Thursday, 27 November 2014

Book review: Aavarana: The Veil

Aavarana: The Veil
S.L. Bhyrappa
Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna
Rupa Publications 2014

Bhyrappa's reputation as one of the luminaries of Kannada literature was enough enticement for me to pick this one up.  And I wasn't disappointed.

Combining facts, research, history, religion and drama, Bhyrappa weaves a complex story of a husband and wife coming to terms with the differences between them.

The title, Aavarana, which means 'to conceal', pertains not only to the main protagonist's travails as a censored wife and writer, but also to the uncomfortable historical truth that is often curtailed by pseudo-secularists and vote-bank politicians.

At one level this is also a woman's tale of a search for identity and self-fulfilment, in an environment of fundamentalism and intolerance.  At the same time, Bhyrappa manages to include a crash course in history of Hindu-Muslim interactions, going back to the period when temples all across India were desecrated and vandalised by bigoted rulers.

The story starts in Hampi, where amongst the ruins, the husband and wife team of historical journalists ponder upon the glory and the subsequent devastation that befell Hampi.  The husband, a Muslim, tends to attribute the reason to bickering local kings of differing sects within Hinduism - a view that is shared by an intrepid professor and founder of a neo-liberal movement that proposes that all notions of fundamentalist actions of Muslim kings of yore are a figment of the right wing's imagination.

Our heroine, Lakshmi, is not so sure about this.  Although she is part of the same movement, she has her own doubts, which are fully confirmed when she stumbles upon her deceased father's collection of literature.  After being estranged from his daughter as she had married a Muslim man, he would have engaged himself in a deep study of local history; in particular that pertaining to the oppression and tyranny of Muslim rule in India - so much so that his accumulated knowledge and evidence puts even scholars to shame.

Lakshmi then starts her own reading of her father's evidence and finds horrifying details confirming his and her own suspicions.  In particular, she is drawn to the destruction of the Kashi Vishwanatha Temple at Varanasi by Aurangzeb and even visits the site to find that a large mosque has been built in the place of the original temple, using the same stones that were once part of the temple.

As more and more evidence is unearthed, she becomes more and more convinced about her father's conclusions and even confronts the liberal professor in one the conferences organised by him to drive home the point that fundamentalism was not the cause for temple destructions.

Lakshmi also puts these ideas across in the form of a novel, the story of which runs parallel to the main story.  Not only that, it has parallels with her own story - the way she was made to convert to Islam after marriage, change her name, wear burkha, asked to stop working by her in-laws, and finally when she realised that her husband was not so liberal minded after all.  The Hindu prince in her story, who is captured by the invading Muslim army, is sold as a slave, raped, castrated, made to serve as a eunuch in the zenana.  He finally discovers that his wife has been made a prostitute in another zenana.

Inevitably, Lakshmi drifts apart from her husband and son, who are naturally unable to accept her theory of fundamentalism.  She also faces arrest for publishing a blasphemous book that would flare up communal tensions.

There are many font types throughout the book, which change each time Lakshmi goes into the flashback mode, or when her fictional story is narrated.  Translating from any regional language is a challenge, and Balakrishna has risen well to it.  He manages to convey the angst and the complexity of the original story in Kannada very well.

The book ends with an exhaustive list of evidence, ostensibly collected by her father, but in actuality that which the author himself would have perused before writing this book.  One has to marvel at the depth and extent of research that Bhyrappa has undertaken to get the historical facts accurate - even though this has been contested by his critics.

With a story that may be construed as 'blasphemous' by some, one wonders as to how the author, unlike his protagonist Lakshmi, managed to escape from a communal backlash at the time the original Kannada version was published.  But one has to admire Bhyrappa for the guts and gumption shown by him in telling the truth as it is and not cowering in the face of 'political correctness'.

Now is there any equally gutsy producer who can take up the challenge and come up with a film version of the story?

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