Some cities act like novels, and some novels reach the heart of their cities. Charles Dickens’s whole life is in London; James Ellroy’s LA is excitingly sultry, murky and murderous; Edith Wharton’s New York is a snake’s nest of crooked newcomers and old money. Forty years ago, Salman Rushdie wrote Mumbai in several of his novels as a mix of ancient culture and chaotic modernity. But now it’s the turn of contemporary New Delhi.
Deepti Kapoor set her first novel there, bad character and it is a place he returns to in his new novel, The Age of Vice. It is an ambitious, albeit flawed, book, but also a love letter to the city it depicts as a panorama of carnage, confusion and possibilities.
The story begins with a Mercedes crashing into a group of homeless people sleeping on the edge of Delhi’s Inner Ring Road. Among those killed were a pregnant teenage girl and a group of laborers from rural Uttar Pradesh. They are, Kapoor writes, “the working poor” and “they die where they slept,” clustered near slums recently demolished to make way for controversial new urban renewal. When the police arrive, they find an impassive Ajay behind the wheel.
Ajay is one of the three protagonists of the novel and the only likable one. At the beginning of the book, he takes the form of an Indian Bildungsroman, going back in time to tell his journey from the poor mountains to the glittering city. Separated from his family as a child, Ajay ends up working in the Goan party scene, rolling joints to Western tourists and Indian playboys until the wealthy Sunny Wadia pulls him out of the dark. Employed as Sunny’s “man”, he is thrown into the Wadia family crime syndicate. It soon becomes clear that Sunny’s exterior as one of the city’s celebrities – “art dealer, party organizer, restaurateur, provocateur” – masks connections to political corruption and violent crime.
Kapoor gives the watchful and taciturn Ajay an enticing mystery, but he ends up being a quiet street urchin, foolishly manipulated by his wealthy patron. The novel’s critical voice is reserved for Neda Kapur, a top reporter at The Delhi Post, who sets out to uncover the real story behind Sunny’s enterprises. Rather awkwardly, she falls for him. And this is where the novel really stumbles, it has neither a moral compass nor a heroine to root for. As an investigative journalist, Neda is useless. As a character, she is very irritating, gives off an air of cold displeasure, smokes, swears and even at one point obnoxiously declares “I’m a cynic” to a mystifyingly impressed Sunny.
Kapoor may be saying that even cynics are susceptible to the seduction of wealth, but it doesn’t help that Nedda and Sunny’s romance takes the form of agonizing post-coital exchanges: “I love that you never asked if I loved you. ,” he says. “I like that I never needed to tell you that,” she replies.
Kapoor’s thin characters quickly disintegrate into cliche, but when it comes to Delhi, she’s brilliant. A giddy Sunny declares to an enthusiastic crowd of rich young people: “We’re going to transform the city! . . . This is India’s century. Our century!” Kapoor’s novel points to the contradictions of New Delhi: the brilliant dreams it harbors and the desperate price they might come to realize.
The past is also always present. Kapoor made us realize this through powerful passing details. Neda’s educated liberal parents rose, she notes, to “prominence in colonial days”, their green, walled home in Malcha Marg born of money “from handloom exports in the 1980s during the License Raj”. Their success, she notes, “was a by-product of intellect, refinement, work ethic and a great deal of bypassing the maze of permits to get tax-free contracts through their well-connected friends.” One of Sunny’s dubious associates is a decaying Indian aristocrat, the grandson of the “Honorable Maharaja Sukhvir Singh Rathore,” who in 1948, “worshipped by the British, resolutely indifferent to the cause of independence,” took a princely allowance in exchange for the dissolution of his kingdom — a concession later abolished under the rule of Indira Gandhi. Kapoor impressively telescopes this complex imperial and post-imperial history so that we see the forces that continue to shape the city and the lives of the people in it.
Sunny dreams of a modern India populated by brilliant art galleries and slums converted into cultural landmarks. He dreams of Delhi as a “window to the world,” but Neda reminds him that they are living through what is known in Hindu cosmology as the “Kali Yuga,” an age of vice or discord, an age of decadence in which every triumph will be met with tragedy.
Kapurova The Age of Vice revels in this dramatic tension, and the story moves convincingly forward between Ajay, Sunny and Neda. Unsurprisingly, the book already boasts a “20-way bidding war for movie rights won by FX and Fox 21.” Even if her characters aren’t quite up to her ambitions in this novel, Kapoor’s city promises to come alive on screen.
The Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, Fleet £20/Penguin Publishing Group $30, 560 pages
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