Three years ago, Deepti Kapoor’s Indian crime trilogy went through a bidding war, not just for the books—including translations in fifteen languages—but also for Hollywood film rights. As unusual as crime blockbusters set in India may be, Age of Vice, the first book in the trilogy, has catapulted Kapoor into the running for the hottest new crime writer of the moment.
Age of Vice mainly takes place in Delhi and begins with a fatal car crash at a time when most people are asleep. The description of the event, like much of her writing, is staccato, short and to the point:
Five pavement-dwellers lie dead at the side of Delhi’s Inner Ring Road.
It sounds like the start of a sick joke.
If it is, no one told them.
They die where they slept.
Their bodies have been dragged ten meters by the speeding Mercedes that jumped the curb and cut them down.
It’s February. Three a.m. Six degrees.
Fifteen million souls curl up in sleep.
A pale fog of sulfur lines the streets.
Among the dead are a young pregnant woman and her husband, along with a few other migrants, new to Delhi in search of work. The Mercedes responsible for the crash is registered to a wealthy businessman and behind the wheel is his driver, Ajay. The novel is told mainly from the perspectives of Ajay, his boss Sunny Wadia, and an investigative reporter named Neda Kapur.
Ajay is from a poor family in Uttar Pradesh that sells him into indentured servitude at the age of eight after his father is killed by local gangsters. The couple that buys him die a decade later, and Ajay is free. After working on the beach in Goa, he is hired by Sunny Wadia, a young real estate developer and the son of Bunty Wadia, a powerful gangster who is tied to politics, industry, and the police. Nothing escapes Bunty or his brother, Vikram “Vicky” Wadia.
Sunny has plans to turn Delhi into the next Singapore, a residential and entertainment hub that will attract professionals from around the world. Ajay’s loyalty to his boss is rewarded and he is soon hired to be Sunny’s bodyguard. Kapoor’s storytelling is immeasurably strengthened by the seemingly small details that provide extra layers to the novel. Ajay, for example
is given training by the protection unit. He is taught by Eli, a young Israeli, ex-IDF officer. Eli comes from a family of Kerala Jews; he has golden skin and curly long hair, a tall rangy body. He went backpacking after his service, just like his fellow soldiers. He spent time in the Himalayas with his countrymen, getting stoned, riding Royal Enfields, until he found his way to Bombay. He tried his hand at modeling, but his temper was on a hair trigger, he was too volatile. He got into one too many fights, escaped arrest, made his way to Delhi.
Reporter Neda Kapur, the only female main character, finds herself caught between her humble background as the daughter of genteely impecunious intellectuals and the glitz and glamor of Sunny’s caviar and champagne parties. Neda and Sunny’s relationship begins as a professional one when Neda hopes to interview Sunny, but the two soon find themselves in a whirlwind romance.
But not all is bright and sunny with the couple. Sunny disappears for weeks, leaving Neda’s texts and calls unanswered. Yet Sunny always returns and the more he puts her through this rollercoaster ride of emotions, the more Neda feels determined to get back to “normal” with him. On Valentine’s Day, after not having spoken to Neda in weeks, Sunny calls out of the blue and asks her to fly to Goa to meet him. She knows she should decline, but an hour after they hang up she calls her travel agent. The flight scene is short and cinematic.
The flight down was only a quarter full. There were a dozen or so businessmen, a couple of travel-worn backpackers cheating on India by taking the plane. She curled up right away on three seats, put her winter coat over her, and tried to sleep. She didn’t want to think. She had recently achieved some success by not thinking about anything at all. She was terrified of seeing him.
Crime stories rarely have happy endings and Age of Vice is no exception, but in this case a couple of the storylines seem to stop abruptly without any hint of a conclusion, perhaps waiting for the sequels. The novel is long at 550 pages, so it’s hard to predict where the stories will go in the next (and hopefully not long-delayed) two books in the trilogy.