The Valley of Masks

By Tarun Tejpal

Tejpal has attempted an Animal Farm. Or a 1984. The Valley of Masks is a fable in the Orwellian fashion, of a society that breaks away from the real, messy, filth-ridden world to create a Platonian Utopia. A world of perfection where everyone is equal, there are no possessions, there is no sense of self, only a striving towards an elimination of self.

The narrator is one who breaks away. And as he waits for his retribution, he tells his tale. It’s a fast paced tale, fascinating and thriller-like, and as he recreates the perfect Utopian world he comes from, you can see in it facets of all the religions and all the big ideologies – Jesus, Marx and the Buddha, the Gita and the Koran. And you can see in it all the fallacies of the quest for the one right way.

Tejpal, in the voice of Karna (born Karna, but growing into a Wafadar with a name with 2 numerals and 1 alphabet) describes his birth and growing up in a society where there are no mothers, only the motherhood, where you are taught to eschew anything to do with ‘I’, where individuality is subsumed under the collective ‘we’, where ‘purity’ of thought and action is valued over anything else, where the truth of the Aum is deemed greater than Aum himself. Aum is the prophet, the great one who led his flock to the Promised Land. And his disciples understandably, set up Utopia.

Of course the Utopia gets dystopian. The quest for perfection is flawed. Because there is music (“We sing and we hear song, and we understand and we forgive, and our great unhappiness slowly drains out of us, like pus from a boil, and we sheathe our knives and bury our axes, and we are saved.”) and there is love. Because there are ideas and there are men, and there is a difference. Because the absolute cannot survive doubt. Because Utopia is by definition horrific.

The fall is swift. After years of worshipping the Utopian ideal, Karan comes face to face in a horrific way, with the personal toll it takes. And it is then that he realizes the folly of it all.

Tejpal does not tell a new tale. We have read it before in Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. But he tells it well, with passion and unrepentant sentimentality, the way an Arundhati Roy would.

I liked The Valley of Masks. Because at its heart, it espouses a thought I totally buy into. The thought that “…the one word, possibly greater than music or love. Doubt. That should forever alternate with faith as day does with night.” Check this earlier post of mine.


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