Aavarana, the best-selling Kannada novel that has been published in many Indian languages, means ‘the veil’. Its author, 83-year-old Santeshivar Lingannayya Bhyrappa, explains in his preface: “The act of concealing truth is known as ‘aavarana’.... The author’s responsibility is towards the historical truth of the subject on which his/her work is based. When truth and beauty are put on a scale, the writer’s fidelity must invariably be in favour of the truth. An author doesn’t have the moral right to violate truth and take refuge in the claim that he/she is only a creative artist.”
With this explanation, Bhyrappa goes on to write a novel with the sole aim of removing the veil, which, according to him, secular intellectuals and politicians have drawn over the inhuman character of Islam and the mountain of atrocities committed by Muslim rulers over the ages in India. This truth of history, he claims, has been suppressed and falsified in the name of secularism and national integration. His novel, he believes, performs the act of ‘anaavarana’—unveiling or exposing the hidden face of truth.
However, truth, pertaining to both historical and contemporary realities, has many sides. No writer has the moral right to deny some vital realities just to showcase his preferred reality as the only truth there is. The chief falsity of Bhyrappa’s claim lies in the fact that, while lifting the veil over one historical truth (especially the breaking of Hindu temples and idols under the watch of bigoted Muslim rulers in past centuries, where he is on solid ground), he has himself placed a veil over other important sides of the truth about the largely positive, and mutually enriching, encounter between Hinduism and Islam. He has refused to recognise anything noble and uplifting in Islam. He does not acknowledge that the Muslim contribution to the making of India has many admirable features. His depiction of the Muslim life in India is entirely negative. All the Muslim characters in the novel are conservative and closed-minded; Amir, the pseudo-progressive filmmaker; his parents, who are heavily influenced by the moral policing of the Tablighi Jamaat; and his son Nazir, who is born to his first wife Lakshmi, his artistically endowed Hindu lover whom he forces to convert to Islam. All of them look down upon Hindus and Hinduism. Nazir, who grows up to have a lucrative job in Saudi Arabia, is also shown to have the expat’s disdain for India.
Any unprejudiced person familiar with the diversity of our society would know that Bhyrappa’s stereotypical depiction of Indian Muslims makes him guilty of doing the same thing—of placing a dark aavarana on truth—that he is accusing Marxism-influenced secularists of doing. According to Bhyrappa, Islam’s entry into India has enfeebled and castrated Indian civilisation, which he equates solely—and wrongly—with Hinduism. (In a Mughal-era novel within this novel, there is indeed an elaborate tale of a male character who is first enslaved, converted to Islam and then castrated.)
When a writer takes liberties with truth, beauty perforce becomes a casualty. The novel has an irritating lack of artistic integrity, despite its immense popularity with readers influenced by Hindutva. (One such reader writes on the internet: “The more I read about Islam, the more I realise it is a pure and unadulterated force of barbarity. Bhyrappa expresses in a few sentences what our intellectual worthies will not be capable of expressing in a few lifetimes.”) Several narrative situations appear contrived. Indeed, in many places, it reads more like a polemic against secularists, for whom Bhyrappa has visceral aversion. As often happens, a routine ploy employed by a debater desperate to win the argument is to caricature his opponents. This is what Bhyrappa does by showing the character Professor Sastri, a Marxist celebrity respected by secularists, including Amir and Lakshmi in their youth, as a dishonest, unprincipled and money-minded careerist.
However, Aavarana has some redeeming features. Its case for reform of coercive Muslim practices is persuasive. The travails of Lakshmi—called Razia after her conversion, she returns to her ancestral village and to her Hindu cultural roots following estrangement with Amir (who remarries without divorcing her)—evoke empathy. So does the character of her Gandhian father. As one who has read this novel in the original Kannada, I find Sandeep Balakrishna’s translation commendable.
The novel’s appearance in English is to be welcomed. Its arguments, though not new, deserve to be widely debated anew—and many of them refuted.