With tied hair, a nonchalant air and salty humour, Tarun Tejpal might come across as a cool dude, but actually he is quite fastidious. The man behind India's most path-breaking journalism, Tehelka, Tejpal has just come out with his latest book, The Valley of Masks.
With an audience comprising Shashi Tharoor, LK Advani, Sharmila Tagore, Soha Ali Khan, Urvashi Butalia, Jaishree Mishra, the book launch at Taj Mahal Hotel, saw the capital's literati in full attendance.
Introducing the book, Sahitya Akademi winner Nayantara Sahgal sent the audience cracking when she said, "when I picked up his first book The Alchemy of Desire, people said it's sheer porn, of course I read it and discovered a highly compelling story of obsessive love. 'The Valley...' is very different from his previous books as it's a fable set in the Himalayas."
In a world where fundamentalist terror has become a harsh reality, the book - his most profound and imaginative till date - examines the pathology of perfection. "I have an obsessive need to observe collective space. Even as we become more global, in an absurd paradox there's a growing insularity - Hindu right wing extremism, Norway killings - what is the pathology that leads perfectly intelligent people down that road that seems inspirational and redemptive but end up in a perilous place?" the author poses a rhetorical question.
On being asked as to what triggered the idea behind the book, Tejpal said: "The first kernel of the idea came to me during Gujarat elections of 2007. There were photos of hundreds of people wearing Narendra Modi masks and tha terrified me, as to what happens when everyone tries to become one."
"I wrote a fable set in an unnamed valley in Himalayan as a distancing device to create a closed world where I could play the whole birth to death story. I examined the human animal when he pursues the idea of collectives," added the author.
Sociologist and writer Ashish Nandy, Sahitya Akademi award winning writer Nayantara Sahgal, and journalist Shoma, Managing Director of Tehelka as panelists discussed the issues raised in the book. While Nandy tried his best to stop the launch from becoming a 'pedagogical exercise', it ended up being one just the same as there ensued a debate on issues like why a suicide bomber obliterates himself for a higher ideal and why an individual would feel the ecstasy of serving a collective purpose.
Nandy, in a light vein, requested the audience to avoid reading the book, "I would like to warn the audience that this isn't a likeable book not to think of loveable or unputdownable (I had to put it down many times)." he joked.
He went on to add, "It's a highly disturbing book, which explores the nature of perfection and utopia gone wrong. It's a study of situation where values are drawn from aesthetics than compassion. During the last century most atrocious cruelty has been committed not in the name of religion (though we might like to believe that) but in the name of reason and aesthetics. And secular states have killed more people than non-secular states."
Perhaps sensing impatience in his audience, Tejpal, continuing with the theme of collective space said: "India is a land born out of extraordinary politics; it's a great loss that the anglicized Indian elite is so detached from the politics of the country. Our country is facing such crises, which won't be solved by anything other than great politics. To have an apolitical privileged class, which controls all the powerful levers is very dangerous. It's common to run down politicians, but I believe this country won't be fixed unless the best of the country jumps into it."
Having said that he clarified that his novel is not didactic as the "job of literature is more complex."
The event's glam quotient was upped by the presence of Bollywood actor Soha Ali Khan, who attended the launch with mom Sharmila Tagore. Looking quite disturbed after the readings from the book she said, "I'm big fan of Tarun's work, I have read his previous books. ' The Valley...' is a very gruesome book, and it raises such important issues. I am really looking forward to reading it."