By: Anita Vaidyanathan
Book: Aavarana: The Veil
Author: S.L. Bhryappa
Translated by: Sandeep Balakrishna
Price: Rs 395
Aavarana: The Veil is controversial in its theme, and essence. It claims to represent “historical truth” through the narration of a prince of Devagarh, who is held captive by Afghan and Mughal rulers. The novel begins with the portrayal of a discontented marriage of the fiercely rebellious protagonist Lakshmi alias Razia, who converts to Islam to marry the man she loves, Amir. A documentary filmmaker, she marries Amir against her father’s will. “Your child, or the child or children of your child, or someone in some future generation that you both will give birth to will someday destroy our temples. …The Mughal badshahs, Jahangir and Shahjahan, were both sons of Hindu queens.
Yet, both of them destroyed Hindu temples when they ascended the throne. But we really can’t blame them because their religion ordains them to destroy temples and idols — Jahangir and Shahjahan were merely adhering to its tenets, which remain unchanged till date…,” the father warns Lakshmi.
The historical novel by Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa, a celebrated Kannada author and novelist, has been translated into English by Sandeep Balakrishna. Bhyrappa uses the technique of using a sub-text within the text — though the sub-text initially appears as a background, it assumes greater proportion than the text. A clash of gender and religious identity between Lakshmi and Amir gets translated into a larger socio-communal issue. Amir pronounces talaq on his wife for her refusal to adhere to Muslim norms and customs; Lakshmi envisages talaq as “an unparalleled device of female oppression”.
Her fierce retaliation against patriarchal norms is an assertion of her individuality. She perceives a dichotomy in the practice of Islam, a religion that propagates the principle of equality. Being a documentary film-maker, she sets out to explore the historical facts. Her voice eventually converges with Bhyrappa’s, who states his main objective as “projection of untruth” or “vikshepa” in the book’s preface.
Bhyrappa’s “historical facts” are stated through his characters such as the young Devagarh prince captured in battle who suffers the ignominy of homosexuality and castration. The two cultures are described and juxtaposed such that the fanatic overtones cannot be missed. Bhyrappa’s characters always advocate the supremacy of Hinduism over Islamic culture, beliefs and practices. “…Allah is a jealous god. He casts into everlasting Hell anybody who worships another god. It is a faith driven by desire, greed, anger, pride, attachment and covetousness. Attaining victory in a war by employing unfair tactics and then attributing such victory as a superiority of their faith…We can abuse our gods and poke fun at our religious gurus… in Islam, we can’t imagine something like this…,” says Lakshmi. Bhyrappa claims to have resorted to authentic sources to substantiate facts.
He also brings to the fore the debate of historical authenticity versus progressive propaganda by academicians such as Professor Shastri, another character in the book, who is shown as distorting facts to promote a secular agenda. “The purpose of reading history is not to deride or vilify anybody…the study of history should help us to honestly, dispassionately understand the rights and wrongs of people we regard as our ancestors and use those lessons to shape our present and future… that involves looking at the truth without colouring it… Today’s Muslims aren’t responsible for what Muslim kings did in the past…,” says Lakshmi, speaking the author’s mind.
Yes, Bhyrappa does resolve the tiff between Lakshmi and Amir through the latter’s acknowledgement of her scholarship, creativity and intelligence. However, the passages reflecting strong communal undertones would perhaps enable the discerning readers to judge for themselves if they only serve to embolden right-wing Hindu ideologies or help all learn from past mistakes.
Anita Vaidyanathan is a researcher in gender studies and translated literature