Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2011

The Valley of Masks (2011), by Tarun J Tejpal

Sometimes, literary prizes serve a very useful role in publicising books that have escaped attention, and it’s probably true that I would never have come across this remarkable book, The Valley of Masks, had it not been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011.  It is a  confronting work, but I found it intriguing reading with a powerful message for our times.

The Valley of Masks is a parable.  It is a passionate warning about the dangers of fundamentalism and warped ideologies espousing ‘purity’.   Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale it depicts a barren society in a dystopian landscape; and in its themes it resembles two of George Orwell’s novels: like Animal Farm it shows how a mask of equality can be a sham; like 1984 it shows the heroic resistance of the individual against homogeneity.

The story begins as the first-person narrator waits for his doom.  He knows that they are coming for him, but he is determined to tell his story while he has time.  Having spent most of his life in certainty, he now wants to sow doubt … ‘one word, possibly, greater than music or love’…which ‘should forever alternate with faith as day does with night’.   (p350)

The ‘marauding brothers’ who are coming for him are Wafadars, elite warriors who defend the Valley and ‘retrieve’ any deluded souls who try to leave.  Selected for their exalted role since boyhood, they have remarkable gifts, honed by a training regimen which is confronting in the extreme.  They endure – and inflict – physical and mental torment in the service of their leaders because they are sustained by faith in the philosophy of Aum, who was always wise and right.  His teachings suppress the individual because that ego leads to greed and selfishness.  All members therefore must wear masks and they have numbers instead of names.  They may have no emotional attachments because the quest for perfection precludes any sentimentality.

The hierarchy of spiritual leaders – PathfindersHelmsmen and the ‘Gentle’ Father – ensure the purity of the Brotherhood with a regime which is in some ways reminiscent of what we know of the Taliban: boys brought up in dormitories segregated from women and dehumanised so that they can kill in pursuit of their ideology without qualm or remorse.  What is different in Tejpal’s imaginary world is that male sexuality is not denied: women are put to use as comfort women in the ‘Serai of Fleeting Happiness’ or the ‘Kiln of Inevitable Impulses’ – and put to ‘mothering‘ if they show any sentimental signs of attachment to anyone.

All this is only gradually revealed as the narrator tells his story.  His tone is calm, reasonable and seductive.  The euphemisms for sexual assaults of all kinds, for entrapment and torture and murder are poetic, in the style of a holy book. The horror creeps up on the unsuspecting reader just as surely as the Wafadars surprise their victims, but most chilling is the unsentimental justification for the psychosis of this society.  The narrator tells us that he is not looking ‘down the vista of the past with the eyes of the present’, he is ‘walking down the path as he truly walked it’ in order to be truthful – but he himself wonders if a part of him still believes in the brotherhood.  His tale is so dispassionate, his self-belief so all-encompassing, that part of the interest in the novel is in when, how and why his disillusionment sets in.  When it comes, this resolution is masterfully done.  (I can say no more without spoiling the utterly unexpected).

At different times I found myself thinking of the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge and the Cultural Revolution… there is obsessive record-keeping, constant surveillance, intolerance of any failings, and the people inform on one another in order to protect themselves.  The irony is that this ‘wave of cleansing’ leads to a sin the ideology prohibits, so there has to be a purge.

Despite this, it’s an optimistic work.  Dissidents are re-educated in the ‘Room of Inner Truths’ and the ‘Crater of Resurrections’ but the very existence of these dissenters shows that some inevitably see through and reject the ideology.  Some become disillusioned by the obvious inequities.  For all the preaching about equality, there is an elite holding all the power – making decisions about the lives of others, plotting the revolution, deflowering the girls, and doing no labour.  Any society that relies on violent suppression and purges to perpetuate itself is ultimately doomed.  But beyond the yearning for freedom there is also the human instinct for love, for parental bonding, for beauty and music and friendship, and these instincts are too powerful to be wholly suppressed.

