Aavarana is a book Indian secular intellectuals love to hate but cannot ignore. The “average reader” (which increasingly means someone endowed with commonsense, a healthy sense of balance, and has not mortgaged brains at the ideological altar) chose to respond differently. In the miniscule market for Kannada fiction, Aavarna has seen nine reprints in just four months since it was first published in February this year. This however, is not a significant measure of its success.
Aavarana owes its success by justifying what its title signifies.
In the preface to the book, S L Bhyrappa, the author of Aavarana expounds the meaning of Aavarana. To this end, he draws from such diverse primary sources as Nagarjuna, Vedanta, and Advaita. He captures the essence of Aavarana as Maya and Avidya. Aavarana is an illusion, a veil–a suppression of the real nature of things.
Aavarana is perhaps the first novel in recent times that deals with an explosive theme in a world dangerously supercharged with political correctness. It is notable for another substantial reason. Of all his works, Aavarana contains marked political undertones like in no other Bhyrappa work–not even the epic Tanthu (Strand). Aavarana marks a complete departure from all of Bhyrappa’s works in terms of theme, form and content.
In just about 300 pages, Aavarna uncovers the flimsy lid on top of the abyss of Islam’s encounters with India. It is simultaneously historical and contemporary because it exposes the contemporary manipulation of history justified in the garb of preserving secularism.
Aavarana opens with Razia, a middle-aged feminist filmmaker mulling over the ruins at Hampi. She’s there with her husband, Ameer to make a government-sponsored documentary on Hampi. The goal of the documentary ostensibly, is to project Hampi as a symbol of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. Her research slowly leads her to doubt the history she has learned to believe, and takes her back in time to examine her own life so far. News of her father’s sudden death takes her back in space to her native village near Hassan. As she examines his personal effects, she is astonished to find his library stocked with volumes of scholarly literature about Islam’s encounters with India. She reads his detailed notes on almost every page of each book and suddenly recalls what he had told her when she had announced her decision to marry Ameer: Lakshmi, some day in future, your own descendants will destroy temples. (Ed: liberal paraphrased translation)
Lakshmi’s past provokes her again. As a bright graduate blazing her way towards success as a feminist filmmaker, she decides to marry her classmate, Ameer. Both are products of the ’60s secular/progressive school of thought that shuns artificial barriers of caste and religion. However, when she marries Ameer, it never occurs to her why she should convert to Islam, and change her name despite Ameer’s disbelief in said artificial obstacles to True Love. Her first tryst with beef-eating poses similar problems. She self-justifies them all but isn’t fully convinced till her fateful visit to Hampi. Her son, a PG from a US university has found a job in Saudi Arabia. He is a product of the modern world unable to reconcile its ways with his newfound zeal for the “pure” Islamic way of life. Living in Saudi Arabia, he firmly veers towards Islam.
Lakshmi/Razia stays back at her village and begins reading the copious literature her father has left behind. What she learns horrifies her. She decides to write a novel on it.
From here on, Aavarna alternates between Lakshmi/Razia and her novel. S. L Bhyrappa uses the play-within-a-play technique.
Lakshmi/Razia’s novel starts with the conquest of a tiny Hindu kingdom by Mughal hordes. Everybody except the teenaged-crown prince dies in the encounter. The kingdom’s family diety is smashed, trampled upon, and desecrated and the prince taken prisoner, converted and renamed to Khwaja Jahan. Khwaja Jahan wonders why they spared him. It takes him exactly one painful encounter to realize that his innocent, boyish face has caught the commander’s fancy. He is given special attention for a few weeks. Some days later, he is treated to a nice drink, which makes him drowsy, and then he’s semi-conscious. Two powerfully-built men hold his legs while a third uses wooden tongs to castrate him. The commander pleasures himself with the boy and later, sells him as a slave.
Khwaja Jahan realizes that he’s just one among tens of thousands of such castrated males. He is made in charge of guarding the quarters of a commander’s mansion of concubines. The rest of Lakshmi’s novel chronicles Khwaja Jahan’s experiences in this role.
Aavarana bares the excesses of the Mughal slave system in horrid detail. Equally, it describes how Islamic rule destroyed centuries of lofty civilization and wounded an entire way of life. It shows the painful struggles of people fighting to preserve it. Khwaja Jahan’s dialogue with a Sadhu on the banks of the Ganga in Benares is heart-rending to read. At one level, Aavarana is difficult to read without squirming at the atrocities an entire civilization has gone through.
Aavarana’s singular merit is just one shocking symbolism. Khwaja Jahan’s violent castration shows exactly where Islamic imperialism aimed at. To an extent it is also a measure of its success. It is also interesting that the success rate of a person staying alive after this kind of violent castration was very low. But Khwaja Jahan stays alive, another symbol of the plight of Hindu civilization under Islamic rule. For instance, Hindus suffered on a massive scale during the more bloodier part of Mughal rule under Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Unarguably, Aurangzeb inflicted the most damage on Hindu ethos and populace than any other Islamic ruler. Lakshmi/Razia finds it tragic that today’s Delhi has a road named after Aurangzeb, a monument to remember a barbarian. In a way, Khwaja Jahan symbolizes an emaciated India that was never prepared for, and reeled under repeated waves of invasions, which had their roots in religious ideology.
Aavarana has understandably outraged intellectuals/progressives/secularists/writers in Karnataka. I’ve written about Professor Shastri in my earlier post so I don’t need to cover that again. S.L Bhyrappa contends that it is dishonest to conceal historical facts on the (flimsy) excuse of promoting communal harmony/secularism. Aavarna raises the important question of Hinduism vis-a-vis Islam and Christianity. Hindus have admitted to several social evils and set themselves on corrective action–Mahatma Gandhi’s emancipation of Harijans, etc. The West rejected Christianity as a guide/means to rule the state, embraced democracy, etc. Why don’t we see a similar introspection among the Muslims?
A few critics also raise the why-Aavarana-now question. The answer is buried in the question. How long do we want to ignore the obvious threat of Islamic fundamentalism? Not much has changed in Islam from Aurangzeb’s time to now. Bin Laden is merely Aurangzeb’s cousin in time. The same ideological compulsions motivated them both. Aavarana explores precisely these compulsions laid down in Islamic literature starting with the Quran. Besides, much of what passes as India’s medieval “history” is mere interpretation. In other words, a veil, concealment of facts, Aavarana. More fundamentally, has concealing/falsifying history really ensured communal harmony?
Finally, the reactions to Aavarana–while they were expected–also reveal the tragic depths we’ve plumbed. Kannada has a rich repository of historical novels that includes Masti’s Chikaveera Rajendra, Korati’s Paramesha Pulikeshi, and Ta Ra Su’s Durgastamana (Durga’s Sunset). Durgastamana describes the fall and destruction of Chitradurga under the Nayakas when Hyder Ali attacked Chitradurga. Durgastamana is still hailed as a classic in Kannada literature. I wonder how our progressives would react if he’d written Durgastamana now.
Postscript: It is only available in Kannada now but it is worth more than the 200 Rupees (approx) it costs.
Crossposted on Desicritics.