Review by Max Dunbar
In his lecture at King’s College London in 1944 C S Lewis defined the Inner Ring as ‘one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement’. Lewis was confident that his audience understood what he was talking about:
You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the school ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring.
Lewis warned of the Ring’s moral hazard (‘the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things’) and also its fundamental emptiness: ‘Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in”.’
Still, the lure of the Ring persists and I have always habitually thought of power as a series of concentric circles drawing gradually into some inner clique. That is the way I think of Age of Vice, Deepti Kapoor’s Indian epic. It features two ordinary people who are drawn into the orbit of the Wadias, a powerful business-political family. We start off with Ajay, growing up in poverty in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where the regiments of caste are taken very seriously indeed. His story begins with episodes of unbearable cruelty. One day the family goat breaks into a neighbouring field, eating some spinach. That evening, the landowner comes to Ajay’s home with the local headman and his thugs. They kill the goat, then beat Ajay’s father to death. With no means of supporting him, Ajay’s mother sells him to a trafficker. Then it’s a long journey on the back of a truck with dozens of other lost boys. As the destination neared I grew nervous, fearing some horrible torture for Ajay on the other end. But that’s not how it goes. Instead Ajay is bought by some middle aged man who lives in a mansion house in the forest, and trained as a servant – a slave, really, since he’s not getting paid. But in the mansion house Ajay grows into a capable young man with the discretion and energy of a world-class butler. Eventually, he meets Sunny Wadia, becoming his chief lieutenant.
We do not see much of the Wadias who really matter – not Bunty, the patriarch, or Vicky, the scary uncle. They keep themselves closeted in the very inner of the rings, although if you met them, you’d know about it. Sunny is the son and heir, the friendly public face of the Wadias. When we first meet Sunny he is generous and welcoming. He likes nightclubs, fast cars, restaurants, electronica, outsider art. His philosophy is pure neoliberal utopianism. We’re going to build houses, cities, theatres, gardens, everything’s going to be cool, no one ever has to lose their job or their home or get hurt. He is the family’s Kendall Roy. And like Succession‘s Kendall he has a dark side – a dominating desire to either win his father’s approval, or to eclipse him entirely. Only Sunny never gets close to achieving either goal. It is this unfulfilled desire that’s the wellspring for the tension and sadness within him.
This is not immediately apparent to Neda Kapur, our other hopeful outsider. Born into a respectable liberal family, she becomes a journalist in Delhi, investigating the machinations of the Wadias as they shape the city for their own ends. Ajay never really has a desire to be pulled into the inner ring – he is sucked in without the option. Neda yearns for something more than principled work. She meets Sunny in a party the heir throws in an abandoned arcade. One of the many joys of this novel is the party descriptions: this one is an ‘uncanny re-creation of a Soviet living room, like a bombed-out cross section of an apartment block… Many plastic trays, vodka bottles, and shot glasses. Great plates of stewed meat, potato salad, bowls of borscht. And there, standing at the head of the table, leaning forward, arms gripping the edge, his eyes blazing with all the possibilities of life, the mysterious, the immaculate Sunny Wadia.’ At the party, Sunny rants about a recent trip to England: ‘You people looted us, took everything, stole our treasures. Now you look at us and say “You’re so spiritual, you have so much wisdom, you’re so wise, you’re so… simple”. Yeah, we’re simple, fucker. We’re simply going to destroy you.’ Sunny declares a toast: ‘I’ll bring back the Koh-i-noor!’… Right after I shove it up Prince Charles’s ass!’
Neda throws herself into the neverending party of Sunny’s social circle. Her relationship with the man himself takes place in a series of upscale hotel rooms and walled-off restaurant booths. Bunty doesn’t approve of the match, so everything has to be done in secret. (We read Ajay’s version of these events first; we see Ajay running around organising accommodation, renting cars, doing the practical stuff… Neda really has no idea how much trouble the young fixer is saving her.) But Sunny’s deteriorating sense of self plus his father’s intervention dooms the relationship.
This hardback edition carries praise from Marlon James, and indeed some of its prose will remind you of that electrifying fabulist, particularly in the later stages when we get to Sunny’s kidnap and the story of the Incubus. But Kapoor’s grounding in reality makes her shimmering paragraphs and panoramic vistas all the more enjoyable. She is a brilliant stylist as well as an accomplished chronicler of an age of chaos.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.
Deepti Kapoor, Age of Vice (Fleet, 2023). 978-0708898888, 544pp., hardback.
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