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  Books   29 Jul 2023  Book Review | A literary thriller parsing corruption and class

Book Review | A literary thriller parsing corruption and class

Published : Jul 30, 2023, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Jul 30, 2023, 12:10 am IST

Age of Vice is about Ajay, a dalit from an Uttar Pradesh village who is trafficked at the age of eight to work as a servant in the mountains

Cover photo of 'Age of Vice' by Deepti Kapoor. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'Age of Vice' by Deepti Kapoor. (Photo by arrangement)

The opening of Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice is written as dispassionately as a news report. It tells the story of five pavement dwellers killed by a speeding Mercedes in the early hours of a winter morning; the arrival of police personnel who note that the driver slumped at the wheel of the expensive vehicle and reeking of whisky is not a rich man but a man just like themselves in the service of a rich man, “which means he can be hurt”; the processing of the rich man’s servant through courts and into Tihar Jail; the extreme and excessive violence this man must fight within the prison walls; and the man's rescue from the in-house gang warfare by the warden who smiles unctuously as he says: “Why didn’t you let us know? ... That you’re a Wadia man.”

It’s easy to dismiss this prologue as a cliché. In India, we’ve been reading about rich men using their servants as scapegoats for decades. So I was quite convinced that Age of Vice would be a predictable book. Nothing I hadn’t read before. Ho hum.

Oh boy, was I right! But at the same time, oh boy, was I wrong!

Age of Vice is about Ajay, a dalit from an Uttar Pradesh village who is trafficked at the age of eight to work as a servant in the mountains. When his master dies, Ajay works at a cafe where he quickly becomes a favourite among the foreign tourists. When a band of rich Indian tourists arrive, Ajay is dazzled by Sunny Wadia, the son of a very wealthy, very powerful builder closely connected to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Thinking guiltily if vaguely about the family left in his village, Ajay moves to Delhi to work for Sunny, and is immediately plunged into a world of sex, drugs and lies.

Meanwhile, Sunny cannot seem to please his father in anything. Feeling useless, he plans to clear the flood plains of the Yamuna of encroachments so he can build a waterfront worthy of London, Paris, New York. His life, like Ajay’s, is on an even keel until Neda, a journalist Sunny sometimes sees, witnesses a demolition drive on the flood plains in which a child dies. Neda is furious with Sunny who, as an apology, publishes full page ads in all the papers promising that his father’s company will pay Rs 10 lakhs as compensation to the victims of the demolition. But with this move, Sunny changes everything. And the violence of the world that has so far been hidden is well and truly unleashed.

Nothing in Age of Vice is new to any Indian reader: the rich man’s power, the politician’s power, the patriarchal entitlement of men, the haplessness and/or blindness of the middle class, the dehumanisation of the poor, the corruption that poisons us all. But one particular element makes the book fresh and exciting — the writing.

In a way, Age of Vice could be a literary thriller. It makes us want to know what happens at the end. But the end, you find, does not matter because, instead of making the story the hero, Deepti Kapoor makes her characters the heroes, thus leaving us with no excuse for being ignorant of what is happening around us. By making Ajay (poor), Sunny (rich), Neda (middle class) — and even several rapists, murderers, traffickers and thieves — so alive and so very human, she tears off the blinders we all wear to keep our illusions of security intact, and forces us to see the sickness in the world we've made for ourselves.

Age of Vice

By Deepti Kapoor


pp. 560; Rs. 899

Tags: book review, uttar pradesh (up), tihar jail