I dont’t know why some people have linked Tarun Tejpal’s latest novel, The Valley of Masks, to Kashmir. Perhaps it’s because of the title, or perhaps people generally believe that journalists-turned-authors cannot for long escape the lure of writing about Kashmir. But this novel has no relation to Kashmir except for the larger message it seeks to convey.
The narrator of the novel belongs to a tribe that was led by a visionary, authoritarian leader, Aum, to the hidden depths of the upper Himalayas. The tribe is guided by the Nine Books of Aum, and within it is practised absolute totalitarianism as also a rigid principle of equality—so much so that all men are prohibited from having a distinct face of their own; they are required to wear similar masks instead. When the narrator, who goes by the name of Karna, first wears his mask, in a moment of ignorance, he asks if he could see himself in a mirror. The master craftsman of the masks snaps back, “Fool. Just look at me.”
All the men in the tribe aspire to be Wafadars—master warriors who are trained to silently kill the enemy (not their personal enemy, but the enemy of the brotherhood) with 11 pins (called Chonch) of varying sizes, both in length and diameter. These are capable of penetration ‘subtler than a mosquito bite’, with some even capable of digging ‘a hole in the heart big enough to make the blood spout like a spring’. The Wafadars demand absolute loyalty to the Aum doctrine.
Their training regimen is reminiscent of the Al-Qaida training videos that surfaced all over televison channels after 9/11. In fact, Tejpal’s third novel is a mix of so many imageries, one could mistake parts of it for The Lord of The Rings or even a subtext of The Mahabharata. According to the Aum doctrine, for instance, all male children have to be named after the six Pandava brothers. Aum’s closest associates are a man and woman who go by the name of—to throw in a scoop of syncretism—Ali and Alaiya. There is mention of a ‘Long March’, and at one point, one almost thinks that Aum may have led his people to the valley around the time of Moses, till you reach the mention of a train.
Tejpal’s prose is masterly, and after a point, you almost stop caring about the story itself. But beneath the mish-mash of imageries and time spans, there is also an unblinking philosophical gaze that binds you, the underlying message of which is: when the Idea gets bigger than Man, it becomes a dangerous proposition. Like when Karna, who is numbererd X470, kills C963 to avoid falling into the trap of sentimentality, he is quizzed to test his resolution to become a Wafadar:
‘Did you do right?
I believe so.
To kill a brother?
The idea is always bigger than man.
Why is that so?
We live to serve the truth, not men. The truth is unchanging, unbending, a constant. Men can falter, fail, lose their way.’
As sociologist Ashis Nandy said at the launch of this novel, it is this blind loyalty to a particular idea, more than religion itself, that has led to genocides and pogroms and wars.
And it is this blind faith that the narrator is determined to escape for the sake of love. In the process, he becomes a Dagadar—a betrayer. As his former brothers close in on him, he hopes that the trajectory of his own life will sow the seed of doubt in their minds. Since ‘doubt’, for X470, is ‘greater than music or love’.
Tejpal’s novel comes at a time when the world is plunged into an unending cycle of unrest. There is an increased risk of societies getting affected by dogmas—both religious and non-religious. More and more Wafadar-like brotherhoods are threatening to push us to the brink of destruction. In India, the scenario looks bleaker, with extremism and its hundreds of Chonches piercing the very core of the idea of India.
Tejpal’s novel should be read to understand the times we live in. As Tejpal says, the idea for the novel came to him during the 2007 Gujarat election, when he saw hundreds of people roaming the streets in Modi masks. There is a large section of people who think that India deserves a dictator like the Gujarat Chief Minister. May Tejpal’s book sow the seed of doubt in their minds. After all, as Nandy says, secular states have killed more people than non-secular states.