Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice (Riverhead Books) as their top pick for the January 2023 Indie Next List.
Age of Vice follows the interconnected lives of three characters from Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi where love, family and friendship are impacted by corruption, wealth and violence in this crime thriller saga.
“A potent and moving crime drama set in India, Age of Vice takes a magnifying glass to the corruption and violence caused by wealth,” said Bennard Fajardo of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC. “Sweeping in scope yet attuned to the minute details of everyday life, this is a novel that’s not to be missed.”
Here, Kapoor discusses her writing process with Bookselling This Week.
Bookselling This Week: Age of Vice spends most of the time in northern India, exploring a wide range of geographies such as farm lands, big cities, and poor villages. As someone who was born in Uttar Pradesh, where most of the story’s plot refers to, can you talk more about your process of writing and including your own reflections and experiences?
Deepti Kapoor: I am the second child, a girl, born into the most subordinate coupling of our family. My mother’s elder brother was a man who dominated everything, a lauded bureaucrat involved in the highest levels of governmental decision making. My mother’s elder sister married an engineer and moved abroad. My mother, the youngest, considered neither the most beautiful nor the most intelligent, considerations I would dispute, became the seemingly meek housewife to an intense man with a first-rate mind, hamstrung by his lack of English and his deeply impoverished background. From these two people came first my brother, who seemed to catch all the light, and I, who took the darkness. I had no special talents aside from watching and listening, but with these I learned our family histories, which all came from the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
My mother’s side was refined, educated, connected to the colonial authorities. It had its distant, unknowable God, my grandfather, a renowned police officer who brought a lot of wayward and violent men to justice, a master of disguise famed for his wars against local bandits. He drove fast, with bullets flying. It should come as no surprise, then, to hear that there’s a school built in his honor, on the exact spot where he died in a car chase at the age of thirty-five.
My grandmother, a housewife, was left widowed with three living children aged twenty-seven. Her father, a doctor, gave two options, easy and hard. Easy, become a teacher, hard, become a doctor like him. She chose hard, neglecting her children while she trained. In time she became the superintendent of a government hospital in a gangster town. That’s where I was born, delivered by her hand. That’s where I spent my summer holidays, listening to the cries of babies and mothers, and hearing the stories, like that of the gangster who would slip in at night to place a gun in his newborn son’s hand, to say “you are mine.”
My grandmother was as frightening and hard as any gangster herself. As time went by, she entered into a running battle with gangsters who became politicians who wanted to seize her hospital for themselves because it was prime commercial land. She never backed down, even at gunpoint. Any model for a tyrant, I take a pinch from her. The cold gaze, the emotional manipulation, the utterly cruel and ruthless tongue. The sliver of ice. She could have been a novelist, also.
Then there was my father’s side. I’m less connected to them. My father died when I was in college, and with him the cord was cut. But his own father was a tragic figure, who might now be considered bipolar or schizophrenic, but then was part office worker and family man, and part wandering holy man, when the spirit took him. When it took him, he took to the road, wandering and preaching, collecting followers, neglecting my father’s family, giving all their possessions away. My father grew up in this unstable poverty. Or at least, this is what I’m told.
With stories like these, how could I not write a novel like this?
About process though, I can’t say too much. It’s not something I particularly understand or analyze. I can make the calculations in my head and understand what feels right but beyond that it’s not something I can speak of. I’m not a systematized writer, not much of a detailed planner. I have notebooks where I plan things, hundreds of pages of unintelligible notes that I write once and never look at again. I think the process of note making is to capture thoughts on the page. Then later, when writing, some of the captives will scream up from the dungeons and if the wind is right maybe I’ll hear.
BTW: Each of the three main characters have their own vices that are ultimately killing them: obedience for freedom and safety for one’s family, love no matter the costs, and proving oneself to an impossible parent. Can you share more about how you crafted these characters and their motivations throughout the novel?
