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Unmasking the civilised bigot

Author Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Urvashi Butalia. Photo: S. Subramanium   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

The other day the Indo-French Cultural Centre in New Delhi was the venue of an erudite conversation between the activist-writer Tarun Tejpal and well known feminist publisher Urvashi Bhutalia. Organised as part of a series that seeks to provide a platform for ideas and the written word, it allowed Delhiites to partake of some sparkling scholarly magic. Apart from being chief editor of the public interest magazine Tehelka, Tejpal is the author of international bestsellers. Both published by Harper Collins, ‘Alchemy of Desire' came out it 2006 and ‘The Story of my Assassins' more recently in 2010.

Works past and future

Conversation began with the writer holding forth on his debut novel. Marked by elegant prose, ‘The Alchemy of Desire' has been translated into several foreign languages and awarded the prestigious Le Prix Mille Pages in France. Commending Tejpal for the authentic note he struck while exploring sensuality, Urvashi Bhutalia also mentioned the many people (particularly women) she has met who took away an enhanced understanding of themselves after reading his book. The writer responded by saying, “I am glad it resonated with readers and spoke to their notions of desire. For me personally, sex is not particularly hard to write about — the rhapsodic, soaring note is relatively easy to strike. However, it's the small gestures of affection between a couple that really create the tapestry of a relationship. How does one capture that? They sound mawkish and overly sentimental without a context. That is the writer's challenge.”

After outlining the key elements of his debut effort, Tejpal spoke at length about the concerns of his second novel (‘Story of my Assassins') and the work-in-progress (‘Valley of Masks'). “Both these books are far darker and complex. As the human race advances we have come to live in an era where many pay lip service to political correctness. An illiterate chauvinist can't help sounding obviously crazy. The more civilised you are the better you get at concealing your prejudices. I've tried to expose the humbug of dogma,” he said.

Tejpal is clearly not a writer who lives in the ivory tower of the maxim - ‘art for art's sake'. Investigative journalism has given him consummate exposure and access to ground reality. He gave examples of how a remarkable human intelligence is brought to bear to contrive bogus moral and intellectual linkages. Describing this squander of brain power at the altar of dogma as a pathology Tejpal said, “‘The Valley of Masks' is about huge groups of people unquestioningly accepting diktats and wanting to become clones of one another. The imagery of the title is inspired by a political rally the Hindu right wing leader Narendra Modi had once organised. Thousands of Modi masks were imported from China and everyone present at the gathering was wearing one! Other parts of the world (from Pakistan to America) are also witnessing a swing towards religious fanaticism.”

The discussion then veered towards Tejpal's sources of inspiration. The writer replied by saying, “The ‘Mahabharata' is a big part of my cultural legacy as an Indian. I would be foolish not to sip off it. This ancient Sanskrit text is a treasure trove of philosophical musings and often answers a question with another question. It contains no rigid proscription, no commandments. The moral ambiguities herein are the well spring an artist can draw from.”

The evening concluded on a lighter note with Tejpal sharing a slice from his personal life. He said, “My wife keeps my tendency to brood under check. I usually start and end the day by asking her- ‘What is the meaning of life?' That's her cue to switch off the light, turn around and go to sleep!” It is perhaps this ability to be serious minded without being self-important that has prevented Tejpal from getting burnt out over a decade of investigative journalism. And when all else fails, he puts things in wonderful perspective with a bawdy Punjabi joke.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 11:42:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/unmasking-the-civilised-bigot/article2087866.ece

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