Nothing good happens in the 546 pages of Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice, whose Hindi subtitle is Kaliyug. The novel is the first in a planned trilogy and is set to be a TV series. The 42-year-old Lisbon-based ex-journalist wrote this saga of crime, corruption, and capitalism set largely in Delhi and around it, between 2016 and 2019.

But Age of Vice had been churning inside her for two decades.

Her first novel, A Bad Character (2014), followed the transformative romantic relationship of a woman in her 20s in Delhi. Snatches of A Bad Character can be found in Age of Vice too, in the form of the journalist Neda, who falls in love with Sunny Wadia, the scion of a gangster capitalist family with its roots in Uttar Pradesh. The transformation of Delhi and the National Capital Region from a quaint urban village into a violent and primeval metropolis through the 2000s, when Kapoor worked as a journalist, is one of the novel’s major themes. The third protagonist, Ajay, a Dalit who works for the Wadias, establishes the inequality of contemporary Delhi – and India, at large.

Kapoor spoke to Scroll about the making of the novel and being a writer. Excerpts from the interview.

Where does a novel like Age of Vice come from? What is Deepti Kapoor’s origin story?
I was born in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, on May 9, 1980. My father worked at the State Bank of India. My mother was a housewife. My maternal grandmother was a gynaecologist and the superintendent of Moradabad hospital, so I was born there. My father had a transferable job, so we moved from Kanpur to Mumbai to Bahrain. The Gulf War happened. My parents felt the region was unstable, so they sent me to an all-girls’ boarding school, Welham, in Dehradun, where I stayed till the end of school. My parents returned to India and moved from Gwalior to Bhopal and then to Delhi, where I studied journalism at Lady Shree Ram College.

While I was in college, my father developed a bad form of cancer, a brain tumour. He was sent in for a biopsy and came out of the hospital paralysed. There was another year to go until his death. It changed my life from being a carefree college student to someone whose life was marked by death. My mother was grieving at home. It was a bad situation. To escape this I started working as a freelance reporter while in college. I had my first relationship then with a guy who introduced me to cinema, music, a more transgressive way of living, and to Delhi itself – where to get the best kebabs, the streets, the lanes, the dargahs. He introduced me to a side of Delhi I didn’t know. Those years made it into A Bad Character.

By the time he died in a train accident, I had completed my masters in social psychology and was a journalist. My brother left India to work in the UK, and he left me his car. The car was an escape, which you see in A Bad Character.

I was initially a social trends correspondent. This was the early 2000s. Delhi was changing, transforming. I was looking at the changing city, documenting social trends. I would be sent by my editors to go figure what college students were doing. The job basically let me ask people questions. India was opening up. Suddenly, there were new bars and restaurants, new ways of living which were more Westernised.

There was this great, big explosion of money, and suddenly new kinds of journalism, like lifestyle journalism, took off in a big way. You could make money in lifestyle journalism. Then I became an editor at a men’s magazine, for which I’d have to arrange bizarre fashion shoots and commission articles on luxury watches and films. When I hit my late 20s, I decided this was not for me. I was partying a lot, grieving the twin deaths in my life, living quite transgressively.

What is a “transgressive” lifestyle?
A lifestyle in opposition to the socially conservative, middle-class family I came from. A family of doctors, accountants. At that time my mother had firm ideas of who I should marry, how I should live: safe and secure. You had to get a job, get married at a certain age to someone your family would approve of. It’s an age-old story. But I wanted to live like an artist, lead a bohemian life, write and read, not be constrained. It doesn’t seem special now, but I was trying to create a radical identity for myself.

I lived very hard for several years. I could party all night, sleep for two hours, go to work. It eventually takes a toll on you. I ended up in Goa where I met my future husband in a shack and we felt a very strong connection. I quit Delhi and journalism, got married, moved to Goa, learned yoga and became a yoga teacher. In those years, I was living a simple, reduced existence. Goa was very cheap and a good place for a writer. Rent and food were cheap. You could live off your savings. You cannot do that in Goa anymore.

Around this time, I started reading a lot of novels by Marguerite Duras, Paul and Jane Bowles, Anna Kavan; Japanese novels by Natsume Sōseki and Shūsaku Endō; Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Albert Camus. I was suddenly reading stuff I hadn’t been introduced to. In India I had a very colonial education in my time. You were encouraged to read the classics. Now I was discovering stuff on my own. I was visiting good bookshops, finding new writers on the shelves, reading them, finding others from the same milieu. Today, discovering new writers that way feels alien.

