A translation of a provocative Kannada novel that fails to offer any room for doubt
Aavarana: The Veil | S.L. Bhyrappa
Let’s get this out of the way: Aavarana: The Veil is more an ideological treatise than classic fiction. To borrow a perhaps unwelcome, and even dated, classification, it is a novel of ideas, in which the characters and situations are wholly subservient to the overriding agenda of the narrative. While there is no mistaking the idea or the ideology that underlies this book, it pays a heavy price by way of a coherent storyline, realized characters, subtle technique, lively dialogue and the rest of the matrix that might make up the individual’s idea of a good read.
But is it a provocative read? Oh yes: Noted novelist S.L. Bhyrappa’s Aavarana—originally published in Kannada in 2007—is compelling, even convincing. But it is also self-serving, divisive and short-sighted, if not wilfully blind to the pitfalls of chest-thumping majoritarianism. Propaganda, by nature, is seductive; it feeds into half-baked concepts and beliefs to give them shape and brooks little opposition or questioning. This, perhaps, is Aavarana’s greatest failure as a work of literature: It takes no prisoners, offers no room for dissent or doubt.
But to return to Razia and doubt (because, as we’ve already seen, Amir is incapable of a single original thought). Well into middle-age, sitting on a glittering résumé built on the back of similar government documentaries, she is taken back to her birth-home in the village of Narasapura by the sight of the mutilated idol of Ugra Narasimha, also the deity worshipped by her family—the same family she estranged herself from when they opposed her marriage to Amir and conversion to Islam. “Your child...or someone in some future generation that you both will give birth to will someday destroy our temples," her father had flayed her. “Their religion ordains them to destroy temples and idols."
Now, as Amir tries to convince her that the Hampi destruction was caused by one Hindu sect seeking vengeance against the other, Razia begins to question accepted mythologies. Her father’s demise and the discovery of his vast library on the Islamic rule of the subcontinent further propels her own investigation of history. Her research finds expression in a novel-within-a-novel, in which a handsome Rajput prince is captured, converted, sodomized and eventually castrated by Muslim invaders—nothing understated about the allegory there—before reuniting, improbably, with his wife and children, after bearing witness to the Aurangzeb-ordered destruction of the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
While the two narratives together effectively convey the more-things-change aphorism, Bhyrappa throws in a couple of more elements to the mix: a sleazeball opportunist (allegedly modelled on an arch-rival in Kannada literary circles), his unhappy Catholic wife and their confused daughter, who marries Razia’s US-educated, Shariah-espousing son. While the glib liberal serves as a counterpoint to the questing Razia, the others—like Amir—are mean-minded caricatures drawn in to emphasize the agenda. It all comes to a head at a conference organized to revise the history curriculum for schools and colleges, when Razia questions the whitewashing of Muslim brutality down the ages.
In the absolutism it advocates, in the weakness of its “recognize-and-apologize-or-else" argument, Aavarana becomes a lesser work. It raises important questions on how we read history—as also on identity and intellectual traditions, on appeasement politics, on civilizational conflict—but only offers a far-right revisionist take as an alternative. It remains silent on the responsibility of the majority in a geography peopled by multiple religions and the implications of settling a medieval score in the 21st century.