This is an extraordinary novel, one removed from any you’re likely to read. It is the story of a physically faceless being known variously as Karna and as X470, a renegade from a mysterious brotherhood, on what he knows will be his last night alive. His fellow wafadars, the faithful of the brotherhood, are closing in on their runaway accomplice, and when they find him, will deploy their special death-dealing technique—slicing his veins with a double-edged dagger to bleed him out. We inhabit, over the course of the novel, X470’s mind as he recounts his life’s tale: his initiation in the cult; the mental and physical gymnastics required to train him; the tests and temptations of sensual pleasure that he must try (and sometimes fails) to withstand; the cultivation of a faith in perfectibility; his ascent up the complex hierarchies of the group; his growing disillusion at the flaws of his superiors—the vindictive purges and private indulgences; and his final decision to flee, down into the plains, where he takes up with a simple local woman—and awaits his fate.
In his last novel, The Story of My Assassins, Tarun Tejpal demonstrated that he was as uncannily insightful about the lives of boys who live on Delhi railway platforms as he is on the Indian elite. In The Valley of Masks, he turns inwards, probing the inner workings of the devotee, the faithful—the wafadar.
It is his scabrous psychological insight and well-chilled writing that turns a simple narrative into a brain-bang of a reading experience. Tejpal sets his book in a dark valley inhabited by shadow beings, and reading it is like trying to walk in a pitch black room. We teeter between the familiar and the unsettling. We hold our arms out, step tentatively, and come gradually to see that the writing has walled us into its world: captured us in a hermetic, claustrophobic cell.
It is, precisely, a world of masks: where human individuality and character disappear, and all that subsists is the unmasked ego: an impulse to dominate, a will to power. Its wraith-like inhabitants—arranged in their own intricate hierarchy: wafadars, yodhas, pathfinders, bandhus, commanders and helmsmen, nameless madonnas—may be distinguished by corpulence or sinewyness, beauty or hideousness, but are hard to credit as human at all.
Members of Karna/X470’s brotherhood, the wafadars, wear identical masks, and Tejpal describes the moment when his protagonist dons his for the first time: “The face had made me one of everyone. I was a seamless part of the whole of us. The burden of I, me, myself was gone.” It’s a moment that evokes one of the eeriest images of our recent politics: the craze among supporters of India’s most autocratic leader for rubber masks in his image during the 2007 elections in Gujarat. (The masks were manufactured, appropriately enough, in China).
One of Tejpal’s animating insights is that the wide open space of democratic choice can produce a perverse reaction: a fearful desire to cleave to a collective identity. This is one of the many paradoxes of democratic society, and of the widening horizon of possibility it promises. The expansion of individual choice and the need to judge for oneself can provoke a kind of agoraphobic reaction.
Tejpal’s allegory is designed to work at various levels. At its most direct, he immerses us in what we can recognise as the mind of the religious fanatic, the extremist and terrorist. But when Tejpal’s protagonist says, “The idea of equality—pure and complete equality, had to bloom riotously in our hearts,” Tejpal himself isn’t speaking only of extremists. His insight is that the hunger for equality, for the erasure of selfhood into collective identity exists not just within the extremist sects of left and right and among religion fanatics, but also more widely within democratic society. Democracy is the age of the professional believer: we are hungry to be told what to believe, how to look, how to live and love.
One of the greatest diagnosticians of democracy’s perverse psychological effects, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, had seen this danger at the very moment of mass democracy’s inception in early nineteenth-century America. Democracy’s spread has as its flipside the grip of totalitarian, collective belief—the rise of mass politics, marked by purity and intensity of belief and by ideological fanaticism.
The alignment of the age of democracy with the age of liberalism increasingly looks a contingent one, specific to a brief historical moment: and it may well be that a more ready pairing is that of the age of democracy with the age of extremism.
If choice and submission, individuality and collective identity, are two axes of the book, a third is the relationship between mind and body. The Valley of Masks is about the entrapments of the mind, even as it seeks to free itself of the encumbrances of the body—to reject and transcend the sensual. As such, it is about the delusions of perfectibility and the violence of asceticism. An unremittingly male book, its figures move through various closed male enclaves and sects, all seething with narcissism and homoeroticism and brutal fantasies about women. The surgical male violence at points brings to mind the dystopic imagination of William Golding.
Tejpal succeeds brilliantly in press-ganging us into this closed, obsessional world—though at moments, he has managed a bit too well to dehumanise it. Still, he has produced a master parable about the immoderation of human belief and its paradoxes—how self-abasement (“In our world there was no ‘my’”) can coexist with the most supreme projection of the will to power. Such extremism is itself born of a fear of the responsibility that democracy asks of us: the responsibility to choose.
We’ve come to know Tarun Tejpal as an uncompromising editor and publisher, and his new novel embodies that unbending ethic—rebarbative in its style and sensibility, The Valley of Masks is vigorously dissident from the general drift of modern Indian writing in English. And it pursues its strategy of distinction in order to capture something common to the human predicament.
Tarun Tejpal is now well on the way to establishing himself as one of the most ambitious writers of his generation—a generation not known to contain many shrinking violets. He opens this novel with the words, “This is my story. And the story of my people,” and he comes unnervingly close to realising that audacious claim. This may yet be the most complicated, self-incriminating novel written about India’s democratic age.