A tale of two Indias
Struggle between rich and poor laid bare in Kapoor’s second novel
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Deepti Kapoor’s novel Age of Vice opens with a brutal act of violence, in which five innocent people are killed. Because these people are pavement dwellers, asleep on a sidewalk when they are run over, their lives are of little consequence. However, a servant is hauled out of the driver’s seat of the Mercedes and sent to jail. But was he the one at the wheel when the car jumped the curb, or is he taking the fall for someone else?
Age of Vice is Kapoor’s second novel. Kapoor worked as a journalist in New Delhi and grew up in northern India, using her personal knowledge to enhance the story’s authenticity, as most of the book’s action takes place in New Delhi and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
The novel is basically a tale of two Indias — one an urban metropolis, where fabulously wealthy families such as the Wadias completely control every aspect of their employees’ lives, and the other the rural countryside where families like Ajay’s struggle to survive. Sunny Wadia is a spoiled playboy whose father Bunty and uncle Vickram have monopolies on major industries thanks to their ability to pay off and control politicians and police. Ajay, by contrast, is the son of a man brutally beaten after his goat eats a neighbour’s spinach.
Ajay becomes Sunny’s manservant who obeys his master’s every command and cleans up his messes. “His job is to manage the mornings. When Sunny wakes, he does not want to see the debris of the previous night,” Kapoor writes.
Sunny comes to the attention of young junior reporter, Neda Kapur, after she hears a former classmate discussing Sunny’s wild, extravagant lifestyle. “He was an art dealer, a party planner, a restaurateur, a provocateur. He was the son of a multimillionaire from the States. Or a dot-com millionaire himself. No one seemed to know for sure. But he was the vanguard, the architect, the patron saint, on the fringes of anything new or exciting or strange.”
When Neda first meets him she can’t understand why others are so fascinated by him, but soon falls under his spell. “It was more just how he carried himself, a combination of stature and style, the way, she thought, movie stars carried themselves.”
Neda’s editor warns her against Sunny, saying, “Sunny Wadia? That joker? Seriously, don’t waste your time. He’s just another rich kid in a sandpit. Empty calories.” He adds that Sunny’s father is a gangster and crony of a crooked politician.
Sunny defends his father against these accusations. “My father is a businessman, pure and simple. He wasn’t born with money or connections; he has no friends in high places. His father before him was an alcoholic, a grain merchant. Papa left school and took over the business when he was fifteen. His father died soon after. He did what he had to do to survive. Out there in UP. Where no one helps you if you don’t help yourself. Where the odds are stacked against you.”
Despite becoming aware that Sunny and his father are demolishing slums along the Yamuna River in Delhi and displacing impoverished residents, Neda believes in Sunny’s stated goal of creating a tourist-friendly riverside development. He tells her the residents will get land and homes with electricity and running water. “Everyone can win here. We romanticize poverty too much. India doesn’t need to be this way. We can raise everyone up.”
Neda gets drawn into Sunny’s world of wealth and excess even though she knows something isn’t right. Ajay often drives her to and from her dates with Sunny, so she grows fond of this loyal young servant. Ajay comes to her rescue after a car accident, and Neda is shocked by the violent way Ajay deals with the men who were threatening her.
Sunny seems to be struggling with his role as son of a powerful man and tells Neda that he wants to leave the lifestyle he’s fallen into. “I’m tired. I’m stuck between the s—t my father does and the things I can’t do.”
Kapoor effectively creates a world where the rich can buy anything and anyone they want, or destroy those who refuses to take their money. But, as the old saying goes, money can’t buy happiness, and ultimately the Wadia family discovers the saying’s true.
Andrea Geary is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.