DK: I’m either unable or unwilling to speak about craft. It’s just not something I believe in giving away. What I can say is that characters come from life. They’re people I’ve known or met, in some shape or form. I don’t build character from concept, it’s just not something I’ve ever been interested in. I don’t have a theme I want to develop and then build out characters to dramatize these themes. I find people who have interesting stories in life and then I’ll kind of build out from these people and their stories and throw different stories against one another and see what sticks. It’s a very organic process, always couched in the real world. And at some point these essential characters start to take on a life of their own, start to do their own things. Often I think a character is going to say something and do something or go a certain way and I find they just won’t. Mid-scene, if I’ve made a plan, plotted out a line of thought or action or dialogue, I’ll find the character does something else, and I can’t deny them this. In response the other characters adapt or respond, and off the novel goes. Only the very start of this novel was planned. Everything else wrote itself along the way. It’s a messy way of creation, but it’s the only way that works for me.
BTW: As the story unfolds, Sunny shares an unfortunate predicament: “No one gets their life back. No one ever gets it back. Life just runs away from you. It never comes back, however hard you try, however much you want it to. This is the lesson you should know. You have to adapt or die.” This seems to echo through most of the main characters before they go down a road so complex they cannot go back. How do choice and the agency shape the novel, and what does this say about the agency we have in our own lives?
DK: Speaking very personally, I don’t want to build a tomb around my novel, meaning I do not want to give readers any solid answers that will end up becoming a novel’s sarcophagus. If I say x or y definitively, the novel dies. So aside from not knowing the answer, I respectfully refuse the answer as well!
BTW: Neda spent several years as a journalist along with her mentor Dean, who wrote a scandalous piece about the Wadia family but ultimately was threatened into not publishing it. How did you decide to write about this relationship between power, influence, and journalism?
DK: There are several good reasons, the most banal being that journalism is a good vehicle for exposition, the most genuine being that this power/influence relationship is universal, and around us all the time, not only in Delhi but all over the world. Journalism is a conduit, in its idealized form it’s supposed to inform, protect, fight against tyranny, bring truth to power, but this is also unrealistic, since the people behind journalism are human, and being human they are subject to the same frailties as the rest of the world, chiefly lust for money, a desire for influence, a yearning for power. In any nation, it’s rare for an influential journalist not to succumb to money and power. In fragile democracies, where criminals enter the body politic, it’s even rarer. The man or woman that holds influence without money and power is a saint or a prophet, a threat to both money and power, and likely not long for this world.
In Delhi and UP itself, I became fascinated by the processes of corruption. Exactly how a journalist might operate in these conditions, how they might look to be corrupted, or try to fight it, how they work within the systems of power. Neda’s tragedy is that she never thinks of herself as a journalist. She never learned what a journalist is supposed to do. She never believed in the profession. Although Dean was a kind of priest, it was never her calling.
BTW: Sunny shares with Neda, “I love beauty, I want to create beautiful things. But that’s the last thing they understand. They want me to have a beautiful surface and be rotten to the core, like they are.” Corruption, manipulation, morality, and family are huge themes in Age of Vice. How did you decide to create the narrative around these themes?
DK: Show me modern India, and I’ll show you corruption, manipulation, morality and family. That’s not to say there aren’t other stories, other lenses. You could have absurdity, sacrifice and beauty within the same set of events. So of course, it comes down to intention, personal preference, how to sell it. But for me, the overriding story of my nation is corruption, its causes and its consequences. I mean, these are the themes of modern India! How could I not build around them? But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to say I didn’t create the narrative around these themes, so much as these themes live inside the narrative my characters inhabit. It might sound a little wanky to say it, but it’s the truth.
BTW: Age of Vice is the first in a trilogy, and soon to be adapted! What can we expect from the sequel and/or the rest of the series?
DK: More Ajay. Ajay building a new consciousness from rock bottom. Neda returning to India. Sunny in a yoga retreat. And the past. How Bunty and Sunny became who they were and are.
BTW: How have independent bookstores played a role in your life?
DK: One of my first jobs was in an independent bookstore in Delhi. Aside from letting me discover new books, it gave me a small but solid anchor in the tough city. I learned that you could trust an Indie seller to recommend a book that will be real, surprising, refreshing, different, their choice and suggestion uncorrupted by anything except their own unique mind. Later on, in other Indies, I discovered writers like Paul Bowles and Anna Kavan, Natsumi Soseki. There was one store in Delhi, I can’t remember the name now, but it had a small carousel of books from the London publisher Peter Owen. Such precious gold! Especially living in India, pre-Internet, such bookstores were lifelines, they nourished me, connected me to the wider world. And taught me early on that novels don’t have to follow rules, that they can be strange.