Deepti Kapoor - “It’s tough to be a writer if you don’t have family money”
The author of Age of Vice on her new literary crime thriller that captures the world of politics, patronage and power and is perhaps the only Indian novel to have been auctioned directly in Hollywood for a multimillion dollar TV deal
Age of Vice is an ambitious novel with a huge canvas that explores the tentacles of corruption, in collusion with power, in India. Did you conceive it as a big India novel that reflects on its contemporary reality?
Barely enough. After I wrote my first book, A Bad Character (2014), a small novella with a narrow focus on experiencing grief, desire and trauma in New Delhi, I was figuring out what to do. The new novel sprang from an idea I toyed with as a journalist in New Delhi. Around 2009, India was incredibly exciting. The effects of liberalisation were palpable and Delhi was exploding in terms of infrastructure and real estate development. Both Gurugram and Noida, the satellite cities, were coming up with offices, call centres, parks, malls and there was money pouring in. It felt like a really interesting time that I was recording in small ways as a journalist, driving around a lot, meeting people, talking to them.
At that point of time, however, I couldn’t think beyond the immediacy of filing stories. It was only later, when I was in Goa after my first book had come out, that I realised I had that material and wanted to do something with it. Also, around that time, I had fallen in with a bunch of pretty rich and privileged people and we used to party together. I had their stories as well, but when I decided I wanted to write about Delhi or India, I wanted to just write about crony capitalism, gangster capitalism, Delhi-UP corruption, extreme inequality, the complicity of the average middle-class Indian, someone like me.
When all of these things came together, it started to become a wider project. I had the characters of Neda Kapur, the Delhi journalist, and her love interest Sunny Wadia in my head for a long time, but when Ajay’s character (Wadia’s aide) was born, I realised that it could be a bigger novel. It was an inorganic process that kept building and building and building. When the character of Sunil Rastogi came through, I had already finished 3/4th of the project. He wasn’t something I intended to write, but when he came to me, I decided to go ahead.
How was the process of writing Age of Vice different from A Bad Character?
In A Bad Character, I explored grief, desire and trauma from the point of view of a young woman, with a very narrow focus. It was only her point of view, her grief, her desire, her idea of her life in Delhi and her rebelling against her family structures, against what she sees as an unfair society. She recounts her experiences of discovering drugs through her boyfriend, sex and coming of age in the city.
With Age Of Vice, I move out into the world. It is a political novel, in which I wanted to investigate corruption. I remember feeling a deep sense of shame and guilt when the Nirbhaya gang rape happened. I tried to figure out why it happened and it led me to the different kinds of corruption that have existed in India, especially in the post-liberalisation era, which has been interesting socially, politically and economically. It was free for all, in many ways. A kind of nouveau riche society, with Delhi at the centre of it all. But, then, there was also UP. I started to read a lot about the relationship between politics and crime: from Josy Joseph to Milan Vaishnav.
I suddenly realised that I could set my novel in this larger world. I wanted to write something that was both propulsive and entertaining. It’s tough to be a professional writer if you don’t have family money. I didn’t have any. My mother is a widow. My husband and I lived off freelance work when we were in Goa; I taught yoga and he was photographing Goa. It was cheaper to live in Goa at that point of time and we had a decent lifestyle. But I knew that if I wanted to keep writing novels, I had to figure it out. You can’t write a small literary novel and hope that it’ll get published first because that’s really hard nowadays. And, even if you get published, there is no guarantee that it will get the attention of the media or readers though it may get nominated for some awards. It’s, after all, a lottery. At some point, I thought I’m just going to pour everything into this work. A few years ago, we moved to Lisbon because we wanted to get our European residency before Brexit; my husband is British, but we never lived in England. In Goa, we were living quite precariously. I gave it all to this book and hoped for the best.
Your novel criss-crosses through India, from Delhi to the hinterlands of UP, from Himachal Pradesh to Goa, evoking the grim state of affairs in the country. There is a lot of detailing that’s very refreshing even though the plot seems familiar. How did you arrive at these diverse stories?
I travelled and spent a lot of time in the Himalayas. When my husband and I were living in Goa, we had a side gig, but it was very good for us to travel. I was working for a start-up website centred on Indian boutique hotels and Bed and Breakfasts. It was set up by an English guy who needed us to travel around the country, stay in different places, take photographs and put them up. It allowed us to stay at different places. While my husband would wander around with his camera, I’d be writing. We’d go from place to place. If we found a few nice hotels, we’d write to them, asking whether we could come and stay for the feature. We’d head for the place if they agreed. So, we’d travel with no real purpose, making some money along the way, and not ever feeling the need to leave.
