This is not my story. It is the story of a book I have read.
It is not a long book. Some people would read it in the time it takes to look up the Wikipedia entry for Ayn Rand, even though every sentence in it is meant to be one of the eternal truths, crafted with the conviction of the philosopher, the grandeur of the illusionist, and the immutability of the artist, who will never tell in 30 pages what can be told in 330.
Many were the tests I was subjected to. I cast aside the doubts that arose from the congruency with Rand’s Anthem, where, too, the protagonist—his name also alphanumeric—eventually rises in revolt against the submerging of the individual “I” in the collective “we”. I even suppressed my giggle successfully on reading that you do not find the master, the master finds you. For my easily distracted mind instantly replaced the prophet figure in the book with Rajinikanth.
I repented, I assure you, despite the uneasiness engineered by the arrival of the stock characters—the prophet; the wise one (or three); the idealistic follower who is the real hero; and, inevitably, the woman who is the embodiment of passion and reason.
The Valley of Masks: Fourth Estate, 330 pages, Rs 499.
I soldiered on. After all, was this not a fable, an allegory, even the first draft of a universal myth? What need does such a story have of real characters with qualities and quirks, or of an actual setting rooted in a space and a time, or even of a textured richness of background and context? What if the people in the story are referred to as birds and other forms of flora and fauna—when they are not addressed by their digital code—a form of address that, forgive me, o Hornbill, brought to mind the characters from Kung Fu Panda?
Converted as I was by the power of the central idea—that the quest for perfection turns humans into brainwashed, unfeeling beasts of burden who actually see purity and salvation in their own inhuman behaviour—I embarked on a journey that paralleled the protagonist X470’s. This, after all, was a story of ideas rather than real fiction, of the collision of world views, of the conversion from innocence to misplaced power and then to realization.
I was drawn in, became one with the narrative, when it appeared to import the proposition that it is the interpretation of the prophet’s words—rather than the words themselves—that guides people’s actions in the real world. I was seduced, too, by the possibility that this was actually a journey into the heart of a terrorist organization, showing how the seeds of distorted thinking are planted in tender minds and then nurtured to full-blown impulses on which murderous individuals act, confident that they are doing it for the preservation of the idea.
But how wrong I was. Eventually, my journey through the pages led me to a cul-de-sac of staleness rather than an avenue of exhilarating ideas. What did I learn?
That love and relationships are more important than sex and respect. That the imposition of uniformity—the wearing of identical masks, in the valley or elsewhere—is doomed to fail, for human beings are fundamentally unalike. That art and artists have the power to subvert the quest for imagined perfection.
And so I disengaged from the book, numbed by the tired familiarity of its premise—presented though it was with the grandness of narrative that only the truly gifted among storytellers can attain. And now I wait here for the faithful to hunt me down, and I wonder whether they might not want to reread this book. This time, not as a Novel of Truth, but as a rather spiffy fantasy yarn, with cracking good fights, plenty of superhero powers, some tongue-in-cheek philosophizing and over-analytical sex.
Arunava Sinha is the translator of Rabindranath Tagore’sThree Women and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s The Chieftain’s Daughter.
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