63 pages • 2 hours readDeepti Kapoor
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Age of Vice (2023) by Deepti Kapoor is the first instalment of a trilogy plumbing the dark, glittering world of violence, wealth, and politics in North India in the early 21st century. Filled with the extremes of poverty and wealth, parties, power-hungry politicians, and violence, the book occupies the space between action-packed thriller and socially conscious literary fiction. The novel traces the lives of rich and idealistic mafia heir Sunny Wadia; Neda Kapoor, the smart journalist with a weakness for Sunny; and Ajay, the poor young man whom circumstances force into an efficient assassin. In a morally corrupt world of socioeconomic inequality, intoxicating aspiration, and betraying fathers, the three protagonists realize that saving one’s soul is the hardest choice.
Kapoor balances her action-packed narration with social commentary. Using satire, juxtaposition, and real-world allusions, she portrays the fractured world of Delhi during the economic boom of the early aughts. Ajay, Sunny, and Neda’s intersecting lives raise crucial questions about the centrality of violence in systemic inequality, and the price that marginalized people pay for the development of the few. A New York Times bestseller, Age of Vice is in development as a television series.
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Kapoor grew up in North India and worked as a journalist in Delhi for many years. She has stated in interviews that her close grasp of the contradictions in modern Indian society is informed by her experiences as a reporter. In 2014, Kapoor published her first novel, A Bad Character, which was short-listed for the prestigious Prix Médicis étranger. Age of Vice is Kapoor’s second novel. Kapoor currently lives in Lisbon, Portugal.
This guide follows the Juggernaut Books 2023 India paperback edition.
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Content Warning: The source text and this guide contain discussions of graphic violence, suicide, sexual assault, and child labor.
It is a bitterly cold February night in New Delhi in 2004. Gautam Rathore, the spoiled son of a rich royal-turned-politician, accidentally drives his Mercedes over five sleeping pavement-dwellers, killing them instantly. Gautam goes scot-free and the killings are pinned on Ajay, the bodyguard and chauffeur of Sunny Wadia, Gautam’s friend. Ajay is sent to prison where he awaits trial.
Ajay agrees to take the fall for Gautam on Sunny’s insistence. Ajay’s deference to Sunny has its roots in his traumatic childhood. He was born in an extremely poor Dalit family in Eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). The Dalit are the lowest class in Hindu society, formerly called the untouchables. As a child, Ajay witnesses the village headman and moneylender brothers, Kuldeep and Rajdeep Singh, beat his father to death and cause the sexual assault of his beloved older sister, Hema. Subsequently, eight-year-old Ajay is sold into domestic slavery to a couple in a Himalayan town. When Ajay turns 19, he meets the holidaying Sunny Wadia, heir of one of Delhi’s richest families. Hoping Sunny’s offer of a job will transform his life, Ajay moves to Delhi, quickly rising through the Wadia household to become Sunny’s right-hand man.
Ajay learns Sunny has a contentious relationship with his father, Bunty Wadia. While Ajay idolizes the rich and charismatic Sunny, he does not realize that proximity to the Wadias is drawing him into a dark web of deception and betrayal.
Sunny’s father Bunty Wadia works closely with Ram Singh, the corrupt Chief Minister of UP. Together, Ram Singh and the Wadias monopolize the state’s businesses and steal public money. Bunty’s brother Vicky Wadia is even more corrupt and terrifying, a violent godman who runs nefarious businesses, including human trafficking, in Eastern UP. A visit to Vicky’s mills in UP triggers Ajay’s memories of his childhood trauma, which he had so far suppressed. He returns to his village to seek vengeance on the brothers Kuldeep and Rajdeep Singh, but Vicky stops him. Vicky tells Ajay the Singh brothers work for him. Once their use for Vicky is done, he will personally deliver them to Ajay for retribution. Vicky tells Ajay that his sister Hema, who left their village a few years after she was assaulted, is alive.
Sunny’s relationship with the journalist Neda Kapur further drives a wedge between him and his father Bunty. Bunty resents Neda’s investigation of the slums his real estate firm is secretly demolishing to make way for skyscrapers for the rich. To punish Sunny for his transgression, Bunty has Sunny’s apartment sacked and Neda nearly killed. Sunny turns to his old schoolmate, the dissolute Gautam Rathore, to bankroll his ambitious plans of transforming urban spaces.
The night of the Mercedes killings, Gautam dashes Sunny’s hopes of getting an investment. An enraged Sunny has Ajay give chase to Gautam’s car. Sunny and Neda watch as Gautam runs over the pavement-dwellers. Sunny snaps an incriminating picture of Gautam unconscious at the wheel of the Mercedes to use for future leverage, and has Gautam and Neda taken away. He asks Ajay to sit inside the Mercedes so a story can be concocted that Ajay was the one who drove over the pavement-dwellers. Later, Sunny tells his father that everything he did was for him, finally winning Bunty’s respect.
Bunty packs Neda off to London on the threat of harming her parents, with Sunny in the dark about her fate. In London, Neda discovers she is pregnant. Bunty lies to her that Sunny has lost interest in her. Neda terminates the pregnancy. Dinesh Singh, the politician son of Ram Singh, the corrupt Chief Minister of UP, reveals Bunty’s deception to Sunny. Shortly afterward, a chain of events leads to Sunny being kidnapped for ransom by Vicky Wadia’s henchman Sunil Rastogi. Rastogi beats Sunny up, plants the suggestion that Vicky may be Sunny’s biological father, takes the ransom money, and flees the spot.
After these events and reveals, Sunny turns on Bunty once more, aligning with Dinesh Singh to get Bunty out of his life. Sunny also agrees to marry the heiress Farah Dhillon to have access to her money and contacts. Meanwhile, Vicky Wadia has Ajay do his dirty work in prison by threatening to harm Ajay’s sister Hema. Killing for Vicky turns Ajay into a shell of his former self.
When Ajay gets an invite and a day’s compassionate leave for Sunny’s wedding, the novel’s various narrative threads converge. On the night of Sunny and Farah’s wedding, Ajay is sent to kill henchman Sunil Rastogi, but Rastogi manages to escape. Dinesh Singh gets his own father and Bunty Wadia arrested on charges of corruption, providing inconvertible proof of their collusion. As the cops are taking Bunty away, Vicky Wadia pulls a hidden trick. He has Bunty killed by Sunil Rastogi, eliminating his roadblock to the Wadia fortune. Wanting to take back control of his life, Ajay flees Delhi to begin a new chapter. However, the novel ends on the note that Ajay’s quest may be interrupted. The action will now continue in the second book of the trilogy.