Editor's Note: Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal's new book, The Valley of Masks (Harper Collins, Rs 499), is being widely toasted as "a brain-bang of a reading experience." Ashis Nandy touts it as a "brilliant, superbly imaginative but terribly disturbing novel" with "no parallel in our literature." [Read an excerpt here].
The novel's 'hero' is a young man, known first as Karna and later X470, a Wafadar or loyal warrior of an anonymous tribe/cult located in an unnamed valley in Himalayas. The novel traces his journey from child to initiate to warrior and finally renegade, rebelling against a society that demands absolute surrender in the name of purity and perfection. This is a world where the faithful wear masks so as to erase their ego and individuality in the service of equality: We are all one and the same. A 'beautiful idea' – as Tejpal would describe it — that is the founding principle of an ugly, cruel, claustrophobic world.
In this interview, Tejpal speaks out with characteristic candour and insight about his book, the totalitarian impulse, Anna Hazare, middle class rage, and the future of our nation.
Hear the audio here:
Q. The society you describe is mythic and yet very familiar: the authoritarian rule, strictly regimented lives, the desire for purity, all this in service of creating this perfect society. Your hero, if you can call him that, could easily be a captain in Nazi Germany or a soldier in Mao's Red Army or in some modern-day cult. What are you trying to say about human nature?
A. I am a great believer in the beauty of ideas. Whether it's religions or cults or collectives, in their founding they arise out of very beautiful ideas. The interesting thing to track is what happens to that beautiful idea as it plays itself out among human beings over a certain length of time. How does it kind of actually pervert itself, how does it mangle itself as it plays itself out?
The story is universal. This trajectory is an age-old trajectory. That was something I was trying to capture because I see it even in the 21st century all around us.
Q: So where does this need for surrender to authority that's all-knowing, all encompassing come from?
A: I think there is a basic frailty in all human beings. The most valuable and greatest thing we all possess is the most utterly transient, which is life itself. So when you live with that constant neurosis of transience, you reach all the time for something that will impart an illusion of solidity and permanence to your life, by subsuming your own self into something larger and more permanent. The ideology that goes on forever. The faith of cult that goes on forever. The religion that goes on forever. You become a drop of water in a river that will go on forever.
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Q: Now I am not trying to imply Hazare is totalitarian, but, for example what happened with the Hazare protest and Anna himself…
A: By the way, that is not a bad example that you bring up. You can see a ‘Valley of Masks’ kind of effect playing itself out, where people then start wearing the Anna Hazare caps and Anna Hazare masks. And given enough time, you will see (this movement) become other kinds of things – where the collective begins to take over. Once the collective takes over, it puts less and less premium on individuality, it puts more and more opprobrium on individuality and difference. It seeks that all should be the same. And that is the start of a desperate slide down a ladder of unintelligence.
Q: Shifting to you, there seems to be a common strand between your novels and your journalism in that they have the same purpose: which is to discomfort and afflict the reader and jolt them out of the ease of their everyday lives...
A. Examination, exploration, illumination, discomfiture, questioning the status quo — these are the things that serious journalism and serious writing must do. If you want amusement, you should go to the cinema, watch television, watch sports.
I think the literary novel remains the only secular cultural artifact today that can still connect each of us with our inner lives. We live in a world of absurd marketing and hype. It's a world where the authentic is more and more difficult to grasp. So if the literary novel falls prey to the same thing then we really don't have an instrument outside of religion which is trying to reach for the authentic.
Q: But isn't that what journalism has become about? Entertainment?
A: I would say the priority is clearly examination, illumination and analysis followed by entertainment and amusement. The crisis in journalism today is that most owners and editors have come to assume that their true vocation is amusement and entertainment.
Q: So what do you make of this urban middle class rage against the media? The sense that the media is in the pocket of the powerful and cannot be trusted?
A: The rage in India overall is understandable. Right now 250 million people corner most of the resources of this country. There are another billion people waiting to get their share of that resource.
So we will end up having a grave credibility gap. Today, the problem is that no institution in India enjoys presumptive credibility — not the executive, not the media, not the judiciary, not the police. You can't start any argument by presuming credibility of anyone, and it's a suicidal crisis.
