journalist in Delhi, an experience that clearly informs this lush thriller. More than two years ago, having spotted Kapoor’s ferocious plot, arresting characters and electric dialogue, FX locked down “Age of Vice” for a series; rights to the novel have already been sold in 20 countries.

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This is a rare case of a book bounding as high as its hype.

On the first page, a Mercedes speeding through Delhi careens off the street and slaughters five people, including a pregnant woman who had just arrived in the city. That deadly accident ricochets through one of India’s most powerful crime families – and from there the intrigue never pauses to take a breath.

When authorities arrive on the grisly scene of the crash, they find a 22-year-old chauffeur named Ajay sitting at the wheel, reeking of whisky. Under torture, “the Mercedes Killer” reveals little about himself before being consigned to prison. And even when three goons set upon him with razor blades, Ajay stays quiet and accepts the cuts as penance.

But “his patience finally snaps, breaks like a trapdoor,” Kapoor writes. In a flash, Ajay shatters his attackers and then just stands there in the prison hallway slick with blood.

This is no ordinary chauffeur.

From that blistering start, Kapoor moves back and forth through time and up and down the social ladder. It’s a complicated but never confusing structure that unravels some mysteries while spinning new ones. Good as she is at ripping up the pages with acts of violence, she’s even more sly about pulling us into these characters’ lives.

Nothing about Ajay’s past suggests he would end up working for one of India’s most feared families. As a poor 8-year-old boy in eastern Uttar Pradesh, he was destined to a miserable life of subsistence farming – or worse. To settle a debt after his father is beaten to death, Ajay’s mother sells the boy off. But somehow Ajay cheats death, eventually catching the eye of a spoiled young man named Sunny Wadia.

So begins an extraordinary journey and a deeply unnerving relationship.

Ajay discovers that he loves to serve, to please, a desire that Kapoor captures in sentences that spring with frantic enthusiasm. Ajay latches on to young Sunny with the desperation of a groupie and the discipline of an acolyte. As Sunny’s armed bodyguard, he’s trained to kill every threat. As Sunny’s uniformed valet, he’s taught to mix every drink. “He has become a name,” Kapoor writes. “To be called and used. Turned on like a tap.” He sleeps lightly and always with a phone next to his ear in case Sunny calls. He lurks on the edge of every orgy, he follows every drunken race, he tidies up after cocaine-fueled revelry. And in return for his unbounded devotion and discretion, he’s allowed to gaze upon a realm of unimaginable riches and pleasures. “Ajay is the beating heart of Sunny’s world. Wordless, faceless, content.”

Kapoor stokes the flame of F. Scott Fitzgerald to create this Indian Gatsby, “this mysterious young god of Delhi.” At Sunny’s lavish parties, celebrities, politicians, models and hangers-on gossip about his past, his money, his business. “Maybe he wasn’t even real,” one guest thinks. In a candid moment, Sunny acknowledges, “I’ve had to construct myself,” and the viability of his constructed persona becomes the central problem of “Age of Vice.”

Kapoor situates her story in the broiling nexus of India’s economic and political development. It’s a world of yawning gaps between a small upper class that lives in platinum luxury and a huge lower class growing vegetables in their own waste. As part of a new generation of enlightened capitalists, Sunny is driven by dreams of transforming Delhi into what he calls “a truly global city.” But his program of expansion and gentrification involves massive displacement of farmers and poor residents, and Kapoor cleverly captures the way public opinion is bent toward the neoliberal view. “The newspapers heralded the transformation of the urban space,” she writes. “The poor were no longer victims of an incompetent and corrupt state. They were encroachers and thieves. Their misery was not the misery of lives. As human beings they were being erased.”

Even with a pliant populace, though, how far can Sunny get without the help of his gangster father and uncle, whose tentacles extend into every corporate and government office, strangling even the best-laid plans? Torn between his dreamy ideals and his voracious appetites, Sunny gets pickled in cynicism, while his loyal servant Ajay must contend with the results. It’s an ordeal of dissipation that Kapoor captures with an alluring mix of disgust and sympathy.

Observing the family’s corrosive influence play out across the country, one discouraged journalist tells her editor: “Nothing will change. This is Kali Yuga, the losing age, the age of vice.”

Author Deepti Kapoor. Photo: Facebook header @Deepti Kapoor

Central to Kapoor’s success is her agile style. In long, winding backstories, her voice grows rich and evocative. But she is the master of broken sentences. Phrases sparking as fast as synapses. And short paragraphs that the eye rushes past like a falling body spotting windows on the way down. In moments of murderous crisis, she writes in the present tense with such shocking immediacy you’ll wince and duck.

Even at 548 pages spread over many years, “Age of Vice” is too well choreographed to be called sprawling. No, this is pure cunning. Ordinarily, if a novelist introduced a new narrator on Page 442 with a 34-page detour, I’d be rolling my eyes in exasperation. Here, it feels like some forbidden elixir to be hoarded.

A few years ago in the journal Granta, Kapoor wrote, “In India, all life seems present and possible, usually all at once,” and now she’s created a novel with arms long enough to hold and squeeze that multiverse. “So many people travel to India for the ‘trip of a lifetime,’ returning broken or illuminated or intoxicated or enlightened, and, despite the perceived hardships they may have faced, almost immediately yearn to go back.”

Sign me up. Kapoor is already working on the second volume of a projected trilogy. I have only one word of advice: Hurry.

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