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Perfect horror

A nameless dystopia serves as a superb allegory of totalitarianism, writes Shashi Tharoor.

books Updated: Aug 13, 2011 00:24 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

The Valley Of Masks
Tarun Tejpal
Fourth estate
Rs 499
pp 330

The best fiction aspires to create an alternative moral universe — a place rendered as vivid and real as the one the reader inhabits. In The Valley of Masks, Tarun Tejpal, crusading journalist and best-selling novelist (The Alchemy of Desire was his first novel) goes further, creating an entire world, nestled in a lost valley in the Himalayas, with its own rules, value systems and ways of being. His nameless dystopia is a place of horror that emerges from the quest for purity and human perfection, and his novel is a superb allegory of how totalitarianism emerges from the pursuit of ideals taken to their logical extremes.

Tejpal’s nameless country is set in an imagined land but there are enough clues — words, names, geographical features — to place it inescapably in the Himalayas and within the Indian cultural space. Yet, unlike most contemporary Indian fiction — arguably all contemporary Indian fiction — it is not anchored in the cultural specificities of India. Tejpal’s aspirations are universal; his imaginative vision is not fettered by political boundaries. There is a timeless, transcendent quality to his story and its concerns.

The creative accomplishment is extraordinary. Tejpal invents his own vocabulary: in his dystopia, people sip drinks called the Ferment or the Vapours; they aspire to become Wafadars and Pathfinders, Mentors and Commanders; they send insidious Yodhas out to insinuate themselves into the world beyond, poised to take it over in due course. They fulfil their sexual urges in places called the Serai of Fleeting Happiness and the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses, and suffer punishment and re-education in the Room of Inner Truths and the Crater of Resurrections, until Judgement Day when justice is ruthlessly delivered to renegades. And they give unquestioning obedience to a council of elders known as the Great Helmsmen, and above them all the perfectly-titled Gentle Father (who, of course, is neither gentle nor fatherly).

These are all wonderful inventions, recounted with a straight face, in a deadpan narrative style all the more chilling in its matter-of-factness. For Tejpal’s nameless dystopia is devoted to the perfection of its citizens in the quest of an ideal, the elimination of ego, envy, lust and love. Relationships are signs of weakness; children are taken from their mothers at birth and brought up collectively; women serve as objects of pleasure, of collective mothering, and then of pleasure again; no one knows who his father or mother is. “The warriors of the pure could not be detained by the dubious ties of family and friendship”, the narrator explains. “Anything that weakened a warrior was to be eschewed. The pure could never be married to one man or woman, nor be the children of any one parent. They were born to their ideals and forever wed only to them.”

The subordination of the individual ego to the collective purpose is fundamental. “Fixity of purpose,” says a magnificently portrayed figure known as the Great Tragopan: “That is the mark of the pure.” As the first-person narrator tells us, “In our world there was no ‘my’.” Even the face of each citizen is covered by a tight mask so that each wearer is identical in every respect to the other, the images of their original faces stored for posterity in the Mausoleum of Our Egos. Names are also too individualistic and narcissistic, so they are replaced by “alphanumbers” like C963, ZZ9 or QT2, the number of alphabets and figures reflecting its bearer’s proficiency in the fearsome martial skills in which the finest of the community are trained.

There is a harrowing account of the training and the trials young men go through before they become the lethal killing machines known as Wafadars, wielding the eleven tempered hardwood pins called “chonch” that are their lethal instruments of enforcement. The pitiless cruelty of the narrative underscores the heartlessness of the enterprise, for in the Valley of Masks there is no room for emotions like love, or pleasures like music: “the pure must not succumb to tears or laughter, sorrow or joy. These are illusions. They distract and diminish.”

In the compelling history Tejpal invents for his imagined land, one of the most interesting tales is of The Great Romantic Betrayal, when a finely-trained warrior lapses by falling in love and has to be ruthlessly exterminated. And suffusing the story is the brilliantly evoked legend of the effulgent Messiah called Aum, named for the primal sound of the universe, who continues to rule from beyond the grave, his teachings continuing to govern the community he founded after a long march to the valley that itself has acquired the potency of myth.

The Valley of Masks is a singular triumph, a universal fable but could have been written only by an Indian. Tejpal’s is a very Indian sensibility and he has authored a profoundly political novel without a single explicit mention of politics. His is an evocation of where ideals can lead men astray — even ideals like equality and brotherhood — and a searing indictment of fundamentalisms of every kind. In its numbing iteration of the danger of putting ideals ahead of humanity, the novel is ultimately a paean to the rejection of certitudes — the “truths” that drive the totalitarian compulsion essential to sustain an all-encompassing ideology.

“Men are significant only for the idea they emblazon,” says one of the novel’s protagonists. “It is glorious that men should perish so that the idea may live.” The Valley of Masks strips this pretension of any shred of credibility. It is destined to become an instant classic.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and a member of Parliament

First Published: Aug 13, 2011 00:22 IST