As with Under the Skin by Michael Faber, to say much more in a review is to spoil it altogether for the reader.  It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is an outstanding book.

There is an excellent (spoiler-free) review by Shashi Tharoor in the Hindustani Times.

Author: Tarun J Tejpal
Title: The Valley of Masks
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) India 2011
ISBN: 9789350290460
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harrison Kelly, Press Officer, Man Asian Literary Prize.  Thanks, Harrison!


  1. Sounds like another goodie, although I am not sure if I might be a little “faint-hearted”.
    Isn’t the cover terrific?


    • Yes, that cover is mesmerising. Just perfect.
      I’ll be interested to see what Matt makes of it (the male POV) – part of the deal with Harrison was that he would send one copy to be shared with the US/UK members of our team (Fay and Stu) and the other to be shared with the Australians. So from me it goes to Matt and then to Sue.


  2. Ah, sounds really intriguing Lisa … when you say Nazis, Khmer Rouge and Cultural Revolution you have me intrigued. Maybe not a Christmas read so I’m glad Matt is getting it first!


    • I think you will be fascinated by the ideas in it too, Sue. I have been thinking about it on and off all day, and wondering if its significance to readers on the Indian sub-continent is in part due to their experience of partition and the ever-present threat of Pakistan undergoing a religious revolution like Iran’s. I know that there are regions of Pakistan that are already fundamentalist (and therefore supportive of the Taliban) so the type of society depicted and its plans to infiltrate other societiesare not as fanciful as it seems here in Australia.


  3. Great review, Lisa. It sounds like we are in agreement about the strengths of the book, and where we differ is that I found some weaknesses too. I mailed my copy to Matt almost two weeks ago but do not know if he has received it yet.


    • Thanks, Fay – I went back and read your review fully after I’d written mine, and I can see that whereas I would rank this highly, perhaps you wouldn’t?
      BTW I think I have finally sourced a 2nd hand copy of Rebirth from India via AbeBooks, but how long it takes to get here remains to be seen.
      I’ll send my copy on to Sue…
      PS I think I’ll read Please Look After Mother next, what’s your next one?


      • Right. Of the three Man Asian books I’ve read, this ranks 3. Tejpal’s vision is phenomenal; I just did not think he quite succeeded.He’s an important writer, and I’ll read another of his books.

        I ordered a copy of Rebirth online from The Bookshop of India three weeks ago, and they took my payment but have not shipped the book. They responded with a lame email when I wrote to inquire.

        Next up: Banana Yoshimoto. The Lake.


        • *chuckle* Of the four I’ve read, they’re all at number 1! I am going to be *hopeless* at ranking them.


          • Following up on my previous comment … The bookstore in India came through. The book is here, and I’ll be ready to start reading it after Christmas. Soon the Man Asia Shadow Jury will have covered all the longlisted books, with a couple of weeks to spare before the shortlist announcement!


            • Excellent, what a sensational team we have turned out to be – and what fun!


  4. I feel this is one where vision is more than the prose give us , I kept being remind of hesse’s glass bead game for some reason Not sure why just the feeling of cut off from real world in both books I m pleased we got hold of it thou as it is a book I wouldn’t have read except it being in man Asian list


    • HI Stu, I had to Google Hesse’s Bead Game to see what you mean, and now there’s another book that needs to go on my TBR!


  5. […] Mother – Kyung-Sook SHIN (Me; Lisa; Stu) The Valley of Masks – Tarun J TEPJAL (Fay; Lisa) Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke (Me; Fay) The Lake – Banana YOSHIMOTO (Me; Lisa) […]


  6. striking cover. striking content.
    universality of the subject and the writing is just marvelous.

    have already re-read the book thrice already to press out all the nitty gritties!


    • Wow, three times! You could write a better review than I have, for sure!


  7. Check out Tarun himself speak about this phenomenal work! –

    He reads the first few pages of the book first though.


    • Thanks for this, Ragav, much appreciated:)


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