We are really lucky that we could just stay at diverse places where we had all kinds of encounters with people. We spent a couple of months in Leh, a few months in Srinagar, and then went to upper Manali, observing life around us wherever we stayed. At that point of time, I wasn’t thinking of the novel, but just observing, recording, talking to people, and listening to their stories. All of that informed Age of Vice; aimless travel helped.
The literary crime thriller genre in India has largely been an uncharted territory. What fascinates you about the genre?
I didn’t set out to write a crime thriller. I started with the car crash because I thought it’s a great dramatic incident which involves the servant, the master, and the journalist. I thought all these characters could come together and it could set off a chain of events. And, then, I could explore the lives of the characters. It’s because of this, and the deaths in the beginning, that it came to be slotted under the crime thriller genre. But I’m happy because crime thrillers tend to sell more than any other genres at the moment.
The novel is a fast-paced read, so it has become a crime thriller. The truth is that crime was inescapable in the story. UP is inherently quite violent and if I’m talking about crony capitalism and politics, it is bound to be there. In the novel, there are small crimes, but there are also larger crimes that we don’t even look at. They involve politicians, and businessmen who have taken over the government. The deep structural crime leads to all the problems that we see today. I was interested in trying to find a way to connect all of them. These larger crimes are sometimes not even conceived as crimes. There are many MPs and MLAs in UP with criminal cases against them. When I read the books about gangsterism and criminals in politics, I was able to see the larger picture. I wanted to set it in a larger world so even if you have a masala-like story, its world should stay true to what has been happening or has happened.
Is the character of Neda Kapur inspired by your own lived experiences as a journalist?
Only partially. My family life is nothing like Neda’s family life. I come from a socially conservative family. We didn’t live on Malcha Marg. My parents had a very unfashionable address in East Delhi, but I knew people like that so I could give her that background because I thought it was interesting to set the waning of power of the old culturally powerful elite of India against the nouveau riche represented by Sunny and his family. I thought that there was tension in what I wanted to explore.
Neda is so young that she doesn’t know what she wants to do; it’s her mother who decides that she’ll call an old acquaintance and get her a job. But she is not cut out for the job. There is a bit of nepotism in every industry in India. I have seen that happen even in my family and wanted to explore that. What I share with Neda is her curiosity and her non-judgemental nature and, maybe, even her moral ambiguity or passivity. She is someone who learns by making stupid mistakes that set off a chain of events. Later on, she realises her responsibility and that was interesting to look at. In India, you think that you are a good person just by the virtue of belonging to a certain caste and class. As a privileged person, you have the kind of opportunities and life that so many people haven’t had and just that realisation is an interesting thing to explore. I was once a part of the life of the privileged and the glamorous. It was only later that I realised that this life is built on the foundation of extreme inequality and suffering, Age Of Vice was born from that realisation.
So much of contemporary India has been dealt with in this book. What is the outline for your next two books in the trilogy?
I’ll follow up on the stories of Sunny and Ajay, where they have been left. I don’t want to give much away, but there will be the back story of how Bunty and Vicky got to where they are. So, that will entail going back to the UP of the 1970s and 1980s. Also, Ajay will go on a journey to try and figure out who he is and he’ll realise that the people he relied upon and trusted are no longer to be trusted. Ajay is going to discover his sense of self and Neda returns to India and Sunny suddenly gets what he has always wanted. He becomes the king and the novel will explore what he does with it. That’s the outline for Book 2.
This book is also going to be adapted into a TV show. How involved have you been with the adaptation process?
Very involved. My husband and I have been working on the pilot and adapting it ourselves. We have been working with FX and with producers in America and trying to come up with something that we like, something which is also acceptable to Hollywood because they have a very particular way of conceiving a television show. It has been an interesting experience. At the moment, it’s at the very initial stage of development: we are writing the screenplay.
Once the screenplay and dialogues are done, we want to involve as many Indians as possible in the writing. When it’s time for production, we would look at the possibility of a full Indian crew. For the TV series, the story has changed quite a lot. I have been working on multiple drafts; it’s been a great learning process and very interesting, too. I think the interest from Hollywood came because it’s an extremely visual story. When you adapt, there are things that you decide not to pursue while there are other storylines that you pursue. All of that is happening right now.
You turned to fiction after the personal tragedy: the loss of your father. How has the process of writing fiction been for you?
Quite interesting and often therapeutic. When I found a way to write A Bad Character and explore that process, it was very good. Deciding that I could keep writing novels and make it about the larger world has been, oftentimes, quite difficult. While I enjoy the writing process, when the novels come out in the world, I don’t know how it’s going to be received. And that’s what I don’t enjoy because I’m quite introverted and shy. I would rather enjoy being in a corner of a room, observing people, unnoticed.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.