Those years in Goa were idyllic. I wrote A Bad Character around that time, as an impulse, a compulsion, like a newborn testing out her lungs. And then suddenly you are a novelist, which was never my intention.

Surely a novel was brewing for years.
I was living and collecting stories, but it was never with the intention of writing. I used to say “remember this”, but I didn’t know what for. Then it happened and suddenly I was in the world of publishing and I had an agent who was (reasonably enough) asking what are you doing next? A couple of ideas didn’t take off. Then I wanted to write a novel set in Delhi. Sunny and Neda had been simmering in my head for a while, but I couldn’t figure where to take them. It all fell into place when Ajay was born.

Unlike many writers, I don’t think of a theme and find characters to illustrate that theme. My characters are based on people I have met, who have interesting lives, or, maybe, I see something interesting in them. I hear interesting stories. I then take these characters, throw them on the page, see what sticks. It’s a chaotic and unpredictable method. But then you move forward, and the plot develops, and the story starts to reveal itself.

With Age of Vice, I knew I wanted to write this Delhi novel. When India was exploding in the 2000s, I had interacted with the rich and wealthy in Delhi. I initially thought of a Gatsby-style novel of the rich, where people are damaging one another and because they are rich and powerful, they get away with it. But something was missing. I realised a Delhi novel about the rich should be a novel about inequality, corruption, capitalism, power, and shouldn’t include their lives alone.

And I remembered these young men in the mansions I would get to visit. They worked there, serving you, attuned to what you wanted, but they always had an aspect of invisibility. People just didn’t see them, but I would see them and think about their lives. Then, when I was travelling in the Himalayas in my 30s, I met this young boy in a guest house. He was eight or nine years old. His family was poor, so he had been sent to work. I sat with him and talked over several days and listened to his story, my writer’s brain started to click, and Ajay was born.

Suddenly, I knew how to do the novel: the accident sets it off. You are always reading about these car crashes late at night and the driver mysteriously takes the blame for it.

A Bad Character begins with the car crash and death of the protagonist’s boyfriend. Your work seems to pivot around one incident in your life.
Most writers spend their life circling a handful of ideas. For me, it’s rupture and death. The death of my father, the death of my boyfriend, the world open to you suddenly in rawness and pain, and how you navigate loss. To begin with it was always a selfish analysis, a very personal one, but as you get older and understand your obligations and your political consciousness, you can expand and bring your ideas into the world. But still, it’s always death and rupture. And driving. Lots and lots of cars and driving.

The prose in A Bad Character is impressionistic, almost musical, and yet pointed. Age of Vice has a completely different style.
A Bad Character was a very interior, solipsistic novel, both for myself and for the character, and it didn’t require a direct language, it needed a kind of lunar language. The prose was simply a case of an internal rhythm or musicality that you just hear while you’re typing. I think I’m more influenced by music. At the time of writing A Bad Character, electronic music like Burial, alongside the sounds of Goa, the monsoon, the rain, the lightning, the crows, the langur monkeys, the birds in the trees, firecrackers, the wind, helped.

Age of Vice is a novel of the world, you need to be more direct. You can’t afford that kind of language in a book like this. It’s simply the same as a film director choosing a different lens or a different film stock for their film, depending on what the situation requires.

Burial is great!
Burial has been a part of my world for as long as I’ve known my husband, I feel like I know London through his music though I’ve barely spent any time there. And love that interview he did with The Wire (UK). I read it a long time back but I will read it again now that you’ve reminded me.

Who else was I listening to? Biosphere. Deepchord. Deathprod. William Basinski. The Caretaker. The Mahamrityunjaya mantra, which is connected to my father. Grouper. Julia Holter.

So you are shooting straight all throughout Age of Vice. Yet, right at the beginning, you write this about a dead woman: “She is bleeding from the space between her legs, where life has been.” The ornateness is in contrast to the rest of the novel. Why?
I’d argue that it’s not particularly ornate. It’s a euphemism. It’s about the loss of her child, the void that’s there now. To only speak of the gross body would be to reduce the situation. It involves the subtle body too.

