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Utopia to Dystopias?

Shyamala A. Narayan

By Tarun J. Tejpal
Fourth State, an Imprint of HarperCollins, Delhi, 2011, pp. 330, Rs. 499.00


Tarun J. Tejpal is the founder-editor of Tehelka, well known for its investigative reporting; over the years, he has exposed various scams and malpractices in India. The Valley of Masks, his third novel, is very different from his earlier novels which were in the realistic mode. In his first novel, The Alchemy of Desire (2005), the hero is a journalist who is writing a novel; he is passionately in love with his wife, and the book contains many erotic passages. He drifts away from his wife when he gets involved in the journals of an American adventuress they discover in an old house. Tejpal’s second novel, The Story of My Assassins (2009), also has an unnamed journalist as protagonist. The police tell him that they have discovered a plot to assassinate him, and arrest five suspects. His mistress Sara believes that the suspects are victims of the state machinery being manipulated by selfish politicians. All the characters—the protagonist, Sara, the police officer, and the five suspects, are memorable. The novelist presents an inside view of Delhi, exposing the nexus between politics, industry and money, based on his own experiences as a journalist. The Valley of Masks is not set in any named city. It presents a terrifying dystopia, born of the human search for perfection.   The vocabulary Tejpal uses gives us a hint that he is going to describe a different world, where the only alcoholic drink is ‘Ferment’. The novel begins: ‘It is not a long story. Some men would tell it in the time it takes to drink a glass of bittersweet Ferment.’ The narrator continues, ‘It’s time for a cup of tea... . Strange to think I had never tasted the brew till recently. More calming than Ferment; more aromatic than the Vapours.’ The narrator is a man on the run. He has come away from a mysterious valley where everyone strives for purity and perfection; he knows that the punishment for this defection is death. ‘I know the Wafadars will find me. I know they will show me no mercy, for mercy is flab.’ As the novel progresses we realize that the Wafadars are highly trained, physically perfect, killing machines; the narrator used to take pride in his position as a Wafadar. He wants to recount his cautionary tale about this cult before he is killed.   Aum, the founder of the cult has mythical origins, though ...

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