The inciting incident of Age of Vice, a horrific collision between dissolute wealth and harsh poverty, marks out the central theme from the very start. It’s 2004 in New Delhi and a speeding Mercedes with a drunk driver at the wheel plows into a group of street sleepers, killing five.
This symbolic yet seemingly senseless act also binds together the three main protagonists of an impressively ambitious literary thriller: Sunny Wadia, the playboy scion of a major crime family; Neda Kapur, an investigative journalist; and Ajay, a hapless footsoldier in the Wadias’ nefarious business empire. Their lives interweave in an epic story of political and moral corruption in contemporary India. With intricate yet plausible plotting, the book has all the energy of a high-concept crime thriller. What makes it compelling is the emotional intelligence of Kapoor’s characterizations.
We start with Ajay, born into squalor and privation in Uttar Pradesh Age of Vice. A lower-caste boy, he is “less than poor”.
Sold into slavery at the age of eight and serving in a backpacker cafe by his teens, he slowly works his way up to become a “Wadia man”, as Sunny’s valet and bodyguard. Ajay’s picaresque struggle provides some kind of moral compass to our tale and a ground zero from which to view the vicious hierarchies we encounter on the way. He seems to rise up, yet every material gain brings a spiritual loss of self. When he tries to do the right thing, he is simply used as a fall guy, but pushed too far, he is eventually driven by a heartbreaking quest for revenge and redemption.
It is through Ajay that we get to know Sunny. Age of Vice Spoilt but clever and charismatic, his superficial bluster masks a deeply conflicted soul. The philanthropic projects he uses to front the Wadias’ criminal activities betray a yearning for idealism and a desire for rebellion against his twisted family values. He starts to think of a riverside development as a real opportunity to transform Delhi for the better until it is revealed as a gruesome property fraud.
This, and his ill-fated relationship with Neda, provoke a lethal conflict with his father. Age of Vice In a morally inverted world, Sunny is propelled on a downward trajectory, finding himself dragged back into his grim familial destiny and feeling “the desire to corrupt grow within him”.
Neda “grew up in the world of cultural elites” with radical parents, and Sunny “represented that vulgar new India her mother railed against. He fit into that line and transcended it.” With a dangerous mix of cynicism and naivety, she is drawn in by his disruptive glamour and only realizes she is out of her depth when it’s too late. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ethics in journalism,” she admits in an unsent confessional email to her former editor. “I knew injustice when I saw it, in a novel, on the news, but I never understood the process of its creation.”
“This is Kali Yuga,” she declares in the same email, “the losing age, the age of vice.” This Hindu cyclic era of decadence, also referenced in the Mahabharata, gives a classical context for the deadly struggle Neda finds herself caught up.
She feels helpless yet guilty at her own inaction, at one point defining herself as a “recovering coward”. Ill-fated love and toxic family power struggles provide the emotional drive for this big dynastic saga of organized crime that could be India’s answer to The Godfather. The epigram Mario Puzo borrowed from Balzac is equally apt here: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” Now seems a good time to examine the underbelly of India’s capitalist system from the inside, and Kapoor clearly knows her subject well. Age of Vice feeling of authenticity she brings to this fictional world gives it real political and moral weight.
And though there is plenty of action and much violence in this novel, the real suspense is found in the power dynamics that motivate the brutality, putting its players in constant jeopardy. Kapoor writes with a spare, hard-boiled style, fuelling the pace of her narrative but allowing for starkly lyrical touches as well. (At a roadhouse during Ajay’s childhood transit, “a mindless tube light gathers yearning moths”.)
Her analysis is often razor-sharp, defining a “globalized Age of Vice world given over to solitary consumption”. She takes time with her characters, but there’s a brightness to her prose that lets us connect directly to these very alienated protagonists. Not so much a slow burn as a constantly sparking fuse.
Age of Vice Everything builds to a set-piece climax at an opulent wedding where “the guest list is a who’s who of modern India” and a killer from the guttersnipe Chaddi Baniyan gang is on the loose. Once more low life and high society collide in an explosive denouement and the ending hints that there is more to come. Age of Vice certainly does not disappoint as a commercial crime thriller and is already in development as a TV series. But it deserves literary plaudits as well, for its depth and relevance, and for proving once more that the novel remains the supreme medium of long-form narrative drama for us to binge upon.