This is the boldest of Amish’s writings so far where he has come out of his comfort zone. He has not spared us for our divisions that made us easy meat for the enemies. He is forthright when he speaks of the brutality of Islamic invaders in the name of religion, just as he is about Indian weaknesses
-Dr. Dev Desai
I was curious to read the English Translation of Aavarana by S. L. Bhayrappa (translated from Kannada by Sandeep Balakrishna) ever since I heard about this novel and its theme. I finally managed to lay hands on it when I was quarantined in Chandigarh for a week and quite unusually for me, I completed the novel within a much shorter time than what it takes me to complete most other novels. While the relative availability of time in quarantine is one factor which helped, the story line being extremely gripping was an added bonus too.
Aavarana runs in two parallel worlds- one of the protagonists Laxmi (aka Razia) of India of the 90s and one of medieval India ruled by the tyrant Aurangzeb. Both timelines are seamlessly fused into the narrative and help further the story and the message which the author wants to convey. It is also a story of two conversions from Hinduism to Islam for various reasons and the flurry of doubts which creep in to the minds of the neo converts. Aavarana without any qualms autopsies and lays open the scars on a civilisation which has been wounded in some way or another for the past millennium and every attempt made by vested interests to pretend as if these wounds never existed. The title Aavarana, which means veil or covering, could be interpreted in more than one way- literally as the Burqa which her inlaws forced upon the newly wed Laxmi (now Razia) or metaphorically as the veil of lies which the flawed teaching of history has put on the eyes of Indians.
What distinguishes Aavarana all the more is the fearless honesty of its author Bhayrappa. On one hand the author truthfully portrays the sheer cruelty unleashed by various Islamic invaders in India from the 11th century onwards, which peaked under Aurangzeb and on the other the author rips apart the blatantly biased and one sided narratives pushed under the garb of history by the left liberal cabal of (so called) intellectuals in India. The readers can’t help but feel the same pain which the protagonist Laxmi feels when she sees the towering Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi dwarfing the tiny Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. The graphic depiction of the Nandi facing in the direction of the Gyanvapi Masjid (in all other temples the Nandi faces the Shiva Lingam) is sure to stay on as a lingering haunting memory.
The novel also contains vivid descriptions of historical events of medieval India and backs it up by listing various first-hand accounts and historical records towards the end. These sources come up in the storyline as Laxmi reads up books and notes from her deceased father’s library to research for her own novel (novel within a novel), but one can figure out that the same books were relied upon by the author Bhayrappa in constructing Aavarana.
The growth of the character Laxmi, from a rebellious progressive liberal to a grieving daughter who falls in love with her father’s library and finally a woman who starts to despise the very left liberal cabal of whom she was a leading member is presented very well in the novel. Similarly, in the other timeline, is the transformation of the Prince of Devagarh dynasty, who is captured and sold as a slave after the kingdom falls to the onslaught of Islam. The author has successfully managed to capture the tumult in the minds of these characters at every step of the way- both have an initial attraction towards the supposedly egalitarian and strong religion of Islam as neo-converts and later get disenchanted on learning more.
Other characters in the novel are also extremely relatable with people we meet in day to day life. Laxmi’s husband Amir is a prototype elite and educated Muslim man who pretends to be very progressive and open minded on the surface, but deep within shares many of the more conservative values of the environment in which he had been brough up. Their son Nasir, like so many other Indian emigrants is deeply impressed by the riches of the gulf and becomes much more devout and conservative in order to impress the Arab Muslims. The most interesting character is Professor Shastri, who can be called the Shakuni of this Mahabharat- a highly respected Professor in the left liberal circles, he preaches Marxism on the outside, while himself preferring to travel Business class and is not shy of using his contacts in the government to cut deals for his businessman son. Professor Shastri plays a recurring and important role in Laxmi’s life and Laxmi looks up to him for inspiration and advice, before she manages to see through his cunning ways. Professor Shastri, much like Romila Thapars of real life, uses his position to push a deeply biased and flawed fiction in the name of history.
The language of the translation is simple and easy to understand. While I know nothing of the grandeur of the Kannada original, I can say that the translation itself is full of lines which have bite and leave a deep impact on the reader. I started highlighting such paragraphs and by the end I ended up highlighting on every second or third page. The narrative flows effortlessly and keeps the reader engaged and curious to know what happens next.
I would highly recommend this book to every Indian in order to lift the ‘Aavarana’ from their eyes. It is more relevant than ever before in today’s India, where Professor Shastri and his ilk, after being wiped out electorally, are pulling every lever they have in academia to ensure that their last stronghold is preserved. I leave you with the one paragraph among the several highlighted ones which I found the most hard-hitting-
‘Which other faith or religion in the world allows the kind of unfettered freedom of expression in song, dance, and literature which Hinduism allows? Which other faith or religion honours art as the sibling of spiritual bliss and worships a true artist as a rishi, a sage? We can abuse our gods and poke fun at our religious gurus. Which faith admits this kind of freedom? Europeans fought a long and tough battle and finally achieved this freedom after the Renaissance. And in Islam, we can’t even imagine something like this. But what are our people doing? Our own artists are using this freedom to extinguish the very religion that gives it to them. And they’re doing this with the full knowledge of what will happen if that other faith takes complete control of the land. What explains this self-deception, this willing prostitution?’