Tarun J Tejpal, best known as the founder-editor of Tehelka weaves an intricate parallel world that separates ‘our’ current world with his fantasy one at a higher plane — physically and in other senses as well.
I almost gave up the book during the first chapter. That our protagonist took about 6 pages to brew a cuppa tea, to me, seemed ominous. I dreaded the pace at which the book would progress. Mind you, I’m not averse to the tomes or the slow moving books, but this, for some reason, set alarm bells ringing.
Before long, though, we were in the world of Aum and Karna was telling us his story…
Unfolding in the mountains that seem to be located somewhere in the far north of India, the story is of one of Aum’s people who is born into his world. The premise is of a new land based on ability and meritocracy but one that also has its failings. Despite promoting the ideals of equality (every ‘brother’ in the land looks identical thanks to a mask, ergo Valley of Masks), the valley does have a hierarchy. From the Gentle Father down to the Helmsmen to the Wafadars to the Pathfinders to the Kiln and to the granaries… there is a place for everyone.
Women of the land – despite a woman being one of their revered Aum’s most trusted – are entrusted with only two duties: give birth and please the men. When one does go against the norm, she is found in the ‘Nest of the Unabled’ which is where our protagonist (by now, he has no name and is only a combination of numbers and letters) loses his faith and his belief.
Graphically written, the book builds a beautiful valley where natural resources abound. The idea that being at harmony with nature will ensure nature provides for you does make an impact. Unfortunately, the idea that equality is the answer to the world’s problems is not tackled with great aplomb. Towards the end, the book seems to have been wrapped up rather hastily and the turning point of our hero’s life seems trite given the fact that he is almost a fundamentalist in his own world up until that point. For various reasons, the book reminded me of the TV series “Lost” at different junctures.
If you like to read complex plots and a slow moving narrative, this book is worth the read simply for its language. Few books by Indian authors have laid such emphasis on the quality of the prose. Tejpal’s journalistic background is perhaps the reason behind the emphasis he has laid on it. Rating a book is not a smart idea. We all have different reasons for liking or disliking this. I’m just going to end with a ‘Recommended Reading’ rating for The Valley of Masks.