Cultural codes can determine how things are read. Already described as a publishing phenomenon, Age of Vice is not as read in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh – where its author Deepti Kapoor was born – as it is in Los Angeles, where producers are rushing to adapt it to television series.
As Indians navigate the varied tensions in their society – from the ancient caste divide to the more modern income-based divide – Americans can be entertained, The Godfather-style, by the legal mafia and forbidden passions that rule the age of vice.
The novel, which was published in early January, also draws comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s millennium thriller. Like the late Swedish author, Kapoor explores the darkest sides of her country, examining sexual violence, abuse of power, collusion between politicians and organized crime, and her protagonists’ alcohol and drug addictions.
The most unexpected literary reference, however, was offered by the author herself at the end of an interview with EL PAÍS in a Lisbon café. Kapoor settled in the Portuguese capital four years ago with her English husband. On a cold winter morning in mid-January – before posing for photos in the famous Praça das Flores square – Kapoor shared her crush on Rafael Chirbes. Chirbes, a well-known Spanish author who died in 2015, published several novels about his country’s post-war state.
“I read crematorium [and was] totally fascinated because I saw my story reflected in this world of corruption and speculation that he tells.”
Age of Vice is a 600 page novel. Two more parts follow, completing a trilogy that will total nearly 2,000 pages. In 2019 it was the most coveted work at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It has everything that readers want: crime, corruption, tyranny, conspiracy, debauchery and – in small doses – love, admiration and loyalty. There are also three main characters who are handcuffed by a tragic fate rarely seen in Bollywood musicals.
Not surprisingly, the book sparked a bidding war between 20 television production companies, all fighting for the audiovisual rights to a novel to be distributed in 16 countries. The author is still digesting the success of his work.
“I have never experienced something like that. My first novel [A Bad Character] It was short, with few reviews…let’s just say it died out early. This is a trilogy that will have a television series: it’s kind of a product. I’m still trying to figure out how to put it all together. It’s a strange feeling.”
Kapoor’s second book had an even more difficult road to publication than her first. Set in the world of yoga – an activity she knew well from her days as a teacher – she attracted no editorial interest.
“My agent at the time encouraged me to write about wealthy people I knew who had crazy stories – sort of like the Delhi Gatsby, with very rich people who cause a lot of suffering because they have power and hide behind their wealth. “
Contempt for the suffering of others drives Age of Vice. It begins with the incarceration of the false perpetrator of a hit and run that killed five “sidewalk dwellers” who were sleeping by the side of the road. According to Kapoor, this is very common in his country.
“There are traffic accidents in which the person who was driving is suddenly no longer behind the wheel. A poor driver goes to jail in his place.”
Kapoor puts together a literary puzzle of three basic pieces: Ajay, the outcast, Sunny Wadia, the heiress to a mafia family, and Neda Kapur, an incredulous journalist. She was content to leave the novel about an Indian Gatsby behind and instead show the social complexities of the country.
“India has never been perfect and it has always been a poor country. But in the 1990s there was a financial crisis and reforms were initiated. We have slowly evolved from a semi-socialist economy to a capitalist one. Suddenly money was flowing in many cities.”
Writer Deepti Kapoor poses in Praça das Flores – a square in Lisbon, Portugal in mid-January – JOAO HENRIQUES (JOAO HENRIQUES / EL PAIS )
Out of these freedoms and economic opportunities, a new middle class was born. People like Kapoor, who studied journalism in New Delhi, benefited from this. However, all this urbanization and economic expansion – with the arrival of multinational corporations drawn by opportunity and the largest English-speaking population in the world – created new social gaps. The suburbs grew rapidly thanks to executive salaries.
“The foundation of this world was built on extreme inequality and suffering,” notes the author. “I wanted to show the glamour, the opulence and the privilege, but also pull back the curtain to show the rot behind it.”
The new rot is superimposed on the old social segregation of Hinduism – India’s main religion – where the Dalit caste has no rights. Despite the political advances made since the 1940s with affirmative action to promote their integration, discrimination is commonplace.
“I think there is more knowledge about the atrocities against Dalits, but the violence, inequality and pain remain. Every day you can read a story about a beaten or killed Dalit. Ancient customs are maintained in rural India, although in the cities, [these individuals] can find a space to live an anonymous life.”
On her last trip to India, Kapoor met a young couple to do her research.
“They went to university and work, but no one in the boy’s office knows he is Dalit because they think they will treat him differently if he says so. There are still many painful stories.”
In the novel, the falsely accused driver is Ajay, a Dalit who was sold as a child by his mother to pay a debt. He grows up to be Sunny Wadia’s assistant – the son of an almighty mafia boss. Sunny dreams of being taller than his father while abusing drugs, alcohol, food and sex – something typical of the nouveau riche.
Western readers—and Los Angeles producers—love Ajay.
“He is the heart of my novel. I got the inspiration when I was in the mountains and traveling through the Himalayas. I met a boy who had been sent to work by his family. He lived alone, like an orphan, but he was full of hope and optimism. I decided to connect his story to that of the young people who worked in the mansions of the rich.
“When I was a journalist, I went to a lot of parties where these young men were servants or chauffeurs. They were always a bit withdrawn and always made sure that you didn’t need anything. I wondered about her life and where she came from.”
It is easier for an individual to break tradition than for a whole country to do the same. Kapoor broke some codes in her conservative family, which was shocked after her father’s death when she was only 19. This loss was followed by that of her first boyfriend.
In addition to burying idealized dreams of college life, she became the family’s official rebel. She burned away the pain and anger by stepping on the gas pedal of her car, speeding through the streets of Delhi, then a city rushing at full speed towards raging capitalism, with all its upsides and downsides. This fire burns in Age of Vice. The pain and anger shaped her as a writer.
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