Q: But what is the flip side of especially this kind of populist rage that is now finding expression?
A: Let me say what's good about it. The good thing is that mal-governance and corruption have become front burner issues. And it will force the political class to address these issues aggressively. And that's a very good story.
The downside of this story is that this rage which the middle class is exhibiting has no iota of self reflection tied into it. It has no degree of self-examination tied into it. The problem with Indians is that we don’t see our own double standards.
When the first protest in Jantar Mantar was going on with Anna Hazare, one of my editors told me a story about his aunt in Gurgaon who used to sit there all day shouting slogans. He said, what nobody knows, except our own family, is that she sleeps every night with Rs 1 crore 10 lakh under her bed — which she had received as payoff for selling her house, the black component. But she can't see the contradiction of that.
Q: The rage is comfortable when it's blind because then you can be blind to yourselves?
A: And it’s accusatory. Each time someone compares Anna Hazare to Gandhi, I want to throttle them. Gandhi was unbelievably complex and nuanced and thought through. Gandhi was self-transformative in everything he did.
I don't think anybody — including Annaji himself — in this whole thing has actually been looking at any self-transformation. The whole game is accusatory. Of the tens of thousands of people who were actively involved in this Anna Hazare campaign, I don't believe that even a single one of them had a moment of self-analysis, self-criticism and self-transformation. That they became another kind of person for having taken part in this. That they cleansed themselves of their own duplicities and dishonesties.
Q: Right, so it's much easier to be angry...
A: And there is a more sinister pathology at play which runs deeper. And that sinister pathology plays itself out something like this. The rich and the middle class in India fundamentally control all the levers of privilege: education, jobs, clubs, bureaucracy, schools. What they don't control — and have not managed to control for the last 40 years — is the political class. Because the political class is a voted class. And the numbers who vote and bring them into power are whom they owe their first allegiance to.
There is something sinister in the middle class wanting a non-elected body [that is placed] above the elected body. [The Lokpal] is the handle for them to control these guys whom they could never control.
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Q: Do you think that's why there has been a sort of odd lack of corporate criticism? That there is a lot of talk of corruption but not about the companies and businesses who were paying the bribes?
A: Absolutely. Each one of us knows that corporate corruption in India is monumental. The media never talks about corporate corruption. We've had a thousand exposes against politicians in last 20 years, you can’t name me 10 exposes that the media has done against corporations. Because corporations pay for our lives, they pay for our advertising, they pay our salaries. So we genuflect to corporations.
Q: For the over a decade we've been talking optimism, especialy in the media...
A: For 12 years, and at every forum, I have said that this whole India Shining story is a lot of bullshit. We are a country with great potential, great possibility and we are a country on the move. But we are very far from becoming this great shining superpower. And to even pursue that is an idiocy on the part of Indians.
We have more poor people in India than the entire population of Africa. We have the highest infant mortality rate in the world. We have more malnutrition among children under the age of five, ten times more than China. So where do these absurd fantasies come from?
These fantasies are middle class fantasies. What the middle class really needs to do is to actually start seeing what it doesn’t see. The extremely destitute and desolate hinterland that lies beyond and think about how you’re going to fix that.
Q: But what about the future, when you look at the next 10-15 years?
A: The jury is out on the future. The future will shape itself as all futures do: partially through [human] intent and partially through the interplay of [larger] national and global forces. You can't read it. What you can worry about is the intent, which is the part you control, And the intent has to be to bring down the inequality levels in this country.
You can have a million Anna Hazares, you will have rampant corruption in India because we are such an unequal society. You can check any society in the world and check the corruption levels. You will find a direct co-relation between in equality and corruption. And you are talking about a country where the inequality levels are mind-boggling.
Q: The argument against inequality has been losing ground. Do you see any hope that its going to regain ground?
A: That's where the intent comes in, if we lose that intent then we are in trouble. That idea of national purpose is in the constitution, it's in the writings of all the founding fathers. What we seek to become and do. We have to at all times hold the constitution and the founding vision as sacred because that’s what holds together this very disparate, discreet and complex country. We must be very careful to not do anything that will undermine the constitution of India because if the constitution goes, then this whole project will tank.