Would you say you were always observant by both nature and nurture? And would you say you are drawn towards a certain kind of writer and writing?
Yes. I was a quiet nervous child who watched everything. And my nature was nurtured by often being ignored and left to my own devices, as was common in the past. Adults didn’t bend to the child’s world, the child existed in the adult one, and one learned to be watchful.

But observing is one thing, and theorising it and seeing the bigger picture is something else altogether.
Yes, that came in my 30s. One pivotal moment was the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. The disgust was one thing, but another was an interest in the processes of corruption that allowed it to take place. Mundane processes, like bus routes, private buses that were allowed to ply illegally on those routes, with everyone turning a blind eye. I understood that heinous acts are given the opportunity by mundane processes. An so observation has to be backed up by theory and structure if you want to say something.

As an Indian writer and novelist, I feel I have a responsibility to address these. My interests were latent, but they quickly became more pronounced. I am trying to join the dots, figuring how the system works. My mother moved to Greater Noida from East Delhi, and there I was witnessing the birth of Noida, the forced acquisition of farmlands, large-scale residential and infrastructural projects.

I realised I wanted to bring everything in. I drove around a lot and asked a lot of questions. I started to do essays, one of which is “Driving in Greater Noida”. I understood I could not be a solipsistic writer.

How important are cats for writing?
For me, essential. They sit there, warm and proud, on the desk or by your feet, and eat away at the loneliness of writing, without talking, without distracting. I write very early in the morning, when the world is still sleeping, and it can be desolate if you don’t have that little bit of life around you. I’ve always had cats as long as I’ve written. In Goa we had Suzie D’Souza, rescued from the jungle as a kitten. And Barrington, who adopted us as a beaten up scraggly thing and turned into a prince. We lost both of them to the jungle. In Lisbon, we have two cats, Mo and Mu. We got them from a shelter.

Deepti Kapoor with her cat Mu.

Would you agree that Neda was the most detailed character? And also, what is at the heart of her attraction to Sunny?
She has the most accessible inner life. And because of the nature of her job, she is also explaining the world as a journalist, trying to figure things out.

She’s attracted to Sunny because she’s looking for excitement, has a thing for bad boys. When Neda meets Sunny, Delhi is this boring, sedate city, but it’s changing, and Sunny is at the forefront of that change, making things happen. It’s exciting to be a part of his world. She falls in love with Sunny, seduced by his ideas for transforming the city. When you are young, you often fall for people, and, you later think, how could I? Why did I? She is basically young. And he is charming.

The novel is rigorously detailed, clearly the work of a journalist. It reminded me of Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: The Eruption of Delhi. What were your sources of research and did you do any legwork?
Half the research was living it. Details you can’t make up or find in books. Years of speaking to people, knowing ex-farmers in Greater Noida, knowing people who had been in prison, who had grown up in business or political families. Then there was book research. Milan Vaishnav’s When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, Josy Joseph’s A Feast of Vultures, lots of academic papers on things like the slum demolitions, caste violence, urban development. I knew what was going on from living through them, but this material put things in context and helped to frame the narrative more concretely.

But all of the last 20 years of life came into Age of Vice. I began writing it in 2016 eventually, when Goa was changing in ways we didn’t like.

Everything is changing in ways we don’t like. Nothing is left.
That’s just the nature of growing older. Then a new generation will come in and love what you see as devastation. Or will resist it and fight in new ways.

When you’ve talked about writing, you’ve been pretty sure of not wanting to write what is called “literary fiction”.
I find the idea of literary fiction limiting. Being free with genre, being open to the more popular elements of writing creates a lot of possibilities. Also, I am trying to make a living as a writer. Small lit-fic novels don’t help you pay rent. So, I aimed for something into which I put everything; write a masala novel and see what comes of it.

The novel’s final section often unfolds as short, hallucinatory bursts of texts.
Because it felt like the characters and the world were unravelling. I had to reflect that in the prose. Their lives are unravelling, deteriorating, disintegrating. They are worn down by their own pain, their existence. Tired of themselves and their misery. It’s like the videotape wearing out, the image degrading.

Were three books always the idea or did you get yourself into trouble by writing one and now you have to write two more?
It was never the intial idea. But towards the end of my writing, I realised I am not done with these characters. I stop the novel in 2008, but India is still changing. I want to see what Neda, Sunny and Ajay are up to in 2012, then 2014.