How real-life corruption inspired Deepti Kapoor’s novel ‘Age of Vice’

“Age of Vice,” Deepti Kapoor’s second novel, spends most of the first 170 pages on the story of Ajay, who is born into poverty in rural India but who manages, through skill, hard work and constant servitude, to build a life of sorts in a rapidly modernizing Delhi. But that life, serving Sunny Wadia, the son of a wealthy and ruthless businessman, carries its own risks and they cost Ajay dearly. 

We then spend the next 200 pages with Neda, a young journalist who aspires to something, though she’s not sure what, until she falls in love with Sunny Wadia. She quickly finds that this relationship carries risks and they cost her dearly as well. 

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“Age of Vice,” which is set in the early 2000s and is steeped in violence, examines the price of India’s modernization as it turned the reins over to what Kapoor calls the “land mafia,” wealthy and connected “semi-gangsters” who bought up property and entered politics to protect their business interests at all costs.  

“I feel sadness,” says Kapoor, who now lives in Portugal but who was, like Neda, a journalist back then. “There’s so much ingenuity and warmth among people born into terrible circumstances and the state is totally absent. That hasn’t changed.” 

The novel stirred tremendous buzz in her homeland and abroad; it is now being adapted into a series by FX. She spoke by video recently about the novel and its themes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. Will this novel be read differently in the West than in India?

Reaction in India is completely different than in America and Europe. Indians are always a little suspicious, rightly so, of books they think are catering to the West, saying, “Oh, is this another ‘White Tiger’ or ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” 

Americans just adore Ajay, the oppressed everyman trying to lift himself out of his poverty. For me, that story is a bait-and-switch. You start with Ajay and his journey to get into the world I was interested in portraying: the world of Delhi, with Sunny and his family. And that’s what Indian readers are much more interested in. 

There has been loads of great nonfiction about the relationship between crime and politics and how criminals become politicians and end up running the state. It has been tackled in nonfiction but not so much in fiction before. 

Indians love the idea that I’m exploring modern India and the corruption and inequality and violence. People have become desensitized there, you almost shut your eyes because it’s so painful — Delhi is a brutal and harrowing place to live and it can be easier to live in a bubble of privilege and comfort, which is what Neda gets seduced by.

Q. How much did your time as a journalist shape this novel?

I wanted to report on crime but was pushed toward covering media, lifestyle and arts. In the early aughts, businesses suddenly realized that with liberalization and the open market you could sell a lot of products with consumer lifestyle coverage. I documented social trends and witnessed rapid changes in Delhi — the first McDonald’s, the first bowling alley, the first mall. Delhi was a sleepy city suddenly turbocharged with business centers and office parks.

The idea Sunny has of transforming the Yamuna riverfront — it was a flood plain and there were people living on the edges in settlements and he wants to transform it with art galleries, boardwalks, running tracks — and Dean saying, “You can’t just throw these people away” reflects arguments going on in Delhi then. 

There were newspaper articles saying the city was going to enter the modern world and it would be as beautiful as Paris. It would be very easy to get seduced by that idea. I remember not even thinking it may not be right. 

You see gleaming new highways and roads — they love development like that — but access to schools and healthcare for anyone who’s not rich falls by the wayside. 

Great journalists were reporting on serious issues, but I never went there myself. I wasn’t a very good journalist, but I’m good at listening to people and observing, which is helpful as a novelist. All of the people I met and the stories I heard went into this novel. 

Q. Sunny is the son of a powerful and corrupt man and seems to want to do good almost as an act of rebellion. The same for Dinesh Singh, a secondary character, who at least seems better at it. How sincere are they in their intentions?

India is an extremely feudal society so if your father is an important person you are probably inheriting his power whether or not you have the right skills. These are the men I grew up with. These men are sent by fathers, who are half gangsters, to very expensive universities. Some study public policy or government in America or Canada and come back with ambitious ideas. But I am slightly skeptical about whether they will ever be able to implement them. Dinesh wants to do the right thing but maybe he can’t. Sunny is weak and troubled by so many other things. 

Q. Is the corruption and violence different now than when the book takes place?

I was just in UP [Uttar Pradesh] last month and there are some things I need to be careful about saying because it can be dangerous. Corruption hasn’t ended; it has just become sophisticated and streamlined and hidden. Back then, it was more of a free-for-all with semi-gangsters entering politics, becoming powerful and making as much money as they could. I’m not sure if the shift is a good thing. 

From then until now, you had great journalists doing the investigative work about cronyism or the links between business and politicians’ large corruption scams being exposed. However, what often happened was that the journalist would then go to the businessman and say, “I have all this dirt; pay me off.” You could make a ton of money to set you up for life.

Now they’re also crushing dissenting voices so there’s one narrative being pushed and it’s hard for the media in India to fight that yet. A lot of really good journalism has been strangulated by the Modi regime because people are really scared. There is some good media doing great work — but a lot of journalists are writing books because of all the stories being killed by editors at the newspapers and magazines. There’s an atmosphere of fear now.  

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Q. The first section is tightly focused on Ajay’s story and the second part gives us Neda’s perspective. But the last part of the book, ostensibly shifting to Sunny, sprawls like the city itself, with you creating newspaper articles and introducing a kidnapper who tells a long and brutal story. 

It was very difficult and almost felt like I lost control. I wanted to reflect the chaos of the world that I saw. I didn’t want to give a neat ending and that was difficult from a creative process without the narrative crumbling. I was having these tension headaches with all these characters jostling in my head, trying to figure out how to place them. Then my agent said, “You can write it as a trilogy” and that helped. 

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