REVIEW: Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

Reviewed by Betty-Jo Tilley

A car crash opens Deepti Kapoor’s novel, Age of Vice, the first of three sweeping sagas about organized crime in contemporary India. This prologue provides a metaphor for the story’s roadmap—a fast-paced and riveting collision course of deception, romance and ambition—and introduces the disparity between rich and poor in a world where only the wealthy win and everyone else’s demise is predetermined by their lower caste.

When police arrive at the scene of the accident, they find the chauffeur of the totaled Mercedes passed out, an empty bottle at his side. To show limitless brutality, Kapoor spares no one: three migrant workers, a pregnant eighteen-year-old, and the teen’s husband are dead on the side of the road. In jail, the driver is subjected to vicious indignities until it is discovered he is a right-hand man to India’s most notorious crime family. The piercing contrasts of wealth and poverty in modern-day India are evident; strewn by the roadside, the anonymous dead had little chance to begin with. Only capital, or its affiliation, enjoys the opportunity for identity and survival.

The chauffeur, too, is of this lower-caste world. After his father was murdered, his mother sold her eight-year-old son into indentured servitude to settle a debt. He eventually spends his life cleaning up the messes of the book’s second main character, Sunny Wadia. Kapoor shifts point of view, place, and time over a period of twenty years in the lives of the driver, Sunny, and a third protagonist, Neda. Their differing perspectives of the same plot points create tensions that emphasize how oppression and corruption can impact anyone at any time. Characters binge on alcohol, drugs, and debauched behavior, with law-breaking and merciless violence at every gripping turn. Kapoor consistently comingles the characters’ greed and opportunism with their love and loss. In their battles, Kapoor always sets the stakes high. When her players fall, they fall hard, thus confirming the relentless offenses of life in their world.

That Kapoor was a journalist is apparent in her straightforward scene construction. In a seemingly innocent conversation, a character withdraws a razor from under his tongue. He slits someone’s throat as smoothly as one might down a shot of vodka; yet, through that movement, Kapoor manages to convey deep emotional pain and an unerring will to survive. Her writing is mostly brittle bone and gristle, with a dimensionality to her characters that warrants recognition as literary crime fiction. Kapoor maintains a sinister tone, with a bullet-quick pace and searingly tight skirmishes that are both physical and mental. Her greatest strength, though, lies in the unexpected layers and backstories that bring to life the struggle to transcend the constraints of a money and power-driven society.

Personal identity, particularly in how individuality is challenged by caste, is a major theme explored through each protagonist. The chauffeur starts out as one of the unnamed poor. Through his relationship with the well-off and influential, his name, Ajay, is revealed. In spite of the stature and special dispensation his position affords, his public persona continues as a nameless “Wadia man.” Even as he advances in his employment, his individualism is less important than his station in life. With switchblade-sharp precision, Kapoor demonstrates that in an instant, in spite of his achievements, Ajay can be reduced to the lowliest rank. Thus, even a “Wadia man” represents every man below the highest echelon of privilege.  Kapoor’s most violent passages often twist this knife, such as when Ajay is doused in Scotch and scapegoated to conceal Sunny Wadia’s role in the crash.

As scion to India’s most powerful syndicated crime dynasty, Sunny relishes luxury labels in fashion, food and drink, along with drugged sexcapades, while Ajay waits on him hand and foot. Inwardly, Sunny is afflicted by longing for approbation from his father, who values only wealth and dominance. He also yearns for intellectual credibility and dreams of converting the impoverished and unsanitary riverbanks of Delhi to a world-class city like Singapore or Hong Kong. But Kapoor pits all her characters against daunting obstacles. In a line reminiscent of “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” Sunny is told, “But this is Delhi.”

Other evocations in Kapoor’s writing—including material excesses akin to the Kardashians, a trained assassin the likes of John Wick, and family turbulence that rivals The Godfather—are too obvious to go unmentioned, but the unique pathos with which she imbues her characters saves them from becoming stereotypes. While Sunny Wadia seems to be the Michael Corleone of his gangster family, the comparison stops when his more complex flaws erupt and reveal him to be closer to his namesake, Sonny Corleone.

As negative publicity grows for Sunny’s development project, he meets Neda, an idealistic journalist Kapoor paints as both smart and naïve. Neda’s outward bravado camouflages her insecurities, and her criticism of environmental issues conflicts with her attraction to Sunny. Kapoor is consistent in proving that fortune provides the ultimate seduction. In her infatuation, Neda is unable to see through Sunny’s swashbuckling exterior. In another of Kapoor’s twists, Neda is blindsided by the same forces of betrayal she exposes in her journalism. If it is disappointing that Neda’s professional capabilities take a back seat to her destiny, this is Kapoor’s point: only the mob bosses win.

Kapoor’s protagonists are tormented, some at the hands of their oppressors, and others by their own self-defeating choices. The novel’s epigraphic quote from The Mahabharata foreshadows its climax: “They will have no wisdom. And for this, covetousness and avarice will overwhelm them all.” In the end, however, Kapoor’s layered crafting of her characters’ intense yearning to overcome their circumstances naturally promotes the hope that they are not all doomed. If Age of Vice is any indication, their downfall in the next two books will not be without a bloody good fight to the finish.

Betty-Jo Tilley writes in Los Angeles and is an MFA candidate in the low-residency creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) program of UC Riverside-Palm Desert.