Tarun J. Tejpal is the founder-editor of Tehelka, well known for its investigative reporting; over the years, he has exposed various scams and malpractices in India. The Valley of Masks, his third novel, is very different from his earlier novels which were in the realistic mode. In his first novel, The Alchemy of Desire (2005), the hero is a journalist who is writing a novel; he is passionately in love with his wife, and the book contains many erotic passages. He drifts away from his wife when he gets involved in the journals of an American adventuress they discover in an old house. Tejpal’s second novel, The Story of My Assassins (2009), also has an unnamed journalist as protagonist. The police tell him that they have discovered a plot to assassinate him, and arrest five suspects. His mistress Sara believes that the suspects are victims of the state machinery being manipulated by selfish politicians. All the characters—the protagonist, Sara, the police officer, and the five suspects, are memorable. The novelist presents an inside view of Delhi, exposing the nexus between politics, industry and money, based on his own experiences as a journalist. The Valley of Masks is not set in any named city. It presents a terrifying dystopia, born of the human search for perfection.
The vocabulary Tejpal uses gives us a hint that he is going to describe a different world, where the only alcoholic drink is ‘Ferment’. The novel begins: ‘It is not a long story. Some men would tell it in the time it takes to drink a glass of bittersweet Ferment.’ The narrator continues, ‘It’s time for a cup of tea… . Strange to think I had never tasted the brew till recently. More calming than Ferment; more aromatic than the Vapours.’ The narrator is a man on the run. He has come away from a mysterious valley where everyone strives for purity and perfection; he knows that the punishment for this defection is death. ‘I know the Wafadars will find me. I know they will show me no mercy, for mercy is flab.’ As the novel progresses we realize that the Wafadars are highly trained, physically perfect, killing machines; the narrator used to take pride in his position as a Wafadar. He wants to recount his cautionary tale about this cult before he is killed.
Aum, the founder of the cult has mythical origins, though Tejpal gives him a precise date, ‘It had been prophesied that in the eighty-eighth year of the nineteenth century in this mystical spot a great master would be born.’ Aum wants to establish a world where men would be free and equal, and leads his people to a fertile valley which is hidden in the Himalayas. His followers are warned against ‘the other world’ of destruction and degradation of both men and nature. Aum feels that ‘the seed of this inferno was the need to possess’, and so he attempts to establish a society where everything is owned in common. Even mothers have no links with their children; children are nurtured by the entire motherhood, as attachment is considered the greatest sin. Boys have just six names, after the heroes of the Mahabharata: the five Pandavas and Karna. At the age of sixteen, they are all fitted with masks made in the image of Aum, so that everybody looks the same, and given numbers. They are trained for different functions in their society—some are farmers or cooks; those with better intellectual abilities become ‘Pathfinders’ (teachers and trainers); the best are trained to become Wafadars, with superior physical abilities—they can find their way even in the dark, and hear sounds which ordinary human beings cannot.
Wafadars have absolutely no moral compunctions about getting bodies for honing their skills in the use of their special weapon —the sacred chonch, a hardwood pin capable of ‘perforating an artery with minimum fuss’. They enjoy hunting the victims they have kidnapped for practice. The chapter ‘A Wafadar’ describing their training reminds us of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, such is the revulsion Tejpal’s description evokes: ‘Over the next two weeks, there were two more brothers, as deeply comatose, whom we honoured with a far more skilled performance. When we were done, the bodies looked beautifully embroidered.’ They take pleasure in ‘harvesting’, kidnapping men from the outside world, for the narrator thinks of them as ‘insects, ‘fit to be nothing but training fodder for the pure’. He feels a sense of accomplishment ‘when we delivered the savages in good condition’.
It is not only men in the outside world who are treated as animals—the womenfolk in the valley share an even worse fate. Love is banned, as all emotion is suspect. The ‘brothers’ satisfy their sexual urge in specially set up brothels—even here, spending too much time with the same woman is punishable as evidence of possessiveness. All children are born of rape by older men. Women are treated as inanimate fields ready for planting and harvesting. Any resistance, or any attempt to identify one’s mother or child, is treated as a sign of dementia. Such persons are sent to die in a lunatic asylum at the edge of the valley. Any ‘brother’ who runs away from the valley is hunted down and killed.
Tejpal’s depiction of the ordinary world is quite authentic. Indians can relate to the life of Parvati, with her great respect for her son-in-law; the son-in-law’s rage against the caste system is equally credible. But The Valley of Masks is not a social novel—it is a questioning of ideas. Tejpal’s choice of words is more meaningful for the Hindi-knowing reader (Wafadar=faithful, chonch=beak). The novelist’s attempts to give it allegorical significance (the valley where Aum is born is obviously Kashmir, Aum is referred to as the Paigamber, the Prophet, by his followers, who think that doubt is the greatest evil, and the witch-hunt for fallen brothers parallels the Spanish Inquisition) do not add much to the novel. It is Tejpal’s style that creates the impact: children are ‘crops’ and babies drink from the ‘teats’ of their mothers.
The Valley of Masks forces us to think —it reveals how most men yearn for a greater purpose, and allow their minds to be controlled by others. The novel shows how good principles, if followed blindly to absurd limits, can lead to absolute evil; how combating one evil, of possessiveness, can lead to greater evil; and how the quest for purity by suppressing all emotion can make for complete de-humanization. The novel is not meant for readers looking for just an entertaining story, it belongs with dystopias like Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
Shyamala A. Narayan was formerly Head, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia (A Central University), New Delhi.